I may not even go back to the prairie

April 27, 2009 / Sweet Juniper! author Jim Griffioen grapples with the ethnographer’s dilemma.

James Griffioen, author of the magnetic weblog Sweet Juniper!, grapples with the ethnographer’s dilemma:

I happen to believe that this blog tells a positive story. It is the story of a family unsatisfied with a typical yuppie trajectory in San Francisco who intentionally moved to the most maligned city in America. It is the story of a man who finds that city beautiful in ways that may be difficult to understand at first, though if you stay long enough he’ll try to explain. It’s the story of thousands of people around the world who for some reason return to this website despite having no connection to this failing Rust Belt, one-industry town wounded by racism and poverty but surviving with a compelling grace. This is, I believe, ultimately a story with hope: another family choosing to root itself where so many are warned never to go. A city full of beautiful people surviving among the ruins. Strangers who come here to read with care and concern in their hearts. A seed that germinates in words never before read.

Griffioen doesn’t call himself an ethnographer but I think he is facing the same issue, and that his problem is basically insoluble. The ethnographer has both the desire and the means to seek out, observe, explain and represent other people and the conditions of their lives. Those two things instantly separate him from the other people in the story. Griffioen’s “data” is very often the city’s inanimate buildings and artifacts, but these are also the traces left by those that had to leave their homes and lives behind. And sometimes he writes about people he meets, and they become part of that story. He documents the dream gone south.

Using people’s circumstances as data is a touchy enterprise. That’s the problem that ethnographers face, whether they are good interpreters or not. But, what makes this different is summed up in the simple way that Griffioen responds to his critics: make me and the city characters in your story just as I’ve made you, and it, characters in mine.

For me that is the “hope” that Sweet Juniper! represents. Not that our host will somehow eventually get the story right, but that having a conversation—even an argument—about life, dreams and trajectories in Detroit in 2009 is now more possible than ever before. Not inevitable, but more reachable. A digital camera. An Internet connection. A way to communicate with one another. A perspective. We all have something to say.

The title is a line from Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, The Ethnographer (1969).

3 responses

  1. jdg

    thank you for this interesting take on my situation,.

    I just watched a 1990 documentary called “Stranger With a Camera” that really put a lot of this into perspective for me, at least in terms of how to reconcile what it is that I do as a resident of detroit taking pictures and telling stories while so many writers and photographers come here to photograph the ruins and tell the story of a dead city that is still full of life.

    May 3rd, 2009 at 7:13 pm #

  2. kris

    I think, for me, the best we can do is be respectful. I am uncomfortable about documenting people’s stories in ways that belittle them (and it can be easy and tempting to do so when we look at lives from the outside and often from a place of immense privilege).

    The writing and photos in Sweet Juniper seem to have their origins in love and appreciation for the city, and an interest in people’s lives. So, regardless of individual images of hope or despair, my lasting sense of the blog is one of connection and care with a place and people. That’s why I love it: it gives a necessarily fragmented and incomplete vision of the city and the inhabitants, but the interpretations are respectful.

    May 4th, 2009 at 5:45 pm #

  3. Adrian Cooke

    Jim and Kris, thank you both for your comments.

    May 5th, 2009 at 8:14 am #

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