Mark Aitken is an artist and academic whose practice includes film, photography, writing and radio. His research concerns trauma and empathy in documentary making. Mark collaborates with subjects to produce emotionally resonant works about loss of family, home, history and community. Working across different mediums over many years offers a body of work that is unified yet diverse and at home in cinemas, galleries, installations, bookshops and on radio.

Mark is currently researching empathetic responses to traumatic loss of habitats, wildlife and human knowledge of disappearing territories. His award-winning films include Dead when I got here about a Mexican psychiatric hospital run by its own patients; Forest of Crocodiles about a fearful white South African rural community; Until when you die traces a Vietnamese refugee’s journey home and This was Forever about the loss of a community allotment in London. Mark has also facilitated over fifty films with students.

Mark’s photo installation Sanctum Ephemeral and book about a community losing their homes will be exhibited in Girona, Catalonia in 2020. The series won the UK National Open Art 2017 and was published in national press and magazines.

Teaching film practice since 1990, Mark currently lectures at Central St Martins, London and offers creative consultancy to professionals. He was awarded his doctorate, ‘Emotional truths in documentary making’ from Goldsmiths in 2019.

Mark produced a radio series on London’s Resonance FM for 15 years and continues radio production at independent station Dublab in Barcelona.

The Deep River

FIELDWORK Q&A – October 2020

What interests you about fieldwork in artistic and/or geographic practice?
How we relate to traumatic loss of habitats, life and knowledge within an affective documentary practice is of interest to me.

How is fieldwork part of your research and/or work?
I’m interested in shifting empathetic responses towards an abstract entity: traumatized habitats. Saying that, this may only be achieved with assistance from people with knowledge of these territories that is itself, becoming irrelevant as habitats irrecoverably change.

How would you describe your fieldwork activity?
Three questions arise from this activity: Can an ‘informed migration’ develop from encounters with indigenous or local people from that territory? Can an empathetic relationship to an abstract entity in trauma – the earth – result from these encounters? And if so, how might these memories of trauma be embodied in art works that may generate empathetic responses?


Mark Aitken

The Presence of Absence: Trauma, empathy and Sámi knowledge in the age of Arctic exploitation, current

In The Presence of Absence, I want to empathise with the trauma of loss relating to climate change and simultaneous loss of ‘relevance of traditional knowledge for future operational decision-making’.1 The context of research is the warming Arctic attracting migrants wishing to exploit natural resources. While many Sámi have migrated south, those remaining are faced with this new influx. Research will draw on themes of trauma, empathy, climate change, local knowledge and exploitative migration. Empathy towards trauma will be the primary methodological tool for artistic production.

This research develops my 2019 PhD by Publication, Emotional truths in documentary making by exploring memory of trauma through relationships with physical locations and indigenous knowledge. In the age of ‘post-truth’ I posit ‘truths’ within an empathetic and ethically informed context established between artist and subject. Trust in artistic research and art works may be renewed through empathetic engagement with trauma.

My past publications are about trauma of loss in the context of migration. Memories of trauma are described by Linda Williams as a ‘palimpsest of truths reverberating between events’.2 Catharsis may occur variably for the subject, artist and reader as trauma is re-contextualised through artistic research and outputs. I argue that ’emotional truths’ arise through feeling as well as epistemological knowledge of trauma. Ideally, an exchange of knowledge occurs from this empathetic dynamic – founded in unique trusting relationships bound by desire to explore feelings of trauma.

Departing from conventional anthropological studies, I aim to embrace what Édouard Glissant’s posits as, ‘every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other’.3 My relationship with the landscape and the people I encounter will engage what Michael Renov calls ‘mutual receptivity’4 – an encounter with the ‘other’ in terms of ‘seeing oneself’ that ‘respects both separation and proximity’.5 To empathise with trauma might posit encounters with Sámi as potential artistic collaborations.

I also argue that geographical location might be engaged with as an ‘other’ and considered within a framework of trauma, loss and empathy. In doing so, I seek to develop my thesis of ’emotional truths’ as those truths that might result from empathetic relationships with the earth in trauma. I argue that what Stella Bruzzi describes as a ‘performative truth’6 and ‘collision between the apparatus and subject’7 in documentary making may be transferred to relations with a physical entity other than a human being.

An alternative model of migration is proposed for this research – asking if a new migrant might utilise local knowledge to empathise with the trauma of climate change. The methodology will take the form of a solo walk across vulnerable Arctic territory. This migration will be informed by research with Sámi collaborators.

My ‘informed migration’ is a performative gesture of walking and producing works in the tradition of Sharon Harper who referenced aboriginal Songlines in Walkabout – ‘photographically depicting the inner machinations of a journey’.8 Francis Alÿs’s many walks are also a reference as they produce art works in situ, while similarly informed by intimate local knowledge and collaborations.


1 Kelman Llan, Naess Marias Warg, ‘Climate Change and Migration for Scandinavian Saami: A Review of Possible Impacts,’ 2.
2 Williams, ‘Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary,’ 18.
3 Édouard Glissant, ‘Poetics of Relation//1990,’, in Participation, Claire Bishop, Ed., 71.
4 Renov, The subject of Documentary, 130.
5 Ibid, 152.
6 Stella Bruzzi, ‘The Performing Film-maker and the Acting Subject,’ in The Documentary Film Book, Brian Winston, Ed., 48.
7 Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 1st ed. 2000), 7.


Bruzzi, Stella. ‘The Performing Film maker and the Acting Subject.’ Chap. 1.3 in The Documentary Film Book. Brian Winston, Ed. London: British Film Institute, 2013.
Bruzzi, Stella. New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2nd ed. 2000.
Glissant, Édouard. ‘Poetics of Relation//1990,’, in Participation, Claire Bishop, Ed., MIT Press, 2007.
Harper, Sharon. Accessed September 4th, 2020.
Kelman Llan, Naess Marias Warg, ‘Climate Change and Migration for Scandinavian Saami: A Review of Possible Impacts,’ Climate 2019, MDPI, 2019.
Renov, Michael. The subject of Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Williams, Linda. ‘Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary,’ Film Quarterly, Volume 46, Number 3, 1993.



The Presence of Absence No. 1
Tarragona – Altafulla
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