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

Surprised by Visual Ethnography

Written by: on September 13, 2013

I have to confess that when I first flipped through the pages of, “Doing Visual Ethnography” by Sarah Pink, I wasn’t too impressed by the pictures.  I thought it looked rather boring and I wondered why the author only used black and white pictures.    My second confession is that I was not familiar with the term ethnography.  So before I began to read the book, I wanted to find out the definition of “ethnography.”   According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, ethnography means “the study of human races and cultures; the study and systematic recording of human cultures.” [1]   I also listened to how it was pronounced in both English and Spanish, “ethnografía”—something I usually do when I learn a new word.  Needless to say, I thought it would be a daunting task reading this book.

However, to my surprise, it took me to a place that I had forgotten.   About fifteen years ago I went on a mission trip to Mexico with some pastoral colleagues and friends.  Our task, for the three weeks we were there, was to help build homes and to provide a one week educational program for children.  We were met by two missionaries who took the group to the location where we were going to build a few homes.  When we reached our destination we were introduced to 12 families.  Each family, no matter how small or large, lived in the same size home.   I remember hearing one of my colleagues say, “Make sure we take pictures of all of this so that we can report back.”  Take pictures of what?  What were we going to report?   I think I understood what my colleague meant, but I was embarrassed by the way it was expressed in front of the local people, especially since we had just arrived.

I appreciate what Sarah Pink writes when she says, “Sometimes to be able to photograph the activities they are interested in, ethnographers first have to establish themselves locally as someone who is trusted to take photographs.” [2]    I can’t help but wonder how many times the people in this community have been photographed?  How many times have they not been asked?

We often make the assumption on these mission trips that we are there to “help them”.   We don’t take the time to establish a relationship and to get to know the culture and way of living.  Often times it is about the agenda that “we” bring rather than what “we” collectively can do together.  “If ethnography is seen as a process of negotiation and collaboration with informants, through which they too stand to achieve their own objectives, rather than as an act of taking information away from them, the ethical agenda also shifts.” [3]    Pink claims that when we focus on collaboration and create something together both the researcher and the informant invest in and are rewarded by the project.

“Doing Visual Ethnography” has also heightened my awareness of the appropriateness and inappropriateness of using cameras and making images.   Pink states that “in some situations photographs or videos of informants may put them in political danger or subject them to moral criticism. “ [4]   Because of the issue of undocumentation, in some of my circles, I need to be careful who I photograph.  And if I do take a picture I have to make sure it is not made public, without their permission.  I also am aware of issues of domestic violence and, again, I have to be careful, sensitive and respectful of my “informants.”

This book has challenged me not just to collect data, but to experience and engage, collaborate and create, observe and participate in order to better understand other cultures and individuals.


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethnography    Accessed 9/12/13

[2] Pink, Sarah, Doing Visual Ethnography.  Second Edition(SAGE Publications Ltd., Thousand Oaks,California, 2007), 73.

[3] ibid., 57

[4] ibid., 43

About the Author

Miriam Mendez

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