(RAW)project~field study in mali (bamako, timbuktu, ségou)


We conducted a larger scale study over three weeks in August 2003 in three locations in Mali: Bamako, Timbuktu and Ségou. Our primary goals were to observe the ways people here would use the tool for different purposes, and to assess the value and relevance the tool potentially has in this culture that is very different from the one in which it was designed.

We worked with a total of 23 persons from different age groups. Five of our participants were women.
Most of the participants we worked with spoke French in addition to their native Malian dialect. When it wasn’t possible to communicate in French, our guides would act as translators. The occupations of our participants spanned a wide range: academics, officials, artists, musicians, craftspeople, students, shepherds, and others. We had a large number of participants involved in creative professions, a profile that does in fact reflect a larger reality in the country. Several of our participants had never before taken a picture with any kind of camera.

Our method was inspired from the workshop we undertook in Paris. For each participant, we took the time to introduce the project in a discussion. We made a specific point of telling them we were not anthropologists coming to their country to document aspects of their culture. Rather, we described ourselves as technology and design researchers on a field study, hoping to investigate how a variety of different kinds of people in different cultures use a new tool that we are developing.
After they agreed to participate, we demonstrated how to use the tool and helped each participant take a couple of test shots until they felt comfortable to take it out on their own for up to an hour or so.

We left each participant for a couple of hours and then returned to retrieve the device and discuss the experience with them. We would also load the images onto a laptop computer for them to review and perform the selection of the point of detail. We recorded each participant’s contact details so that we could later send them both hardcopies of their photographs as well as a CDROM containing the digital images and audio (there are Internet cafés in most cities where these could be viewed).

Each one of our participants captured perspectives on their lives that we felt we clearly could not have matched in richness if we were acting on our own as photographers or documenters of some kind. The average length of use was around one hour, though one person used the tool for only 5 minutes and several others exhausted the full 80-minute available duration.

emerging styles of use

The most significant result of our experience in Mali is that we began to observe some clear categories for how our participants exploited the RAW tool for different kinds of capture or storytelling purposes. These span a range from personal reflection to more outward styles of engagement, with either a passive or active stance toward the later audience. They emerged despite the care we took to not suggest any particular styles or themes to our participants in our initial discussions with them.

Type 1: Social glances
This category represents uses of the tool that occur primarily in a social mode, or in which social contacts and spontaneous encounters are the primary content underlying the audio and visual media captured by the user. Many of our participants used the tool as a means to strike up conversations with people in their workplace, at home, or on the street. Or conversely, sometimes friends of the user would be curious about what he is doing and interrupt him during his session, resulting in a social exchange. No particular audience is addressed by the user. The relevant RAW records convey a rich impression of the social fabric and relationships that exist in the society, and they are also the records in which we hear the greatest variety of spoken languages.

Type 2: Caught in activities
Some people chose simply to perform their everyday tasks or livelihoods and capture impressions of them in more of an individual mode. Again, no specific audience is actively addressed, but the user is aware that these moments are indeed a kind of “performance” that will be experienced by an audience at a later point in time. Musicians were the most likely to share their daily experiences in this way, often capturing themselves playing in a jam or rehearsal session. One woman recorded her daily journey to obtain water from a community well in this fashion. Another woman who dyes fabrics for a living used the tool to capture glimpses of the processes employed in her profession, including final models as she depicted with photographs of other photographs from her portfolio.

Type 3: Active documentation
In this category, the user of the tool actively addresses the eventual audience of the record he is creating with spoken narration or even live interviews with people he encounters, as a way of documenting some aspect of his everyday life or his society. There may be a specific theme, determined in advance, or a looser structure based on spontaneous encounters with interesting scenes or personalities. In some cases, the user clearly has a foreign audience in mind that would wonder what life in their Malian city is all about. Hence, the language most often used in this context is French, sometimes even English. One participant walked around Timbuktu, interviewing people along the way about the development of the city infrastructure. Another provided narration about the various aspects of a Muslim baptism ceremony while he was capturing them.

Type 4: Intentional discourses
This group refers to exploitations of the tool in which the user has a very specific message or commentary that they wish to relate to the audience. The user’s speech is not intended as a narration of the audio or visual moments they are capturing, but rather it is the other way around—the pictures and sound are an augmentation of the commentary. The user may operate alone with a more “political” or “activist” perspective, and the record might take the form of a monologue or spoken contemplation. For example, one participant used the tool to convey specific thoughts concerning the development and position of academia in Malian society, which he illustrated with loosely related audio and visual impressions from his university.


We mounted an exhibition of the material captured by our participants in Mali on the night before we left the country.
About 50 people attended, several of whom were our participants and whose records were accessible in the exhibition. The exhibition was projected on a wall so that several people could view it at a time. We set up a pair of small external speakers so that others in the room could listen to some of the audio track while the headphones were being passed around so that everyone could have a chance to experience the binaural audio recording.

general observation

We see the main advantage of undertaking studies in multiple cultural contexts as being the opportunity to discover behaviors and gain feedback that can potentially guide the development of a prototype such that it will be understood and valued by a much larger segment of the world population than it might have been otherwise. For RAW, this kind of study was particularly important, as we saw the tool as something that could possibly be used as a way of capturing a new kind of portrait or historical record of a culture. Everyday life happens everywhere, and interest in it comes from many directions and often grows in the years after it happens. Thus we wished to articulate a tool and process that could be considered meaningful as broadly as possible.