Mapping memory and migration: video documentary and spatial narratives

By Dr. Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage - 28.01.2020

Memory is an integral part of migration histories that are linked to place and processes of place-making. Place has a particular significance to people whose migration had been prompted by histories of civil war and violence. Historian Pierre Nora’s work explicitly situates memory within place. In his seminal volume on the national memory of France, Les Lieux de mémoire, Nora (1989) argues that ‘memory crystallizes and secretes itself’, embodying sites where a sense of ‘historical continuity’ endures. Frances Yates (1966), also credited for reviving the study of memory in relation to place, examines symbolic places as repositories of collective memory that aids affect and recollection. Movement produces memory for migrants who are fixated on geographic and temporal geneses. Place-making or ‘homing’ in the new societies of migrants often require the reconstruction and deconstruction of cultural meanings and symbolic actions that rely on the value systems, moralities and memories, affiliated to a relationship with a particular place (Boccagni 2017). On most occasions, for migrants, media from their home countries or particular places of origin lent to the intensification of memory associated with place, time and space (Gamage 2019, 2018). Nevertheless, for those who migrate internally within home countries and to foreign host societies, prompted or forced by reasons such as civil war, economic prospects, and violence, migration rather than location becomes the condition of memory (Creet & Kitzmann 2010).

In the South Asian island of Sri Lanka, civil war did not only lend to the formation of a dispersed diaspora across the world but the protracted conflict also drove an exodus of people from the hinterland and war-affected villages into the capital city of Colombo, in search of employment, safety, and education. Unaffordability of land in Colombo’s already high-density urban areas have created concentrations of under-served slum communities where residents have formed semi-permanent and permanent dwellings in challenging living conditions (see Lakshman, Alikhan & Azam 2019). Mapping their migration narratives is significant to understand the socioeconomic conditions that drive the lifestyles, aspirations and living standards, as city-dwellers with the ever present threat of eviction. An epistemological challenge of researching memory is a question of methods. How can researchers capture in physical forms the cognitive existence of data relating to memory? Researchers suggest drawing from a range of interdisciplinary approaches for data gathering in the study of memory (Keightley & Pickering 2013).

In this study, The Unknown City: the (in)visibility of urban displacement, illustrative narratives captured through video documentary and hand-drawn memory maps provided a methodological possibility of capturing the primarily cognitive existence of memory embedded in migration. The study produced 8 mobility videos that experimented on integrating oral history, autobiography, remembering, hand drawings, memory mapping, interviews and video documentary to produce extensive empirical records of memory-based narratives on the socioeconomic and cultural conditions of urban migration.


Several steps are of significance in the making of the mobility videos, including the stages of pre-production, production and post-production. Participants of the videos are based in urban under-served areas of Sammanthranapura, Lunupokuna, Wadulla, and Kirulapone in the Colombo City. These participants are already affiliated to the umbrella study of The Migrants on the Margins where, through two years, teams of researchers have applied immersive methods, such as oral histories, walks, photos, community profiles, social, historical, resource and infrastructure mapping, and graphical accounts, at individual, community and city level. Thus the rapport that researchers had built within the communities assisted in establishing trust in the process of producing the videos.

The first step in the process was to carry out walks and observations or what is known as conducting a “recce” (reconnaissance) in media jargon. A team of videographers and producers together with researchers visited the homes of participants, engaging them in the pre-production process of information exchange and building rapport. Secondly, during the production stage, the videographers carried out the recording of the interviews and the hand drawing process in a studio with ample lighting and minimal sound disturbances. Participants were provided art paper and markers as well as instructions on what the videos intended to capture. Each participant was filmed in the studio using professional video cameras by a videographer while they narrated their life histories of migration and drew a chronological memory map of the journey.

Only a static shot of the participants’ hands drawing the memory map was filmed for privacy purposes. A professional sound artist recorded their narration and lighting for the video was examined by a lighting expert. The producer/director provided direction to the participants with minimum intrusion. Logistics of the filming, such as transportation of participants and assisting the producers, were carried out by the team of researchers according to a pre-planned schedule, which was significant in the timely completion of the production process.

The interview process was followed with filming on the participants’ locations to capture general shots of the under-served areas as overlay for the videos. The third phase was the post-production process where the videos were edited by a video editor with supervision from the director to compile the mobility videos. The Tamil language narrations were translated into English and subtitles were included. The team of researchers and producers of the videos also engaged in exchange of feedback on the videos during the final stage of the post-production.

Oral History / Autobiography

Feminist ethnography provides some of the notable examples of the use of autobiography in a research context and validated reflexive storytelling as a significant method of writing up research (see Behar and Gordon 1996). In this study, oral history and autobiographic reflections are central aspects of the narrative at the data gathering stage itself. The below video by this participant from an under-served community in Kirulapone provides an example to discuss the use of oral history and autobiography. The participant is able to provide a linear narrative of his migration that includes both internal and overseas migration from time to time. A genealogical breakdown allows the narrator and the viewers of the video to reflect on the itinerancy of his life history and the causes that prompted those conditions.

The participant explains how in 1966 he came to Colombo in search of employment, then moving across several jobs. In 1991, he travels to Saudi and remains there working for 13 years. He then travels to Qatar in 2004, returning to Sri Lanka after three years. He again travels to Iraq in 2007 for five years. The significance of these milestones is that oral history and autobiography allows the participant to put movement in context. All these years of migratory work has not allowed the participant savings and investments for his older years. See video:

Memory Mapping

Mind maps have re-emerged as a qualitative method for documenting accounts of memory-based knowledge (Wheeldon and Ahlberg 2012; Wheeldon and Faubert 2009). Mind maps are drawn by participants to explain personal histories and experiences by hand drawing milestones, combining words, graphics, and images into diagrams with chronological value (Wheeldon & Ahlberg 2019). For all participants in this study, marking their current location in Sri Lanka and tracing their migration journeys with arrows, years, and text became central in the explanations of movement, internally within the country and externally to overseas locations. The method allowed elicitation of memory and recollection through exploration of life histories under minimum guidance of the researchers. Participants of the project are not trained artists and therefore, engaged in textual and image-based expression of their choice. See video(s):

Video Documentary

The next method that was integrated into the mobility videos is the use of video documentary. Documentary film is championed by anthropologists not only as a data gathering method but also as mode to voice issues of gender, human rights, culture, and identity (see, for example, Peter Biella, 1988 and Margeret Mead, 1952). The challenging nature of this project was the necessity to capture migration memory maps without disclosing the identity of participants. This de-identification process pushed the videos to examine storytelling outside paradigmatic documentary film formats. The focus was placed on the migration journey and mapping memory rather than the physiological characteristics of the narrator that forms the basis of traditional documentary films. Thus the videos generated opportunities to imagine and visualise, for both the participants and audiences, the journeys of mobility and border-crossing retold through memory. See video(s):


Social research methods and data gathering processes can work to often create hierarchies and unequal power relations between researchers and participants, limiting opportunities for participants to contribute to policy that concerns their lives. In this study, the methods that drew on basic elements of storytelling, such as drawings, remembering, narration, visualisation and autobiography, provided knowledge-sharing opportunities for participants despite their education, cultural backgrounds, gender, age and social status. These methods created the possibilities of including participants in the research process and a sense of ownership of the data through videos that included their voice rather than the researchers’ paradigm of interpretation. The methods in this study shows the significance of the intersections between social research and visual art in giving greater voice and power to the participants researched. Adapting autobiography, memory mapping and video documentary in this study does not only act as data gathering tools that enables the research of memory but also as a participatory and inclusive way of informing policy on urban migration, housing and development.


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