Warning: before we go any further, you must know I love pictures. I am nearly addicted to Instagram and documenting my life through pictures. My kids and my youth groups accuse me often of being the paparazzi, embarrassing them to no end, and documenting every life event from plates of food to birthday parties to baseball games. I love not only taking the picture in the present, but looking back later to remember the event and discover something in the still image that I had not noticed or observed previously. It goes without saying that through the years, and as I have become a more culturally mature traveler, I have attempted to avoid being obtrusive or an embarrassment to the community or the people. Being a visual learner, I want to see and feel as though I can experience the way of life through a lens or video.
And so is visual ethnography, I believe. (Pink, 67) At the time, you may not know you are experiencing or participating in this form of research or documentation, but the camera lens and the video screen provide the opportunity to capture an image as a means of documentation for one feeling or one research observation in that moment, and then to continue to provide further analysis and observations in the future.
I think of youth mission trips. Every summer we would return from our destination and work for hours compiling a video to share the story of the event with our congregation. This not only proved to be a processing tool for emotions and experiences, but also allowed the youth to put this important life event into a form where others could understand and feel as though they were a part of the mission. Yes, we continued to write the newsletter articles and verbally reported stories from the pulpit, but nothing, and I mean nothing, could tell the story better than a montage of photos showing youth working in the community alongside older adults, children, homeless, etc. Likewise, this told the story of the city and its people, who members of our congregation had never served alongside nor met. Is this visual ethnography?
During the last few years, I have been working with teams across the USA to bring clean water to communities in Haiti. Of most importance has been telling the story of the every day Haitian. Yes, I can verbally give facts and statistics, but rarely do words give justice to this society and its people. It is beyond words. I can look at one picture and feel the joy, and I can stare into the eyes of another on my camera and feel their pain. Only through pictures, video and the like does the story become real and personal. Only thru these mediums does the viewer actually learn who the Haitians are. Only then do they begin to understand what life is like for the ordinary Haitian citizen. Is this visual ethnography?
In May, another instructor and I took a group of college students to Haiti to complete an evaluation of our existing solar powered water treatment systems. We brought along a videographer to capture our young adult volunteers doing field research. We wanted to find out how the systems were doing and allow our volunteers the opportunity to see firsthand how their projects and their giving is making a difference. The additional dimension added by having the experience recorded as the week progressed was amazing. The team members were able to participate in the experience filming their work, which added focus to the actions they were taking. But, more importantly, the videographer was able to capture not only the actions, but also the emotions of the young adults and the local residents in a way that a written report could not have possibly accomplished. Clips of this video went “viral” and into congregations near and far through Instagram, Facebook, and other social and promotional tools. Is this visual ethnography?
Pink was right. While the written word may never disappear, and it should not as there is much value in words, I fully believe visual anthropology and ethnography are vital to illustrating concepts and cultures to the world.
Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography. Second Edition. Los Angeles, California: Sage Publications, 2007.