Visual Mass Observation: Facilitating public engagement with a new collaborative ethnography
Submitting InstitutionUniversity College London
Unit of AssessmentAnthropology and Development Studies
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Anthropology
Studies In Creative Arts and Writing: Film, Television and Digital Media
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
Summary of the impact
The MyStreet project explores a new collaborative anthropology by
training and facilitating filmmakers in in using techniques some of which
were inspired by study of Mass Observation. This is achieved through a
competition and online film archive with a global audience, and the annual
Open City Docs film festival which has led to new partnerships with
private and community organisations, and inspired a similar project in
Prague. Through DocinaDay, about 350 students and community groups from
high-exclusion areas received training in filmmaking and a screening
platform, with positive impacts on social cohesion and individual welfare.
The MyStreet project at UCL, led by Michael Stewart (UCL Anthropology
since 1997), is an innovative example of participatory research in which
filmmakers are encouraged to turn their cameras on their own environments
and reflect ethnographically on their everyday experience. MyStreet was
developed at UCL Anthropology, a department with a longstanding focus on
the use of the visual as a research process. In recent years, for
instance, Victor Buchli collaborated with the UCL Bartlett Faculty of the
Built Environment, using film to investigate Adaptable Suburbs, and
Christopher Pinney has researched the use of video as an agent in
political self-representation. MyStreet, which uses film to inform
ethnography and ethnography to inform film grew out of this research
The specific direction of MyStreet was born from three of Stewart's
ongoing research interests. The first is his ethnographic research among
east European Roma (1984-present). An enduring concern in this was the
ability of ethnography to capture the distinctive life-worlds of
hyper-marginalised communities and individuals (not to be seen as failed
versions of mainstream culture) [d]. Equally salient was the Roma use of
visual social clues, i.e. an intuitive practice of grasping fluid visual
forms which can be seen as a `minor' venatic practice of the
The second is Stewart's own `venatic' tracing of clues in the historical
archive within his research on Roma under the Nazis inspired by Carlo
Ginzburg's approach, focusing on the use of individual case-histories to
explore macro-social trends. This led him to recognise the power of the
case study approach that is also fundamental to ethnographic film [e]. The
convergence of his written, historical ethnography with established film
practice suggested the anthropological potential of a new form of
ethnographic film [a]. The final strand was his own work in film since
1988 which led him to develop the MyStreet model of collaborative
filmmaking [d, a].
In line with its Mass Observation inspiration, MyStreet laid the
foundations for a distributed, collaborative, shared `science of
ourselves', aiming to dissolve the researcher/ researched distinction.
Whereas conventional ethnography involves a filtering and selection of
voices by the anthropologist, MyStreet facilitates a multi-authored
polyphony of multiple and diverse perspectives [a]. In this 2013
publication, Stewart describes how vernacular filmmaking helps dissolve
the producer/ consumer boundary through an explicit rejection of the
traditional power relations of broadcast documentary. He draws on the Mass
Observation movement — a methodology that itself tried to harness the new
media of its time in an attempt to democratise ethnography and to
re-enchant the study of the `everyday' [a].
Stewart's research into marginality has thus led him to expand the
traditional approach of ethnographic film not only by including people who
were not traditionally part of the ethnographic film conversation, but by
putting the theoretical and practical tools of ethnography into the hands
of the participants themselves [d, a]. MyStreet conceptualises how
practices of `indigenous media' might enable a revival of the democratic
anthropology of Mass Observation. The research team has formed
relationships with over 300 filmmakers, inspiring them to use ethnographic
investigations of everyday British life. Through the annual competition, a
website, and screenings these film-research projects create
ethnographically informed conversations. A total of 315 independent films
now exist on the MyStreet living archive [b]. The project also facilitates
the use of film as an ethnographic tool for people who are normally the
objects of social scientific study, through DocinaDay workshops in schools
and communities. Participants generate their own research-film outputs, of
which 89 are viewable on the MyStreet website.
References to the research
[a] Stewart, M. S. (2013) `Mysteries reside in the humblest, everyday
things: Collaborative anthropology in the digital age', Social
Anthropology 21(3), pp. 305-321. Submitted to REF2.
[c] Stewart, M. S. (2004). `Remembering without commemoration: the
mnemonics and the politics of Holocaust memories among European Roma' Journal
of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 10(4), pp. 561-582.
Available on request.
[d] Day, S., Papataxiarchis, E., & Stewart, M. S. (eds.) (1999). Lilies
of the field: Marginal people who live for the moment. Boulder,
Colorado: Westview. Available on request.
[e] Stewart, M. S. (2010) Un catastrophe invisible: La Shoah des
Tziganes..Paris: Terrain Mars 54 pp. 100-121. Submitted to REF2.
