Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

NCIS & Visual Ethnography … maybe or not

Written by: on September 13, 2013

My favorite television program to sit down and enjoy is NCIS.  Reading Doing Visual Ethnography by Sarah Pink, I was reminded of an episode some years ago (yes there probably is a connection between writing this blog post and my desire to sit down, turn off my brain and watch a NCIS re-run).  In this particular episode Special Agent Tony and Agent Ziva have gone to Paris to bring back the wife of someone who is in danger (of course!).  Upon their safe return Tony is showing Abby (the lab wiz) photos from the trip.  There are photos of these buildings and those buildings.  They are all properly proportioned and in order. Taking one look at Tony’s photos Abby remarks that he’d taken these like they were crime scenes.  Which of course is exactly one of the things Tony does, from time to time.  What you may ask does this have to do with reading a book about Visual Ethnography?  In fact, what is ethnography?

Truthfully I did not know what ethnography was, nor was I pronouncing it correctly (eth-ˈnä-grə-fē).  I knew I would have a steep learning curve to grasp, be it ever so slightly what Sarah Pink is bringing for consideration and practice.  Webster’s dictionary provided initial footing, “ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures; it is the descriptive work produced from such research.”[1]  It is pretty fascinating to think about the breadth of human culture that exists, let alone the variety with which it may be studied.  When I hear the word “visual” images and pictures come to mind.  Growing up I remember looking forward to three magazines arriving in the mail, The Saturday Evening Post, Life Magazine and National Geographic.  The photos in these magazines drew me into the articles written word; perhaps more importantly they told a story that made the written word have context and meaning.

Pink defines visual ethnography “as an approach to experiencing, interpreting and representing culture and society that informs and is informed by set of different disciplinary agendas and theoretical principles.”[2]  Key words for me are approach, experiencing, and representing.  Rather than something static visual ethnography includes the ethnographers own experience, one that is vested in the process of creating and representing knowledge.[3]  Tony’s crime scene, aka-working vacation, photos had elements of ethnography present.  They contained a certain realist perspective.  However they were not necessarily representative of Parisian society, culture or individuals.  Focused on buildings, they did not evoke particular meaning or interest beyond personal scope.  Rather than be a strictly objective process (which in some sense Tony’s photos were), visual ethnography invites subjectivity, recognizing that one does not stand unemotionally attached amid their research.  Reflexivity is an approach whereby the researcher is aware of their own identity and its representations – their gender, age, ethnicity, class and context as well as an awareness of their research subject.[4]

This is fascinating as it introduces us and reminds us that we seldom have everything under our control.  Two years ago my husband received an overseas short-term work assignment for Australia.  Within six quick weeks we found ourselves dropped off at our apartment complex just outside Melbourne’s city center.  While I would not consider myself a visual ethnographer, it was the visual images that I paid particular attention too.  I studied the people, tried to learn the culture and how to function as a foreigner in a new culture, where everyone around you had this delightful accent (except I was in reality the one with the accent).  If I had known what ethnography was I could have taken an intentional approach to research a particular aspect of Australian culture (Australian Rules Football anyone?).

As it was I unexpectedly developed a deep appreciation for a historical church within the city business district committed to be a church for the city.  To visually research how they live that out would provide the perfect opportunity to use photography, video and written word together in such a way that each informs the other.  To some degree I have experienced exactly what Pink references in her book.  She documented how a researcher can become a part of what they are researching.  In her research on bull fighting she found herself photographed, which was revealing about that particular culture. She was living proof that those she was learning about were also learning about her, even fitting her into their categories, project or agenda.[5]

Learning to see sums up much of what is involved in the process of visual ethnography.  Understanding and becoming aware of why I do what I do, my presence and bias, even my expectation are essential, knowing that even how I bring words to explain what has been discovered will in someway, shape or form be understood by the reader on their terms.[6] Learning to see is also an invitation to collaborate with the other.

This is rather humbling because I realize that I may form an opinion based upon a photograph and text.  Loaded with my expectation I may miss the vital contribution and insight of the one I am studying.  Finally do the visual texts, written word, even the spoken word stand in relation to one another?[7] Tony’s photos needed meaning.  As I consider the Church, anticipate research areas and prepare for the upcoming DMin Advance to London I am beginning to process and wonder: What will I see?  What stories will I hear?  What is London going to teach and reveal?

[2] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 2nd Ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Safe Publications, Inc., 2007), 22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 24-25.

[5] Ibid., 82.

[6] Ibid., 167.

[7] Ibid., 183.

About the Author

Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

Leave a Reply