Ivana & Beth are talking to Dr. Ricardo Leizaola, lecturer at Goldsmiths university, documentary filmmaker and anthropologist specializing in visual anthropology and ethnobotany. He trained in Venezuela, UK – Manchester and Goldsmiths, and did fieldwork in Caracas, Southern Ethiopia and London. He is involved collaboratively with students and staff at Goldsmiths in production of audiovisual projects.
Ivana: Did you rearrange your bookshelf prior to us coming to interview you?
Ricardo: No, I saw it as a good opportunity to think about my own mess in public so afterwards I might have to think radically about how to display my anthropological mess.
Ivana: Have you got a certain way of organizing books?
Ricardo: Not really. I came from Venezuela without my book collection and films. This here is a 25-year accumulation consisting mainly of presents and inherited books from retired professors and friends. I tend to pass on and share the books that I like, instead of them sitting in my office giving me ‘gravitas’.
Ivana: Do you expect back lent out books or films?
Ricardo: I guess yeah, I do, despite losing hope sometimes. As it is easy to forget that you’ve got somebody’s else’s book. My films often get stolen by well-intentioned people.
Ivana: Which books do you find yourself reaching for the most?
Ricardo: Here’s Brian Morris’s book Anthropology and the Human Subject. I love Luis Reyes’ books; Soy Palmero because they were written by people I studied in Venezuela as a reply to my own research. My involvement in the writing of them makes me really proud as well as it being an answer to our work from the community I studied. The book Palmero es Fe y Cerro is by a photographer Jorge Luis Santos who worked in the same area of Caracas with Pedregal people. I have written a book and made a film Tio Veneno which is about a life history of a healer Uncle Poison and his community of El Pedregal. My favourite book and the one that inspired me to write Tio Veneno is Sidney Mintz’s PhD dissertation made into a book Worker In The Cane, written in 1950s in Puerto Rico about a life history of a sugar cane farm worker.
Ivana: What inspired you to become an anthropologist?
Ricardo: All my life I wanted to be a farmer, so I wanted to study agronomics, my parents convinced me that due to the fact we didn’t own a farm, I was going to be a slave to someone else for all my life. Anthropology was the nearest thing I could choose to my first love since I was 13 or 14.
Ivana: You managed to interlink it with the botany side of your research?
Ricardo: Yes! Somehow in my PhD I managed to marry back my original interest in nature and agriculture with anthropology and visual anthropology.
Ivana: Do you have intentions of expanding this research further?
Ricardo: Yes, I would love to do research about what people in the community think that I was doing there and about our relationship on the matter. I come from a middle class background, therefore from a different background than this community that I was working in. I think I need to address that aspect, whereby I contextualize myself and what kind of effect that can possibly have on my view of the community and how this is disputed amongst people of the community. I have friends from the community living in political exile with whom I am interacting through social media.
Beth: Did they read your book? And if so how was it received?
Ricardo: Yes, they’ve read the book before it was published. Some people received it well, not everybody. It was funny because after the book was published, one family took me to court, they sued me, the publisher said it was the best thing that could happen, I was really scared of the legal consequences but the publisher said this is the best publicity for the book! The book sold out! Nothing legally came of it, someone criticised that they were not as poor as they were depicted in the book, it was more about those people trying to exclude themselves from poverty and so on. The manuscript was read by the community before it was published, they spoke at the launch of the book as well which was really interesting.
Ivana: Your subsequent research in London had an element of botany in it?
Ricardo: Yes, it was about alcohol based medicines. There are lots of cultures that embrace alcohol and plants to produce medicines. It shows its medicinal and recreational uses and connections between cultures historically like for example the history of Gin: one of the most famous drinks in Britain, created and imported from Holland originally as medicine and subsequently spread to British colonies. I held an exhibition about medicinal plants, which had a nice review in Lancet magazine.
Ivana: What is the story behind the Cinderella shoe bottle?
Ricardo: One of my findings while doing medicinal alcohol research. The link between plants and male sexual potency. There is an idea that alcohol and sex go together, therefore there are lots of herb medicines sold with an idea that they have some kind of Viagra like properties. It is a very common thing all over the world. A lot of African remedies that I have collected are specifically for man potency and for woman’s menstruation pains, like a woman can’t have a right on sexual pleasure, that would be seen as wrong, but instead it is treated as a remedy for her pains.
Beth: Is there a book that inspired you to study anthropology?
Ricardo: Yes, there’s a book Metaphors we live by by George Lakoff, an American linguist and philosopher. It’s about how we use the language of common things in life as metaphors to think about more abstract issues. I did most of my research in Venezuela on linguistics, structural linguistics and anthropological linguistics, ethno science and so on. It is a tradition that the British tend to disregard because they are very empiricist and they tend to disregard language most of the time.
Beth: How often do you find yourself reaching for your books?
Ricardo: Very little, I am always looking for DVDs, CDs, Hard drives.
Beth: Do you think there’s an underrated book in your collection that needs more credit?
Ricardo: Yes, a book by Steve Nugent called Scoping the Amazon: Image, Icon, and Ethnography (2007).
It’s a study of photography relationship to the anthropological journal articles about the Amazon. He’s trying to look qualitatively and quantitatively at the relationship following a timeline of publications about the number of pictures that feature in the papers on the Amazon and their relationships to the text and the themes. It is an extremely interesting book. The framework in which the book is based upon is quite challenging and very critical to all our practice of visual anthropology. As a result, the visual anthropological community refused to engage with it because it somehow spoils the party, and I like books that are disruptive because we have to rethink what we are doing in a very critical way. We tend not to do that, we tend to celebrate ourselves instead of taking a critical perspective and I think this book is extremely clever in that way.
Ivana: Would you say that most of your work is visual? Are there any books that specifically influenced your visual work?
Ricardo: Yes, The one by Lucien Castaing-Taylor Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos, it’s a manual of visual anthropology, it’s not on my bookshelf. I don’t consider my library or my bookshelf to be a working bookshelf, it’s more a collection of encounters and relationships. I also love to use library books. I love sharing knowledge, in a way with my office being so small, it is almost impossible to attempt to accumulate book capital.
Ivana: Do you think that the discipline today is getting a bit more involved in the visual side of things?
Ricardo: Yes, I think in a very uncritical way they are, the visual is much more respected and understood as well. I think it’s a very good opportunity to do many interesting things. I think the opportunities of the digital revolution are hardly being explored by anthropology. I think ethnographic film is going to change completely from what it used to be, the camera will be mainstream anthropology […] You can convey stories very easily, you can move people by getting close to people’s lives and problems and the way they deal with life and engage with other people.
Interview by Ivana Kulas-Reid and Bethany Loft