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

The not-so-picture-perfect life

Written by: on November 1, 2018

Ethnographers study culture through the lens of individuals. Sarah Pink describes visual ethnography as a way to “offer ethnographers routes through which to come to understand the very things we cannot see.”[1] This is done through multiple mediums, but Pink’s focus in Doing Visual Ethnography is on photography, video and the web.

I am fascinated by the way the camera is able to capture a distinct perspective and cause us to view the world in new ways. The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true on multiple levels. Pictures invite us to explore new worlds and imagine narratives represented within the images. Photographers can be skilled storytellers, and I am often captivated by their work.

However, I found Pink’s Doing Visual Ethnography difficult to read in light of our current cultural climate. Almost daily, articles are sent my way concerning social media and its negative effect on young adults. Early this year, I came across an article entitled “Why Instagram might be affecting your mental health (and what you can do about it).”[2] It echoed many of the voices I hear in student development right now, struggling to help students in their 20s with anxiety about image and feelings of inadequacy about their work and lifestyle. The article referenced a study conducted by the University of Notre Dame in which young adults, especially women, were negatively impacted by the frequent use of apps like Instagram and SnapChat. In 2017, a study by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK found that even though Instagram was seen as an opportunity for self-expression, it ranked highest in negative effects on self-image and a sense of inadequacy.[3]

Even though I am intrigued by Pink’s description of the power of visual ethnography, I wonder if we have entered a space in our culture where everyone is serving as a personal visual ethnographer, offering carefully curated visual representations of the life we wish to project to the world. Rather than expressing the true life behind the picture, we are only portraying the life we want others to see…the “perfect life.” If Pink is correct, and visual ethnography offers a route to understanding the unseen, I would offer that we are falling short of embracing the realities of our own lives and have come to a dead end. Obsessed with arriving at the picture-perfect destination, we have kept the hard work of the journey a secret. I wonder what it would look like if our lives and relationships weren’t reduced to only what can be viewed on each frame of a social media feed. What if those feeds were true visual ethnographies, inviting others into the difficult but immensely rewarding journey of becoming more like Jesus. It might look messier; a combination of high-highs and low-lows, and all that lies between. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be remarkable!


[1] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 2nd edition. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd: Kindle Edition, 2013). 38

[2] Raynes-Goldie, Kate “Why Instagram might be affecting your mental health (and what you can do about it.” Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2018-01-instagram-affecting-mental-health.html (accessed November 1, 2018).

[3] Fox, Kara “Instagram worst social media app for young people’s mental health” CNN.com. https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/19/health/instagram-worst-social-network-app-young-people-mental-health/index.html (accessed November 1, 2018).

About the Author

Rhonda Davis

Rhonda is passionate about loving her Creator, her wonderful husband, and her three amazing sons. She serves as VP of Enrollment Management & Student Development at The King's University in Southlake, TX.

10 responses to “The not-so-picture-perfect life”

  1. You raise good points Rhonda. Pink does say that she isn’t bringing something out or new that isn’t already there. So you nailed it when you said that she provides a route to understanding the unseen. So vanity, selfishness, pride, etc. as we observe in social media was already there in the culture long before technology made it easier. So if I’m understanding visual ethnography correctly, this research method just brought it to the surface.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Wow, what an interesting perspective! This is why we need to be part of a cohort, part of a community to see more than we can on our own. Thanks so much for sharing from your context how visual imagery is actually encouraging false valuations of your students. I love your thought about truly documenting the messiness of life in following Jesus. Blessings, H

  3. Mary Mims says:

    Rhonda, your post made me think about Anthony Bourdain, who committed suicide this year. From his show, a visual, sensory ethnography, one would think he had the best job and the best life possible. I mean I did not think he was a happy person, but his death was shocking. Today, everyone is over-exposed in many areas, but also less connected to others in many ways. Social media makes people feel connected without really being connected and that’s a problem. We have to realize that visual ethnography is a one-way, cold method of communication that leaves a lot hidden. However, I still find it useful.

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      It is very useful, Mary. In the best case scenario, it is a tool that could lead us to greater reflection about our own experiences as well as the experiences behind the images we see. I really want to learn more about how to do this well.

  4. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Marvelous critique Rhonda. When used for good, these social media platforms can work wonders. However, there are both intended, and unintended, downsides that truly need to be checked. It may take a generation or two for us to truly raise children with that understanding.

  5. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Love it! I used the same quote, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and used some painful pictures to make the point. What would happen if we chronicled real life on social media? Pictures of our look first thing in the morning? Shots of reality when the household is a mess and the family is in disarray? What if we journaled with photos and posted those of real moments rather than imaginary? I wonder what that would do for mental health? The truth is we post the life we wish we had and others view it as if it is were true to life and all are depressed as a result. Visual ethnography can be powerful if used as an honest research tool with other mediums.

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, my friend. I find myself asking the same questions. Visual ethnography is a fascinating tool. I wonder what would happen if we allowed others into our whole lives rather than only the pretty parts…it could be an ingredient of powerful spiritual reflection (not that anyone would like to see a picture of me first thing in the morning, ha).

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