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Filming as a Care Practice

Commentary to the Papers by Verónica Maria Pascoal Sousa, Jón Bjarki Magnússon and Barbara Pieta
Philip Kao

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1These are three distinct essays that interrogate what happens when the anthropologist studying aging and care envisions their fieldwork through the lens of the video camera and its outputs. The intersection between the anthropology of care/aging and visual anthropology has been a relatively under-theorized nexus, but these excellent essay contributions point toward some possible and productive directions. In short, these essays describe how filming and watching particular snapshots of life can constitute a form of care practice. In other words, what to film and see are not just aesthetic decisions, but also ones that are bound up with everyday ethics and understandings/instantiations of different care modalities. Depicting with dignity (and appreciating) how persons’ age, and in many cases how people experience and live through dementia, are what is at stake for these authors. Not all of them employ visual anthropological methods in the same way though. In the first essay by Verónica Maria Pascoal Sousa, residents in a Lisbon senior day center use visual media they have created themselves to generate nostalgic and relational performances as engendered bodies across space and time. Jón Bjarki Magnússon turns to documentary filmmaking as ‘research practice’ in penetrating the life-worlds of his grandparents in Iceland. His film and filmmaking process are interwoven to give the audience and reader an insight into how metaphors, folklore, and sensory expressions can aid in making better sense of someone who is nearing death and experiencing the onset of dementia. Filming his grandparents became an act of care, and we witness this ‘research practice’ transforming the anthropologist. Last but not least, Barbara Pieta, carries the film camera around, not as an extension of the ethnographer (she says), but as a gift in the making for a dementia respite center in Northern Italy. Here the anthropologist wields the camera not as an auteur or someone subservient to the artistic direction of the community, but as a phenomenological lens teaching us all how to see and read specific dementia worlds and their attendant possibilities.

2Because these essays are so rich, they deserve to be taken up one by one. Therefore, what follows is some commentary highlighting key themes and arguments. Rather than argue for any particular thesis, what proceeds will be an engagement with the main points of these essays, all in the hopes of trying to highlight how the intersection of the anthropology and aging and visual anthropology can open up new vistas for thinking about the nature of care.

3Sousa’s article, Aging On-Screen: Visual Media as Method for Communal Care, examines what happens when members of a senior day center in Lisbon create and video-document various performances and skits throughout the year. These performances include an impromptu dance party, an inventive Christmas skit, a summer Santos feast celebration, and even a children’s play about a white butterfly. The audience include staff, senior center members, and children from around the neighborhood. The center then puts on these videos for later viewing not only for nostalgic purposes, but also for meaning-making. Sousa argues that “the act of filming and photographing daily life and events – to both keep an active archive of the Center’s activities and goings [sic] on, and to refresh the members’ memories – allows for an intersubjective self-making.” The author does not elaborate on how exactly the process of self-making is an intersubjective one in the center, but she does refer to the fact that communal care is what is front and center. Sousa asserts that, “Confronted communally with images of the self and of each other, the members and staff reflect on their relationships to each other, to care, to loss, and to their own mortality.” Along with the community aspect of care, there is the idea that creativity and the co-creation of these skits and videos amount to a kind of care about what is visualized and embodied. In this essay, we also come to learn about the social life of the center and that people can come and go as they please. They seek out the center for various support with such issues as hygiene, medical and dental appointments, financial advice, etc. But most importantly, the viewing of videos together initiates commentary on life and the value of community.

4Magnússon’s essay Saved by the (Half) Elves: Visualizing Aging, Family and Earthly Decline Through Dreams, Metaphors and Icelandic Folklore is a meditation on his first feature length documentary Half Elf. This work of art is an hour-long gorgeous film set in Iceland, and follows his grandparents as they grapple with aging, and in particular his grandfather’s 99th year. His grandfather, Trausti, wishes to change his name to Trausti Elf, and begins to describe in great detail his history with Elves. We come to learn that an elf visited him in one of his dreams during his earlier years, and prophesized that he would be saved from any drowning. This premonition enabled him to become acquainted with the sea and a future lighthouse keeper. We are shown evocative images, including a film-ballet-esque sequence which depicts Trausti making morning porridge in a very ritualized way. Although his grandmother Hulda doesn’t approve of the name change, she also comes on the scene with her reciting of beautiful poetry set against the Icelandic landscape. Magnússon tells us that learning how to sit with a particular gaze enabled him to consider his grandmother’s magnifying glass as an “empirical lens allowing me to see this old book-gorger, portraying her thirst for the magic poetry can bring to life leading to a deeper understanding of what motivated her in other areas of life.” The film is accompanied by the slow music of an accordion which helps the viewer get transplanted into the life-worlds of these two aging characters.

