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

Visual Ethnography

Written by: on September 12, 2014

Before reading Pink’s book, Doing Visual Ethnography, it helped me to understand first what ethnography is about. Knowing that it is the systematic study of people and cultures helped to provide me with a better context in order to understand the concepts that Pink covered. There are entire fields of study given towards understanding social and cultural behavior, however many people outside of these fields lack the tools or techniques to adequately research new cultures. Yet, almost every professional or student needs basic skills in this area in order to better understand and connect with other people that are different than themselves. When ethnographers produce photographs or video, “the experience of producing and discussing them, become part of their ethnographic knowledge.”[1]

This made me think about a recent trip that I took to Italy. Prior to that trip, my knowledge of the Italy was based on what I had seen in media. Yet, going there myself opened up my eyes to a different culture than what I had previously envisioned. Throughout my trip, I captured photographs of everyday life. When I look at those photos today, I can remember and feel everything about my experience. They evoke memories that engage my senses and help me to connect back to that place that I had visited. Because I took the photographs and can remember my experience, the visual reminder is very effective. However, for my family that didn’t go with me on the trip – the pictures cannot stand on their own. The visual account that I made of my trip looks very similar to other pictures that people find in media. It is my approach towards capturing my experience, and through using the visual images in conjunction with other sensory queues that best paint the true picture to those I want to share my experience with.

Ethnography is more than taking pictures. Visual ethnography “pays particular attention to visual aspects of culture. Similarly, they cannot be used independently of other methods; neither a purely visual ethnography nor an exclusively visual approach to culture can exist.”[2] Coming back from Italy, I was able to bring pizza from Federico’s and pastries from a small town that we visited. When I shared the food with family, I told stories and showed them pictures. Thus, they could get to know the personalities of the people and feel more connected to them through what I was sharing. Their senses were engaged.

One thing that I noticed on my visit to Italy is the strong sense of family and dedication of the people to their communities and loved ones. One afternoon, we hiked a very long way up a hill to an abandoned, ancient castle. At the base of the path, there was a shrine where people could come and say mass. The location of the shrine struck me as significant…it was off the beaten path and located in the midst of narrow alleys of houses. It took us a very long time to hike to this castle, and when we got to the top there wasn’t another person to be found. Yet, half way up this path there was a beautiful chapel. Inside, someone had lovingly maintained the altar candles, which were lit and fresh flowers placed on display. The only way to this place was by foot, up a very steep and weathered path. I took several pictures of the site; as I was astounded at the beauty, yet quiet abandonment of the place. As we made our way back down the hill to the town, we noticed a lady making her way up the path. She was very young, and dressed professionally. Her pace was very fast, as if she was on a mission. It was then that I realized she was going to light a candle outside of the chapel. She had not been the first, as there was evidence that others have done the same. I began to question why she chose such a place. While I never received all of my answers, my visual story speaks about the spirit of the people in that little Italian town. The pictures also helped me to later see things that I had overlooked on my visit. For example, why would someone allow graffiti to remain on the building near the shrine? Not only is this defacing something considered holy, but also it is on the side of someone’s home. In my own culture, this would not go unnoticed.


Pink states “viewers and audiences of ethnographic images are also interpreters of text, and by acknowledging their agency we can understand better how ethnographic knowledge is received.”[3]  If I had just displayed the pictures in this post without the written story, the interpreter may have an entirely different understanding of the place I was attempting to describe. Further, if I had displayed them in a different order or intermixed with other photos, then the reader would gain yet another perspective. Pink emphasized that understanding the reader of the images, and the way that they will perceive them, is a critical step in the process of visual ethnography. A person must keep an accurate visual account, in addition to other facts and written text, in order to more effectively research.

[1] Pink, Sarah (2012-06-30). Doing Visual Ethnography (Kindle Location 437). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

[2] Pink, Sarah (2012-06-30). Doing Visual Ethnography (Kindle Locations 445-447). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

[3] Pink, Sarah (2012-06-30). Doing Visual Ethnography (Kindle Locations 2763-2764). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.


