Sarah Pink’s, Doing Visual Ethnography, was an interesting read. Although I did not like her writing style, I was interested to learn more about this word/term, ethnography, that I was introduced to for the very first time. As I did some research on this book and this new term, I learned a few things that got my attention and urged me to explore further: 1) There are many opinions and much debate over what makes a particular source of media ethnographic or not, 2) The method of attaining this media can be tricky when it comes to the ethical issues involved, 3) This methodology is a unique way for me to express my research from my subjective point of view. In my research, an interesting review of the book by Matthew Haught came up that will be mentioned at the end.
1) Because the method of ethnographic research is so subjective, I can see why people struggle to define what it really is. Pink even highlights in chapter 2 the fact that she disagrees with Martin Hammersley and Paul Atkinson’s definition of ethnography because she feels they “restrict the range of things ethnographers may actually do” and “their representations of ethnography as just another method or set of methods of data collection wrongly assumes that ethnography entails a simple process of going to another place or culture, staying there for a period of time, collecting pieces of information and knowledge and then taking them away.” She later goes on to describe her definition of ethnography and also highlights the most fundamental assumption of visual ethnography: “that it is concerned with the production of knowledge and ways of knowing rather than with the collection of data.” I love this concept of producing new knowledge and finding new ways of knowing that are unique and creative. I am a very visual person and believe images and video are such powerful tools to communicate a message.
2) Being a therapist, I deal with the ethics of my profession every day. Everything from informed consent to confidentiality is an extremely important and highly monitored aspect of the work I do with clients on a regular basis. So, as I learned more about the methods of visual and sensory ethnography, my mind quickly went to asking about the ethics involved when other people are included in these images or videos. I was glad to see the author devoted an entire section to discuss the ethical dilemmas involved with the practice of visual ethnography. She says, “As ethnographers, we have to evaluate the ethical implications and possible issues raised by the research practices and representations we plan before these are held up to the scrutiny of others. Similarly, we may find ourselves in situations where we are required to address questions relating to the ethics of participants in our research, and the ethics of studying and/or making moral judgments about them.” The fact that almost every person on the planet carries a high-quality camera in their pocket and takes thousands of pictures every year creates an ongoing issue regarding informed consent and how to ethically handle those thousands of digital photos. I’m curious what others think about this issue as well…
3) One of the enjoyable aspects about visual ethnography is the creative expression it brings to the world of research. A picture can truly be worth a thousand words in expressing a particular body of information or message. I often find myself scrolling through hundreds of photos on Instagram taken by professional photographers because of the simple fact that I am captivated by the images. It is interesting how people are challenging each other on Facebook to post 7 black and white images of their life in 7 days, with no people and no explanation (thanks Jason T). This is another example of how we want people to speak a thousand words about their life with a picture. We ascribe so much meaning to visual images, but I am reminded by the author how we all have our own interpretations and subjective perspectives of those images. Pink states, “I understand ethnography as a process of creating and representing knowledge or ways of knowing that are based on ethnographers’ own experiences and the ways these intersect with the persons, places and things encountered during that process. Therefore visual ethnography, as I interpret it, does not claim to produce an objective or truthful account of reality, but should aim to offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, the embodied, sensory and affective experiences, and the negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced.” Learning this new word, intersubjectivities, was an added bonus.
In the process of researching this subject and the book, I discovered a review of this book by Matthew Haught worth mentioning. He introduced an aspect of the book that I missed and voiced a legitimate critique. He writes, “The field of ethnographic hypermedia, as Pink calls it, should be viewed as an incomplete cultural text. While I agree with her here, I challenge back, what isn’t? When Mead left Samoa, young women still came of age; when Geertz left Bali, men still put on cock fights. Time does not stop in online media, just as it does not stop in life. The key here is that the ethnographer knows when he or she has attained enough information and has enough understanding to make a case. Pink reiterates that online ethnography is a new and growing field, but the onus is on the researchers to innovate in ways to collect data.” I agree that any snapshot into the life of someone or an event provides a limited view of that moment in time and does not show us life before and after that moment, even though it continues on without us.
Overall, it was enjoyable learning about this method of research, knowledge and finding new ways of learning. Although the concept of using images to tell a story has been around forever, I think expanding on this concept in our storytelling is worth some effort and attention.
*Just had to include the photo to the right which is made out of the words of the book of John if you look closely.
 Sarah Pink. Doing Visual Ethnography. (London: Sage Publications, 2013) Kindle Edition. 34.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 34.
 Matthew J. Haught. Review: Doing visual ethnography. http://www.mattjhaught.com/2012/07/08/review-doing-visual-ethnography/. 2012
14 responses to “P=1000Ws”
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Jake (aka Walter Mitty),
You said you were a “visual” thinker, right? This nickname gives you license to take ethnography on some great daydream adventures, which you get to determine your own reality, experiences, and outcomes. Please download those mental hypermedia images and send them to me when we get our earth-suit upgrades.
Informed consent in medical, counseling, and clergy professions seems easier to understand and grasp than the consent that may or may not be needed to acquire and use in research. Ethically, we have the responsibility to do the right thing, and safeguard the visual artifacts, pictures, and videos on any formal research. However, the legal realities are that many states only require one-party consent for video and audio collection.
I estimate that most professional researchers, would rather lose their research, than violate a trust or ethical boundary. Nevertheless, many researchers are confused and outraged by how carelessly the local and national media outlets handle visual images of people in the news. As we have witnessed in the last election cycle, nothing seems to be protected or sacred anymore. I suspect, those eroded viewpoints of subjective reality will be applied in similar manner in civil proceedings. Parkes says that Pink’s “anthropological apprehension informed by images” avoids objectivity and denies authoritative truth. (1)
Finally, how does Pink influence your research question? How will you connect Pink’s subjective reality to your work in a meaningful way, without compromising your own professional ethics and Christian testimony?
