Experienced real estate agents know that every culture has its own odor that reminds us of home.
In America, home sellers are told to stew apples before potential buyers arrive; in Italy, braising onions has the same effect. These are the scents that take us back to our childhood and help create our sense of comfort, safety and belonging. They are some of the most basic aspects of cultural identity.
In trying to understand any ethnicity, our olfactory senses have great importance…and yet they are invariably ignored by the tools used to represent culture: photos, video, recording, text and art. As foreign entrants, how can we identify and capture this most essential genome in the cultural DNA?
Welcome to Jordan, please close your eyes!
A few days before the departure for Jordan, interns, many of which have never been to the middle east, are introduced to Wadi Rum by way of their nose. Each is blindfolded and asked to smell various scents: cardamon, turmeric, tahini, sesame seeds, cumin, poppy seeds, sage, shisha tobacco, fennel seeds, and mint … core ingredients of daily life in Wadi Rum.
- They are told to remember these scents;
- to be conscious of them whenever they enter a tent or home;
- to realize in what situations they present themselves;
- to consider how to represent the scent visually; and
- what other scents are ever present.
As an example of representation that effectively triggers an olfactory response, they are shown the film, ‘Perfume’. They are asked to identify the photographic techniques that transform a beautiful photo into a sensory experience:
- 1st person perspective (to trigger a sense reaction, the viewer must feel a part of the scene);
- active sensory involvement (the protagonist and ultimately the viewer smells her neck); and
- visual clues (vapor, steam, rotting, light, mold, dust, etc).
Finally, they are trained to transform that knowledge into practical application (capturing cheese shops, cooking, garbage, etc. ) and translate this same technique to all senses. The goal being to use the eye as a last resort…first identifying the sense that is involved and, only then, deciding what and how to represent it.
A culture is defined by its senses and our senses help us create our collective culture. It is a process of mutual reciprocity, therefore, as researchers our senses provide invaluable clues for understanding intangible culture and transmitting this experience to others.