About the Author

Dawnel Volzke

Christ follower, wife, mom, teacher, student, professional...my passion is to serve Christ and my calling is to help organizations become great at fulfilling their mission.

10 responses to “Visual Ethnography”

  1. Jon Spellman says:

    Dawnel. It’s an important observation you make that these pictures, if held as separate and apart from the narrative, would not serve to fully tell the story of your experiences there in Italy. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t be valuable in any regard (they are lovely pictures after all…) but they cannot carry the depths of meaning to anyone but you without the corresponding narrative. Could it be properly concluded that visual ethnography must be taken up alongside other disciplines for its full value to be seen? As a stand alone discipline, it may have some value but for its FULL value to be expressed, it must be partnered with others?


    • Nick Martineau says:

      Good point Dawnel & Jon. In addition to pictures, video, media, etc. our experience and knowledge of a situation must be shared. I haven’t finished Pink’s next book but I’m assuming that is why we have another ethnography book to read dealing with our senses. While we should try to be open to outcomes and not manipulate our research, what we feel and experience matters and it’s important for us to communicate.

      I now want to go to Italy! (-:

      • Dawnel Volzke says:

        Nick and Jon,

        To answer your question, I believe that individual circumstances would dictate whether images can stand alone or need to be accompanied with other techniques. I’m not sure that it must always be accompanied to present full value, but I do think that an ethnographer must be diligent to determine the best format in which to present information.

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dawnel, Great example from your Italy experience. I do appreciate the reflexive approach introduced to me in “Doing Visual Ethnography” and how subjective is the nature of our observations, experiences and stories that we make up about things we see. It is such a healthy, humbling and honest approach and creates a necessary a tension with something in us that desires to know, learn and understand at a fast and furious pace. It will be interesting being in Cape Town and I wonder what we will be able to “know” from being there:)!

  3. Brian Yost says:

    Thank you for doing visual ethnography rather than just talking about it. You remind us of the importance of remembering that each person will bring a different perspective and thus have a different reaction while looking at a photo. The perspective your narrative brought to the photos would have been lost without it.

    Quick question: In what sense do you feel your family understood or didn’t understand what you were trying to convey?

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Brian, great question…

      Even though I did my best to share my experience accurately with my family, they still only have a perception or vision unique to themselves. Without having the same experience in person, there is no way for them to fully visualize what I was sharing. Each person’s mind processes the images that I shared in a different way. This being said, how accurate do you think visual ethnography is in helping a person to understand a culture or situation?

  4. Travis Biglow says:

    Sound like you had an awesome time. I like the pictures you posted you are doing what you read. I find it difficult as well to fully capture the feeling of being different places. I never have went out the country but i am looking forward to the Cape Town Advance. I can visually sense the atmosphere from your pictures! But i know being there is better! Blessings!!!!

    • Dawnel Volzke says:


      I appreciate your comments. My trip to Italy was the first time that I had been out of Canada or the U.S. It really broadened my world view and changed the way that I think about people and culture. I am excited for you to experience Cape Town. My son will also be coming to Cape Town, and it is his first time out of the country. It will be life changing!

  5. Mary Pandiani says:

    Looking at your pictures, getting a grasp of your experience while you were there, I got a sense that there was a sweet mystery in the story, particularly of the woman walking up the hill. Your questions weren’t all answered, yet you came back with a powerful image that I would suspect will stay with you. I wonder if Ethnography isn’t similar to that – it isn’t necessarily providing all the answers. Only glimpses that may begin to reflect a pattern of sorts.
    By the way, my husband is Italian, so we’ve been to his family’s village a few times. What an amazing group of people in such beauty.

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Mary, I agree with you – sometimes it is what is left unsaid or unseen that speaks the loudest. The little town in my pictures is Sora, although we visited many beautiful little towns. My daughter and I want to go back to Italy sometime with my husband and son, so I’d love your suggestions on places to visit on our next trip.

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