Quality of research is demonstrated by publication in rigorously peer
reviewed journals (e.g. [a]) and an AHRC Research Leave award 2006 to
Michael Stewart (113181/1 for £15,301, 10/04/06-09/08/06), which led to
Details of the impact
The MyStreet project has provided a ground-breaking platform to
promote ethnographic film of everyday life for filmmakers. The reach
of this impact is demonstrated by the visitors to the MyStreet website and
the Open Cities festival. The website was designed and supervised by
Stewart to provide a permanent forum where such work can be advertised and
seen. It went live in 2011, and by 31 July 2013, the MyStreet website had
been visited 21,708 times by 11,635 visitors; with an average dwell time
of over 4 minutes . The reach was further enhanced by making
films available on YouTube and Vimeo  and for embedding on third-party
websites, with both local and national audiences, such as We Are
Camden and the Independent.
A second, live, platform for exposure was through Open City Docs Fest, a
festival held annually at UCL in London in June 2011-June 2013, with
audiences growing from 2,000 to nearly 4,000 over the years . The ten
best MyStreet films were screened each year, at a total of 21 screenings
annually. In 2011 alone, over 3,000 people saw a MyStreet film: in
dedicated MyStreet screenings; in shorts screened before main features and
in special pop-up boxes ( p. 3 in the 2011 report). The best MyStreet
films were judged and a prize presented by an international jury of
acclaimed practitioners who also awarded the Open City Grand Jury Prize —
a conscious move to promote these films to the top of the festival's
agenda and facilitating the development of a self-sustaining social film
community [4, p. 4]. Over the years, the festival received substantial
notices as well as appreciative critical reviews that engaged directly
with the research. Indicative examples are :
- Global: CNN: `Why we are all digital anthropologists now' (29
May 2013) (62m monthly visitors from around the world in 2012):
`Anthropology as the `science of humanity' has broadened, and the idea of
the anthropologist has evolved. Like with many professions, the baton has
passed from trained individuals to you, to me, to a big wide world.'
- National: The Independent. `My Street Films: The Lea Valley
- Local: The Evening Standard: `We're going to shoot film about
your homeless for Afghan TV' (17/6/11).
In Spring 2013 the Community Channel screened 8 of the MyStreet films on
14 occasions between March and July with a total of 14,000 viewers on the
occasions audiences were monitored . These follow-up projects fostered
sustained impacts upon filmmakers: "it was the confidence thing and the
feeling worthy of Community Channel [...]. Taking you on a little bit
further than just that day before" [4 p.2].
The significance of these linked channels are demonstrated by the
sustainable partnerships formed with private organisations seeking
to promote film as a tool of research and the importance of voices of
marginalised individuals. For example, in 2012 Arup Phase 2 (a gallery
space in the world-leading engineering company in Fitzrovia, London)
presented a rotating selection of MyStreet films for 22 weeks across the
summer in a bespoke exhibition box. As the head of exhibitions later said,
"the screenings led Arup staff and visitors who are involved in planning
the built environment to engage with different perspectives on modern
urban life that they rarely get to hear or experience at first hand. The
MyStreet initiative triggered discussions about several projects that Arup
is involved in, ranging from the Olympics to Kings Cross as well as
feeding into the research about the environmental and social impact of
High Speed 2". Arup estimated that about twenty thousand visitors viewed
films at this exhibition .
The process of research — which includes training and providing platforms
for filmmakers — is a participatory one, and has had significant impacts
on the young people who took part, equipping them to question their
environment [4, p. 4]. As a focus group exercise for filmmakers and
teachers conducted in 2013 showed, at its most fundamental level, the
MyStreet research project has engaged both aspiring and experienced
filmmakers with ethnographic ideas, encouraging them to reflect on their
own work in this light [4, see p. 1, 4, 8].
Through MyStreet's ancillary training programme, DocinaDay (DiaD), the
understanding of film as a research tool has been widened amongst
filmmakers, as has their technical ability. In its first year, MyStreet
worked with Open Cinema to make films with London's homeless and then
screened the resulting films at Open City 2011 alongside Penny Woolcock's
award winning film, On the Streets. Homeless filmmakers, young
professionals, students and professional documentarists mingled at UCL in
an embodiment of DiaD's democratising agenda. Here the online and offline
components of the MyStreet platform created a space to bring together
different communities of people, dissolving the producer/ consumer
distinction. As noted by one filmmaker, MyStreet "connects you to a
community that is also offline, that you can actually have access to
through the festival" [4, p.4].
