Documenting Science, Narrating Experience: The Use of Audiovisual Technologies in Forensics

Last weekend, I made a trip to San Sebastián to interview a member of the Aranzadi forensic team (Universidad del País Vasco) that oversaw the exhumation that I attended several weeks ago.  Responsible for filming exhumations and creating short narrative documentaries about individual investigations, the person that I interviewed explained how audiovisual documentation has been integrated into standard forensic and archaeological methods employed by Aranzadi in the exhumation of mass graves.  As my interlocutor was keen to point out, the narrative capacity of audiovisual storytelling and its ability to document events and collect testimonies have made this type of media a useful methodological tool both within and without the realm of science.

A member of the Aranzadi team filming a testimony

During the exhumation process, audiovisual recording is used first and foremost to document the exhumation process.  It is used to create an audiovisual record of how an exhumation begins, how it is carried out, and finally how it concludes.  However, “levantando una fosa” is more than the application of archaeological methods.  It is an event that requires the collaboration of many different people, most of important of which are the families desaparecidos and those members of the community who have pushed for this kind of revision of the recent past to take place.  For those families who are exhuming missing loved ones, the exhumation is an emotionally charged event that is rooted in a wide range of memory practices.  It is therefore, an event that often lends itself to the emergence of personal narratives regarding past experience.  These narratives may be newly formed.  They can also be narratives that are being publicly voiced for the first time.  Video is useful here in that it provides a method and a medium for collecting these testimonies.  It creates a space in which those most directly affected by violence can reject silence by narrating their experience that will be recorded by an audiovisual technology that will ensure future accessibility.  In other words, video helps create a space for narrating experience while also facilitating the creation of an archive of experiences that illustrates the many ways in which social memory can manifest itself.

The use of video also facilitates the eventual creation of an audiovisual illustration of the forensic report.  The report is a compilation of all of the information collected during the forensic investigation.  It includes historical documentation pertaining to the missing and to the fosa – the physical place where the remains of desparecidos are thought to be contained.  It also includes drawings, photographs, and descriptions of the archeological as well as the osteological and genetic findings.  Finally, the report includes key parts of testimonies that have helped link disappeared loved ones to the clues collected during the investigation.  Although forensic investigations of political violence are conducted outside of a judicial framework in Spain – unlike those investigations carried out in post-dictatorship countries such as Argentina and Chile – the collection of evidence follows specific protocols and results in a written review of all findings.  The resulting report is used by the forensic team to create a collection of scientific proof that can be referred back to as other cases emerge.  However, the reports also have an important social function: They are given to the families of the missing so that they can have a written register of the evidence that has been collected.   This is often referred to as a kind of recuperation not only of historical memory but also of narrative testimony and hard evidence.  Within each report, families are also given a copy of the short narrative documentary made by Aranzadi.  As my colleague at Aranzadi pointed out, this audiovisual version of the report is often more accessible to family members.  Its narrative style and its focus on imagery and personal testimony are alternative ways of returning evidence and of recuperating memory.

The audiovisual is, then, a mode of documenting science and narrating experience.  It is at this intersection, that audiovisual media becomes an integral part in both private and public memory practices.  As I move to Barcelona where I hope to speak with art practitioners, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the documentation of science and the narration of experience are included as integral parts of creating aesthetic commentary on political violence and disappearance.

Posted by Lee Douglas — PhD Candidate in Anthropology at NYU

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