We’ve just started a mini-unit on visual ethnography in my doctoral coursework. I’ve got to say, it’s fascinating stuff. Ethnography is the study of people and culture. Visual ethnography is the study of people and culture through the collection, examination, and curation of images. The book we are discussing this week is Doing Visual Ethnography by Sarah Pink. In it she argues for a “reflexive” approach to visual ethnography as a research method within the social sciences (p. 5). In contrast to the expected researcher-subject objective distance, Pink leans into the post-modern philosophical turn which acknowledges the inherent subjectivity within any research method. So instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, she argues that ethnographers in general, and those using visual methods in particular, ought to recognize from the outset that they “are members of societies in which photography and video are already practised and understood in particular ways” (39).
Researching Through Seeing
As an amateur photographer, I was most interested in her chapters on using photography as a means for doing ethnographic research. On the one end of the interpretive spectrum is the point-and-shoot documentarian style of photography that attempts to maintain objective distance and seeks to capture just the “facts” of a place or people. This kind of photographic survey tries to leave interpretation to the ethnographer as a subsequent task. On the other end of the continuum might be photography as art. The photographer acts as an artist who, in the act of creating with the camera, imbues the photograph with intent and meaning. These photos could be argued to stand alone, without further commentary or analysis. In this respect, the ethnographer may be less interested in the content of the photo than the thoughts, feelings, or reactions that the photos garner from those who view them.
When I take photographs, I find I’m most often functioning somewhere in the middle. I like to shoot people and events, but in doing so I want to use the act of photography to capture more than the people that are present or the event that was taking place. I want the photos to impart to the viewer the “feel” of the place or the people or the event. As I peer through the lens, I compose the elements I see in such a way that the image will tell part of the story as I perceive it to play out. I’m not trying to create something that doesn’t exist. I’m trying to include myself in the photograph, even though I’m not in the frame. In that way, I’m participating in “reflexive” ethnography. Aware of my subjectivity, I take photographs of people, places, and events in a way that is humbly informed by my social, theological, philosophical, engendered perspective. This falls in Pink’s description of “participatory and collaborative photography” (pp. 75-78).
Over the next couple of weeks I will be putting together a project in photo elicitation. I’ve asked members of different doctoral cohorts at George Fox Evangelical Seminary to select photos from online albums of their face-to-face gatherings that most depict their cohort experience. I’ll then follow up with some specific questions around why and how the photos they selected fulfill that criteria. I’m interested to see how the photos they choose relate to the comments they garner. Will they comment primarily on the content of the photos? Will their comments center on a feeling or memory not depicted in the photo, per se, but triggered by it? How do responses differ between cohorts? Between doctoral tracks?