5We follow Trausti throughout the film as he visits his own coffin, a beautiful piece of Danish carpentry. He is hoping to live 100 years and is cognizant of being in front of the camera, performing and teaching the filmmaker various lessons. Magnússon explores, “how creative and fictional or even fantastical elements born from within the research itself, were the key to solving [his] visual anthropological puzzle in a way that left [his] grandparents’ experiences open to different interpretations.” He goes on to say, “These are situated somewhere on the borderlands of biomedical and mystical categorization, helping me to engage with my grandfather’s earthly decline in an ethical and meaningful way”. By using the camera in a poetic way, he shows how his grandparents are both together and apart in their late life, whilst giving them both creative license. Technologies of care, including the camera, microphones and filming techniques enables the filmmaker to gain greater insight into his grandparents’ lives. Moreover, moments of silence and what is not said underscores the fact that Trausti is undergoing a bit of dementia. But rather than see this as a clinical ontology, the filmmaker has to resolve the tensions between possibility, biomedicine, and transcendence.

6His goal was not to be a documenter but to be “mediator, between human beings that were now nearing the end of their lives, and outsiders deserving to see them for who they were and how they had lived in this world”. The film ends with Trausti’s funeral on a snowy day.

7Pieta’s piece entitled Carescopes: On Caring, Looking at and Becoming. A Case of Positive Dementia Portrayals in a Dementia Respite Center, North Italy offers up many new and useful analytical concepts. The author writes about her “fieldwork in a dementia respite center in North-east Italy” and the issues at stake when producing and editing particular footage. Concerned that not including the messier side of dementia might actually reinforce particular stigmas in society, Pieta turns to her research participants for guidance on how and what to see in a sophisticated way. She discovers that what the community center wants is a moral shift in the way people conceptualize dementia. They are clamoring for alternative carescopic regimes. Peita defines carescopic regimes astutely as the “local normative assumptions about what type of gaze constitutes an act of good care.” Unfortunately, I was not privy to see some of the videos, but would have enjoyed doing so. The reason being is that the anthropologist needed (and rightfully so) “to protect the dementia center from eventual political consequences that particular reading of my critique may trigger in the highly politicized and competitive world of associations.” Visual politics plays a role in carescopes if what Pieta says is correct—namely that ways of caring and seeing are related to each other and can be harnessed as heuristic tools in navigating the tensions, conflict, and relational qualities of care. In one vignette, Paolo and Agnese, two people with dementia, started to dance and laugh rather loudly. The anthropologist started to question whether these tones were joyous or uncontrolled screams of panic. Irene, the president of the association sponsoring the pizza party, exclaimed that the two were dancing wonderfully and laughing. Someone else shouted that they were doing laughter yoga, which brought everyone to see the dance and Agnese in a new light. Pieta describes this learning moment as a way to see differently, that is how care can be a way of training the eyes and ears. She goes on to elaborate, “Irene offered us cues on how to listen to and look at dementia in a proper way. Another wonderful example from the essay showcases what it means to practice fare bella figura. This central metaphor of Italian life suggests that crafting a presentation of self with beauty and civility registers socially as a way for staying well together. Filming Giovanna’s family was an incident that required the logic of bella figura; caring meant seeing Giovanna and her family as supportive and being there. For Pieta, turning to the emic led her to understand that even an ethnographic way of filming and seeing can be an act of care for all those involved.

8In the end, these essays show that visual media can initiate and convey various forms of care. Through the usage of visual media by the residents in a Lisbon senior day center, people challenge normative active aging campaigns by showing that communal care is about relationality and interdependence. Magnússon’s documentary film reveals the journey the anthropologist makes when trying to capture the experiences of his own grandparents in late life. In Half Elf, the filmmaking process becomes a kind of heuristic into the inner world of his grandparents; his care is a non-judgmental gaze through and through. For Pieta, caring means more than just curating positive images of dementia, but attuning to the emic worlds of what and who can be seen in any social (or representational) setting. Even though these essays relate to particular visual media projects, we still get a rich array of sensory ethnography. Sarah Pink reminds us that, “Video privileges image and sound above other senses (touch, smell) because it communicates these experiences more directly. However, video can also represent people's understandings and experiences of other senses, especially when informants have used embodied visual performance and actions and spoken words to describe these.” (Pink 2033: 49). These essays inaugurate new ways of conducting ethnography when dealing with aging and dementia, because they reflect seriously on the ways the video camera and its outputs can actually constitute new forms of care and healing. “This means producing a new visual anthropology that is not just for other visual anthropologists, but that is embedded in the agendas and practices of anthropological themes, subdisciplines, and ethnographic regions” (Pink 2003: 60), and I would argue this is especially true for those of us working in the anthropology of aging and the life course.

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Magnusson, Jón Bjarki. 2021. Saved by the (Half) Elves. AnthroVision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 30 December 2023. URL: (accessed November 20, 2023).

Pascoal Sousa, Verónica Maria . 2021 Aging On-Screen. AnthroVision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 30 December 2023. URL:

Pieta, Barbara. 2021. Carescopes: On Caring, Looking at and Becoming. AnthroVision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 30 December 2023. URL: (accessed November 20, 2023).

Pink, Sarah. 2003. Representing the Sensory Home: Ethnographic Experience and Anthropological Hypermedia. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice Vol.47.3: 46–63. (accessed August 8, 2023).

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Electronic reference

Philip Kao, Filming as a Care Practice Anthrovision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 01 December 2023, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Philip Kao

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