Researching Through Seeing

October 7, 2011 — 4 Comments

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).

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?

Anderson Campbell

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  • cthomasdavis

    Andy, I would also consider myself an ‘amateur photographer.’ Very amateur in fact. I’m curious, what did you gain from Pink’s book that will help you with this project? I felt the book was written for people who were completing a masters degree in photography and had a common knowledge of terms in this space. #dmingml

  • MIchael Hearn

    Andy,I enjoyed how simply you laid out the information in the book. I too like Tom felt a little lost at times, but enjoyed the subject matter as a style of research.I think you captured a main point in Pinks writings when you wrote… “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” In our lives today ethnography could be applied in numerous areas. #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    I'm not so sure that I gained much that will help me with this project. What Jase asked us to do is more on the photo self-elicitation side of things. Pink is talking more about when researcher is ethnographer and photographer.  For me, it shores up what I was already doing in my approach: not attempting to nullify the fact that I am behind the lens, and that matters. I'm happy to occupy that space between documenting and expressing. Of course, I want my technique to improve and I want to become better at visualizing the images before I take them, but I don't want to stray all the way to the artistic/interpretive end of the spectrum.  Is that response helpful?

  • Anderson Campbell

    Thanks Michael,Pink talks a lot about the "engendered" nature of photo ethnography in her research around the female bull fighter. In a similar way, I find it interesting to look at photos I've taken and see some of myself in them. One photo that I took in Methare had more of me in it than I thought.