1 Peter Parkes and Sarah Pink. “Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research.” Anthropological Theory 3, no. 4 (2003): 505.
Thanks Mike. I am still thinking about how I may use ethnography in my research and I definitely want to make sure I respect the subjects I’m researching. Great comments Mike.
The discussion on ethics was intriguing to me. It was an area I had not thought of. I can se how easily using someone image or story with their knowledge or consent might be innocent of deceit but not of negligence. I suppose with our propensity to snap a picture and upload it to friends and enemies alike, we hit big grey area when it comes to this ethical use of an image. Where do we draw a line? What is just public discussion or sharing our thoughts versus cultural voyeurism? I don’t know if I know the answers to those questions. I find myself in villages periodically and snap pictures with the intent to show people about what is going on in that village. I a sense it is ethnographic information that I am sharing but at no time am I being covert in my picture taking. I will say that I think it is ethically questionable when one is misrepresenting the facts and the culture for some kind of gain; be it financial or reputation status. Good thought provoking discussion starters. Any time you can mention my birth country of Samoa, you get extra points from me.
Greg, I appreciated your comments about the ethical dilemmas and I agree with you…no easy answers, but I think we can all be more aware. And by the way, I think Samoa is an awesome country!
Good thoughts, Jake. I was particularly concerned about photographic consent when in concerned my own children. EVen on our family blog, I refused to post nay photos of my kids that they did not approve of. This was not just a safety concern, but an issue of honor! How often hav compromising photos been used to bully kids? What are your thoughts on guidelines for this issue?
Thanks Jenn. I think photos are used all the time to bully kids and we can be careless posting pics of kids that possibly make them prey for predators. I think people should not be allowed to use a photo in any derogatory manner, especially with kids.
Hey Jake, I found the conversations she had in the book among her colleagues made it very difficult for me to follow because it’s not the field I’m in and I don’t know those voices or their vocabulary. I read one scholarly article that suggested Pink’s intended audience was twofold: 1. professional visual ethnographers to expand their scope and theory, and 2. researchers who are interested in exploring visual ethnography. The article went on to suggest that this intention was too ambitious. Being that I fall clearly in the second category, I would argue that this text was written primarily for professional ethnographers. Did you find this to be true?
Also, thanks for the section on ethics. Absolutely, this is critical and I’m glad Pink devoted a section to it. I remember being in Kinshasa in 2005, wandering around for a few weeks with local reconciliation leaders. I vividly remember them rebuking me for pulling out my camera to take pictures. I’ve been hyper-sensitive ever since. When we were in South Africa and drove around the township on the day we went to the flower shop, in that big bus touring around, I felt we were violating human ethics by our participation in “poverty tourism.” I was so embarrassed I wouldn’t get out of the bus to see the shop. I sort of regret that now, but I just couldn’t do it. Different cultures treat these things differently. Some believe that taking a picture captures and robs a person of her soul. Whereas in other cultures (urban Chinese, for example), it’s commonplace and no big deal. We need to take great care, though, to practice cultural humility in our research, whatever form it takes.
Great post as always Jake!
Jake, I noticed there were many thoughts on your comments regarding ethics; I think that may be the minister in all of us, worried about the good and evil of everything. So in this regard, I actually felt that though Pink touched on some warning around the topic, I felt that this was one of the areas she short changed. As I read about ethics, I kept thinking about the death of Princess Diana, and the fact that it was the desire to get a picture that lead to her death in the first place. We live in a society that violates that ethical need daily, and sadly, have no regret concerning that violation.
So my question is this; what do you think some ethical limitations to visual ethnography would be appropriate, and what freedoms should not be limited?
Jake, I appreciated your use of the picture of Jesus combining the narrative within the visual. I am around much art and imagery because of my spouse’s career and our artist community of friends and find that the images created by them say as much about them as well as what’s in the image itself. Do you think some of the 1000 words could be reflective of the artist/ethnographer as well? If so, how so? I realize this is part of the subjectivity of ethnography and would love to hear your thoughts.
I definitely think there is immense power in words and sometimes can be more impacting than a picture. I feel writers of music, books etc. are ethnographers in their own right and think you have an excellent point.
Jake – thank you for your observations, and especially for your questions on our posts and here regarding how we seek informed consent and maintain confidentiality. (Or do we?)
Personally, I’ve found myself on the wrong side of this debate when I recently posted a photo on Facebook of a family member announcing some special family news. It was my news, but it was more her news. So she asked me to take it down to give her friends a chance to learn it before I spread it to my network. So I complied with her request.
The ubiquity of cameras makes this a pertinent question. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall giving GFU permission to post images of us in Cape Town online. This might be something that is corrected for future cohort gatherings. Or did I miss something along the way?
The discussion of online posting of pictures and informed consent is something I fear is not going to have any easy answer. How many pictures did we take in South Africa, and then post which had pictures of people we did not know and yet posted their image as our own. The one picture that comes to mind is the picture of Jay with the kids at the Golden Flower mans house. Did we ask those parents if we could immortalize their children online, thus exposing them to God knows what? No. But we did it any way, just as many do every day. It is a very slippery slope. Thanks for the insight.
Very good point regarding the iconic Jay pic.
Great use of photos in your blog, and I recognize the Jesus picture through words. We actually have a set of five pictures like that in our hallway outside my office, but now that you connected the pictures to Visual Ethnography, I will never look at them the same.
I just got done telling Dan that I read all 14 blogs and many of us came up with different definitions. It puzzled me, then you did a great job of explaining why VE is so hard to define. You have even outshone Pink with your blog. Well done!