This ninth of twelve portraits in 2017, honoring alumni from thirty years of Roth Endowment programs, features anthropologist William Lempert. Support from the Roth Endowment helped him carry out his work in the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia. William is now wrapping up his Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His dissertation is titled Broadcasting Indigenous Futures: The Social Life of Kimberley Aboriginal Media. Take a look at William’s website, featuring his articles, films and podcasts.
My desire to become an anthropologist had many roots. The importance of understanding how historical legacies impact the present was instilled into me at a young age. Undertaking a series of interviews with my 92-year-old grandmother, I learned more about the personal history of her life and our family; although she lost most of her extended family in Nazi Germany, as a teenager she was able to save her parents from certain death at the Dachau concentration camp. My perspective expanded further when I undertook volunteer work in the aftermath of racial riots in my hometown of Cincinnati.
As an undergraduate, the interdisciplinary Western Program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio gave me a chance to participate in a range of social and environmental programs in Brazil, Nicaragua, Kenya and Australia—leading to my honors thesis on the politics of popular Indigenous representations. Once I began graduate school, I discovered and cultivated a love of teaching, which continues to this day. In my teaching, I seek to engage students and broader audiences through a multifaceted approach to anthropology that integrates writing and media production.
During my first trip to the Kimberley region of Northwestern Australia in 2006, I learned about the inspiring ways that Aboriginal people are using media to transcend stereotypes and the mainstream media representations that represent their communities negatively, if at all. To prepare for my doctoral fieldwork, I returned to Australia for two summers as a media volunteer in the town of Broome and remote communities in the region. I was humbled by the palpable sense of joy and welcome that I felt from my Aboriginal collaborators, in spite of legacies of historical trauma and serious material and health disparities that continue through the present.
My dissertation project focuses on how Aboriginal Australians imagine and create their futures through the process of filmmaking. In the tradition of cultural anthropology, my approach centers on sustained participant/observation research. The project draws on my experience working within the production teams of two Indigenous media outlets. I worked on dozens of film projects with them, over a cumulative 26 months between 2006 and 2016. The primary film that I worked on—Tjawa Tjawa (2015)—screened at the Margaret Mead, ImagiNative and Sydney international film festivals.
I view collaborative media production as a framework, not only for re-imagining the relationships between anthropological practice, theory, and modes of representation, but also for an ethically-focused methodology. In my view, understanding the process of collective cultural production is essential, since culture itself is not pre-existing, but something that comes into being through doing. In particular, films emphasizing futurity—including such genres as science fiction—are particularly important for asserting Indigenous visual and temporal sovereignty.
My long-term goal is to facilitate community-partnered projects that transform how Indigenous challenges and futures are imagined by anthropologists, policymakers, and broader publics. Once my dissertation is finished, I look forward to developing an emerging research initiative on visualizing Aboriginal sign language and hearing loss, which evolved out of my work on film projects.
I am especially grateful to the Lois Roth Endowment for enabling me to attend a 2015 conference at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the National Australian University during my Fulbright research period. This was especially important, as it provided opportunities for mutual, extended engagement with Aboriginal and Australian scholars. In light of the complex challenges of our current global era, the Roth Endowment’s support of creative scholarship has never been more relevant.
“From remote communities, I have learned about the art of subtlety. There are often powerful things happening at a granular level. You can see a lot but miss everything. I think the more you see, the more you realise how much you are not seeing. For example, there are a myriad of little things about people who are interacting. You start to realise there are endless layers of social worlds that people live in. It’s quite an honour just to move into the first layer.” — William Lempert
This text evolved from correspondence between William Lempert and Skyler Arndt-Briggs. Thanks to Drew Barnhart, our Media and Outreach Manager,for producing our September Portrait.