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

Painfully Reading about Visual Ethnography

Written by: on September 10, 2014

Painfully Reading about Visual Ethnography

Before reading Sarah Pink’s book, Doing Visual Ethnography, I would have to admit, I had never heard specifically of ethnography.  Anthropology, yes.  Cultural studies, yes.  Sociology, yes.  But ethnography, not so much.  So first, I found this book to be helpful in opening my eyes to a new field, or at least niche, of study that fits a little bit between the things I have known.   Pink defines ethnography as, “. . . an approach to experiencing, interpreting and representing disciplinary agendas and theoretical practices as a process of creating and representing knowledge (about society, culture and individuals) . . . ” [1]  Pink goes on to explain ethnography as, “. . . the observable, recordable realities that may be translated into written notes and texts, but also for objects, visual images, the immaterial and the sensory nature of human experiences and knowledge.” [2]  I believe my interest on this topic was piqued because of my current thinking about my dissertation and the possible relevance of how ethnographic methods and principles could be applied.

Unfortunately, after my initial interest was piqued and an introduction to ethnography was established, the impact and interest in the rest of the read was quite minimal.  It appeared to me that Pink had one point to make.  I believe her point was that ethnographic practices are relative and subjective to time, space, situation and unique experience.  Pink stated, “The key to successful photographic research is an understanding of the social relations and subjective agendas through which they are produced and the discourses through which they are made meaningful.” [3]  Additionally she said, “Ethnographicness of any image or representation is contingent on how it is situated, interpreted and used to invoke meanings and knowledge that are of ethnographic interest.” [4]  While the focus of this book was visual ethnography, and many critiques and practices were given throughout for visual ethnography, the recurring mantra or banter was on the relativity and subjectivity of doing ethnography as a whole.  Ethnography and the Reflexive Approach, might have been a better title.

Now to be fair, I understand Pinks point but maybe it just seemed a little insesent, possibly even working against the entire theory as she wrote with what I will could call a protective sense.  Here is what I mean by that.  If the point of visual ethnography is to study culture, society and situation and produce qualitative knowledge information, it seems to work against the work if you immediately start so narrowly focus the impact of that qualitative information.  Pink wrote, “Any photograph may have ethnographic interest, significance or meanings at a particular time or for a specific reason.” [5]  But she so personalized and situated the use in time and the particular experience that it seemed to me to speak against the value and worth of the work.  She later wrote, “Each viewer used his or her own cultural and experienced-based knowledge and moral values to give meanings to the images.” [6]  To me Pink’s defense of the reflexive approach was taken to an extreme leading to the possible thought that if photographs, videos and hypermedia and the knowledge and  information that can be gained from them is so subjective, is there anything ultimately true that can be claimed or is what the image, footage or media means completely up for grabs.  I have heard the debate in art posed by this question, “Who defines what a piece of art work means, the artist or the viewer?”

I would agree with Pink’s point, there is a need for caution when studying culture, society and individuals, that we do not make broad sweeping assumptions and claim universal truths from small experiences and exposures, but overall I feel she overemphasized the point and took something away from her work.  Granted Doing Visual Ethnography is what I would call a technical manual for practicing ethnographers and students of ethnography, but overall I found it to be written as an introduction with micro-examples and micro-illustrations that seemed lacking effective relevance and overall made it a very difficult and laborious read.


[1] Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research. 2nd ed. (London: SAGE, 2007) p.22

[2] Ibid,. p.22

[3] Ibid,. p.95

[4] Ibid,. p.23

[5] Ibid,. p.67

[6] Ibid,. p.76

About the Author

Phillip Struckmeyer

5 responses to “Painfully Reading about Visual Ethnography”

  1. Mary Pandiani says:

    Phillip, I would agree that she could have made her point in the first chapter, and it would have been enough…at least for my brain, anyway. (Which as a side thought makes me realize that our dissertation probably will be best stated in a chapter, yet we’re going to have make it how long?!!!)

    In what you stated about her narrowing the focus too soon, I see it a bit differently. She seemed to be moving from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. By trying to understand a culture through photography and video, you actually have to be in the culture to experience it. Another way would characterize it as “exegeting the culture” by understanding what is happening within the culture, living and breathing it.

    That’s why I’m excited to be in Cape Town – to live in (albeit briefly), breath, see the actual city, and meet those who understand their city. It gives me a much deeper understanding of what it going on versus just doing an objective study of it.

  2. Jon Spellman says:

    Phil, first off, I’m glad to hear that at least one other person was as unfamiliar with ethnography as I was.

    When you asked the question about who it is that defines what a piece of art is about, I immediately thought of the debate over the “locus of meaning” in the scripture texts. Does the reader get to define for himself what the words on the page mean? Or is it incumbent upon him to seek out the author’s original meaning in its original context? Or somewhere in between? If, ultimately, an image carries no definite, innate meaning, then what is the purpose of even putting forward the images in the first place?

    It’s all a little squishy…

  3. Dave Young says:


    I couldn’t agree with you more. She made her point about being reflexive and then she went on to reiterate it repeatedly thought out the book. Now I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as the post-modernity police, but frankly much of what she said seemed to reflect a distain for the previous generation of visual ethnography, pre 1980s what she called realist.

    For me I was looking for some realist handles on how to do visual ethnography and what I ended with is theoretical impressions. Was that also your take?

  4. Travis Biglow says:

    So eloquently put lol. I agree with you, she made sure you knew that she was quoting from her books by all her references and she is definitely into visual ethnography. In the ending of your comment you would not think she would micro-illustrate and show micro-examples with the title of the book. I think her approach was more analytical and not so much a how too write! Blessings!

  5. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dave, I definitely would agree that we received a theoretical impression vs. practical handles on visual ethnography. As I continue to read the next book as well I would almost conclude ethnography, which is kind of how it is defined I guess, is an approach or a way of thinking which is not going to have many practical handles. As a “Do-er” I am looking for the “how to’s” but this really seems more about perception, posture and processing.

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