podcasts, research

The Reciprocity of Visual Ethnography

I never heard of brackish waters before. That day on the water where the alligators roamed on the outskirts of downtown proper, Kellen, a life-long fisherman explained to me the meaning that became the metaphor I was looking for to tell the story of NOLA and hurricane Katrina. Brackish describes a mixture of forces, of salt water and fresh water, of resources, of things like bass and red fish. To some, brackish suggests unpleasant. But perhaps better understood, brackish describes the often complicated and harsh conditions of dwelling alongside others while living amongst volatile natural forces.

–Dr. Tara Conley, assistant professor of transmedia storytelling

C+MRC podcast S2E3 features the work of Dr. Tara Conley, assistant professor of transmedia storytelling in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University.

Dr. Tara Conley [Left] and Dr. Vanessa E. Greenwood [Right]

In 2015, Conley produced the documentary Brackish that follows native New Orleanian and hurricane Katrina survivor Kellen Smith on his journey from a 23-year-old aspiring professional bowler, golfer, and music producer to a 33-year-old telecommunications technician, partner to his fiancee, and father to his 9-year-old stepdaughter and newborn son. Brackish is a story of wading in the waters with near dwellers who have experienced rupture and being ruptured. It’s also a celebration of the lives of those who have survived and found strength in family, music, and tradition.

Conley first began documenting the stories and events of hurricane Katrina in early September of 2005. Over the course of ten years, Conley focused storytelling on the life of Kellen Smith, a native New Orleanian, Katrina survivor, and friend. Throughout the past decade, Conley’s work as a 21st century storyteller and mediamaker has evolved as digital technologies and media have rapidly changed. Conley’s field notes over the years came in the form digital blogs, handwritten sticky notes, digital short films, and cell phone audio recordings. For Conley, documenting the events of hurricane Katrina was entirely a multimodal journey of text, sound, image, and spatial awareness. Two blogs, four digital cameras, and five generations of video editing software later, Conley’s visual compilation illustrates a narrative that few visual ethnographers of hurricane Katrina have been able to craft.

In the C+MRC S2E3 podcast, Dr. Conley explains how the seeds of Brackish were sown and why she chose visual ethnography as her method. She reflects on some of the most difficult challenges as a researcher, media maker, and feminist. Dr. Conley provides students with additional insight into visual ethnography as action research that affords reciprocal edification between media makers and their subjects of study.


In 2013, Dr. Conley founded Hashtag Feminism (www.hashtagfeminism.org) to locate and archive feminist discourse by way of tracking Twitter hashtags on the web. Dr. Conley’s research and multimedia production engage scholarship and methods across multiple fields including communication and media studies, digital humanities, art and design, science and technology studies, and archival studies. She is currently a Race and Technology Practitioner Fellow at Stanford University. You can find out more about her work at www.taraconley.org.