Drs. Metje Postma

‘Access, Ethics and Loyalties: the Camera as a Platform in a Humanitarian Crisis Situation’

- Report by Mathilde Vanderbooren


‘Through you we ask the world’ – Leader of the Free Lions Forces


Drs. Metje Postma discussed the ethics and implications of introducing the camera during her research (2003-2006) on the humanitarian crisis at the Eritrean border. In her presentation - a variation of speech and video fragments-, she highlighted the complexity of applied anthropological research in such a crisis situation.


Trying to work within a complex and dynamic political arena, Postma faced many ethical questions. Did she have a responsibility to follow the Rashaayda’s case? What were the implications of the introduction of the camera for the research? What could be the benefit for the people? To get access to the field she had to rely on certain networks and individuals, who expected different things from her. Involvement with NGO’s and forces operating against the government gave her the status of an advocate for the victims of the conflict. Postma felt the moral obligation to give the Rashaayda acknowledgement of their suffering, while her status as an academic researcher posed other demands on her.


Postma faced the difficulty of representing a group that did not fit a recognizable category for aid agencies. For a humanitarian purpose, she tried to categorize the Rashaayda so that they would be able to ‘sell’ themselves as a community in need of help. This turned out to be difficult because a realistic view of the group would acknowledge how they did manage to survive in these harsh circumstances. The power of the image and the possibility to adjust footage to the demand of aid organizations appeared of crucial importance.


Postma’s strategy was to let Fazum, leader of a local NGO, speak about the situation, so that the viewer would get a negotiated representation of the situation by Fazum, Postma, the Free Lions Forces, Rashaayda’s and an international NGO. In video fragments, we see Fazum who is trying to let Postma see the situation his way. Fazum shows us the refugee camps and the Rashaayda themselves talk in the camera about their poor living conditions. We also see an ICCO office worker who explains that they were not able to get funding for this group and a grasp of the expectations of a leader of the Free Lions Forces towards Postma, when he is saying to her after a long period of filming: ‘We want results now’.


In this research, the camera worked as an instrument of proof by showing people in need in image. Postma made an advocacy film for a Western audience that contained iconic displays. Because she saw thick ethnography as crucial to understand a humanitarian crisis, she also lived with a Rashaayda family for three months.