Between 2011 and 2013, 89 DiaD workshops were held around London, with
350 participants . All of the schools and community groups were chosen
for their low university application rate (and high indices of social
deprivation), and five films were made in Pupil Referral Units for
excluded children . This work — which mostly took place in schools and
youth centres — has led both to increased confidence [4, p. 9] and
impacted upon the students by providing them with their first opportunity
to create a permanent record of their vision of their place in the school
. It also led to increased applications to creative courses following the
production of four DiaD films [4, p. 6]. DiaD brought new ideas into the
school, "things that they hadn't necessarily discussed before but led on
from being exposed to different sorts of creative arts [...]. It made them
think about what was out there for them and different opportunities were
available" [4, p. 6]. The films produced have since been integrated into
the curriculum of the schools concerned [9, p. 8-9]. Underprivileged
secondary school children, youth and local community groups in London have
learnt to tackle the issues and stories that are important to them and to
explore the `mysteries that reside in the humblest things' [4, p. 8].
To increase impact upon empowerment of the citizen filmmakers many of
their films were selected for screening at Camden Council funded
screenings at Open City Docs Fest in 2011 and 2012, with over 80 in
attendance on each occasion . As a teacher at the Ark Academy in
Wembley explained, making the films had positive effects for social
inclusion through the impact on their understanding of cultural diversity
[4, p. 8].
Participating in DiaD increased the ability of students to work with
professionals from beyond their school: "it was about not just
communicating with their peers but with people who they hadn't even met
before and a lot of the students would find that difficult usually but
because I think it was something creative and something they were
interested in and wanted to be involved in it allowed them to communicate
much more effectively" [4, p. 7, 9]. In line with its democratising agenda
the programme strengthened students' abilities to "express their views" on
their everyday lives and, uneditorialised, "share their stories and their
emotions" [4, p. 6]. Some students `were empowered to ask questions that
they would not normally dare to put. One group, for whom the police are
not a reassuring presence, were able to spend the morning filming in a
police car, talking with the officers' [4, p. 8]. In Somerstown, London,
new film projects were launched on the back of the DiaD experience [4, pp.
8-9, 11] . Inspired by MyStreet, a filmmaker based at Central St
Martins launched a visual ethnography of the Kings Cross area, using Mass
Observation techniques to commission three films on the theme of
gentrification, and playing them at installations onsite . One teacher
explained that staff, too, were influenced to be "more open and seek out
types of projects that we knew the [students] would really enjoy" after
seeing the "passion" of the students for filmmaking [4, p. 7].
MyStreet's promotion of a collaborative, visual research agenda through a
Web 2.0 environment has inspired others to launch similar projects, inspiring
new forms of cultural expression internationally. In June 2013, work
on a clone site in Czech was begun by One World Prague, a human rights
documentary film festival who signed a contract with Open City Docs to
launch MyStreet Prague in 2014 . As the director of One World Prague
film festival said: "The focus on the immediate surroundings that
encompasses urban, historical and social science aspects along with
educational elements in the field of film is inspiring. It offers an ideal
connection of the real and the Internet world that is not reduced to the
creation of an artificial reality but builds a specific community of
people who actively relate to their immediate surroundings' .
Similarly, the Afghanistan-based media training and development
organisation, Afghan Voices, was inspired to engage their students with
ethnographic ideas, creating 8 films by young Afghan students researching
aspects of daily life in cities around their country. As covered in the Evening
Standard , four of these filmmakers came to London in 2011 to
present their films at Open City.
Through these interrelated activities — MyStreet, DocinaDay and Open City
— Stewart's research facilitated a new form of digital, collaborative
anthropology and laid the foundations for a changed relationship between
`researchers' inside and outside the walls of the conventional university.
The contribution this research makes is demonstrated by the words of two
major filmmakers who served on the first MyStreet jury panel in 2011.
Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) said, "As street
by street in the country a MyStreet film is made, we are learning who we
are", while Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill, Enduring Love) added:
"... the opposite of Google Earth, MyStreet sees ourselves from the ground
up, making a modern, urban Domesday Book which we can all help create and
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Website visits from Google Analytics report, available on request.
Films are also embedded in other sites where views do not count to this
total, such as  with nearly 7,000 plays.
 Extended reach: https://vimeo.com/mystreetfilms/videos;
play numbers are listed for individual films.
 Compiled from the Annual Reports of Open City Docs Fest 2011, 2012,
2013 prepared for external and internal funders, with viewing figures for
screenings — available on request.
 MyStreet and DocinaDay Focus Group Report (2013), Kevin Guyan.
Available on request.
 Examples of news coverage: CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/29/opinion/mystreet-digital-anthropology.
Evening Standard: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/were-going-to-shoot-film-about-your-homeless-for-afghan-tv-6412364.html;
 Statements from General Manager, Community Channel, available on
 Statement from Head of Exhibitions, Arup on viewings at Arup Phase 2,
available on request.
 DiaD Annual Reports 2011 and 2012, prepared for internal and external
funders, available on request. The number given includes 5 workshops in
2013; no report was prepared this year.
 Statement provided by filmmaker responsible for the Kings Cross film
project, available on request.
 Statement from Head of Acquisitions and Director of MyStreet Prague,
on the influence of My Street on their model, available on request.