Douglas Harper

Duquesne University, USA

Professor Emeritus, Duquesne University ;

President of International Visual Sociological Association


This paper is a discussion of the making of the 33 minute film The Longest Journey Begins (Harper and Patterson, 2015) as a visual ethnography and a journalistic account of life in a half-way house for recovering addicts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

The video project was a collaborative project between a visual sociologist and a journalist; thus the creative process included an interesting tension between the aims and assumptions of visual ethnography and filmic journalism. The paper discusses strategies for filming and editing that preserved and enhanced the competing goals, principals, and aesthetics of both practices.  How was it possible to combine the dynamic engagement of a “good story” (journalism) with the examination of the everyday life in a half-way house, where social existence is routine and structured, yet based on constantly negotiated institutional practices? How was art (documentary journalism) balanced against science (visual ethnography) in the practicalities of filmmaking?

In this process filmmaking was integrated into a university course in which pedagogy from two perspectives (sociology and journalism) was integrated into video production. The course was unprecedented and the two professors, who had team-taught four time previously, extended their cross-disciplinary dialogue into the shared responsibilities of teaching the basics of field work, on-location filming, interviewing, transcribing, coding, ethical considerations, and, to a lesser degree, editing to a small, interdisciplinary team of students.


The directors/professors and students grappled with the basic questions: What is filmically interesting in this routinized, institutionalized way of life? How can the dramatic biographies of the addicted and post-incarcerated be integrated into the filmic study of group process, where new identities and life trajectories are formed? How can the separate stories of individuals animate an ethnographic examination of a group home, where twenty-three men live collectively and cooperatively?

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