Sam Vincent on gonzo ethnography in Blood and Guts
Blood and Guts isn’t so much a work of investigative journalism as an exercise in gonzo ethnography. Over the summer of 2012-13 I sailed to Antarctica with the zealously vegan crew of Sea Shepherd’s flagship, the Steve Irwin – an experience that would form the (fake) meat of my book on the whaling controversy. I returned to land with ten notebooks brimming with notes, but I didn’t return with many formal interviews.
Spending literally every waking hour for three months with my subjects provided opportunities unattainable in orthodox reporting. Why bother shoving a Dictaphone in a nervous interviewee’s face when you can slowly get to know them on their own terms over countless meals, the daily screening of the Colbert Report and the washing up? This was not an assignment in which I hung my journalistic hat on its hook at 5pm each afternoon: even if I didn’t always know it, I was working on my book whether I was kicking the footy at lunchtime, taking notes in afternoon crew meetings or watching movies in the mess at midnight.
The result was twofold: an understanding of Sea Shepherd beyond the PR spin for which they are famous; and one hell of a moral dilemma. Because what was I down there? A journalist is meant to ask questions – they aren’t meant to help you mop the floor and make dinner; they aren’t meant to swap music with you and listen to you bitching about your colleagues while you’re sitting in the sauna.
‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on,’ infamously wrote the New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm, ‘knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.’
But how do you avoid that kind of scenario when the people you are reporting on are the only people you’ll be speaking to for three months? Of course I bonded with the crew of the Steve; I’m human. But I wasn’t there to make friends. It’s the flipside to the access being embedded provides: in order to get close to your subject, you probably have to cross the line between observer and participant. In Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson slowly drinks his way to a position of trust with the notorious bikie gang; writing about English football hooligans in Among the Thugs, Bill Buford proves himself to the lads through his willingness to witness violence. But neither lost sight of what they were there to do: tell the truth.
I’m not expecting a Christmas card from Sea Shepherd this year, but as Janet Malcolm tells us, that’s because I was doing my job.