DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Thousand Words

Written by: on October 13, 2019

 They say that a picture tells a thousand words.  Captured images are snapshots of history, moments of memory that we can draw from for different purposes.  It may be to quell a building nostalgia, it may be to examine evidence from a crime scene, it may be to gather information about people within a culture, or for any number of reasons.  On reflection, I can’t say that I have consciously thought of using photography or media as a means of ethnography (granted, I’m not much a photographer).

Visual ethnography can be a powerful tool, something that I’ve realized more and more as I read through Pink’s book.  With the recent conflicts in Hong Kong, I have had multiple conversations with different people about the use of media in the recent months.  There have been several images that have circulated on both sides that are ultimately used as a type of propaganda by the opposing sides against one another.  We have talked about the use of context and how a picture or video taken at just the right time can convey a completely different message from what was going on.  Discerning meaning requires a crucial mind and a realization that when we look at photos or videos in regards to ethnography, we need to be aware of our own subjectivity when analyzing it.


The morning I got back from the London Advance, I landed to a city that was torn by conflicts that had happened during the night while I was in the air.  When I was through customs, I immediately checked the MTR app (the train system app) and found that the entire train system was down – the first time in its 40-year history.  I hopped on the bus that would take me home and when I got off at the stop near my flat, it suddenly made sense.

The station closest to me had been completely vandalized.  Scorch marks on the ground near the gated entrances showed where fires had been set the night before.  I dropped off my bags, changed clothes, and decided to walk to the gym to see what else had happened.  If Prince Edward (my district) was bad, Mong Kok (the next district over) was worse.  My jaw dropped as I walked through the district that, two weeks prior, had been one of the busiest places in Hong Kong.  It looked like the aftermath of a warzone.  Windows were smashed, walls vandalized with anti-Chinese slogans, the MTR stations not just gated, but sign posts ripped from the ground and shoved through the grating to hold it shut.

I was flabbergasted.

The next day, I walked by the same station (the MTR was still closed) and took this photo:


As you look at it, there are few questions I want you to reflect on:


  1. What do you see?
  2. What emotions come to mind as you see it?
  3. What is the story being told?


As I reflected on what I saw, there were several narratives that came to my mind:

  • A Crippled City – The MTR is legitimately the lifeblood of commerce in Hong Kong. The system carries millions of people every day to their work or whatever daily activity they have.  Without it, the city drives to a halt.
  • A City on Fire – With the escalating violence over the last months, how long will it be before the city burns? How far can the Chinese government be pushed before it bites back with a force that shakes all of Hong Kong?  What’s the point of fighting for Hong Kong if you destroy it along the way?  The raw emotions and disbelief I felt as I walked the streets of Hong Kong – a city that has prided itself on being one of the safest places in the world – gave way to anger as I watched my home collapse and the people divide against one another.

But there’s another narrative I was unaware of, one that I only found out because I talked to a friend about what I saw.  I shared about how shocked I was at what I had seen and he asked me, “You know why they did that, right?”  I shook my head and he explained another narrative:

  • Fighting Corruption. The protestors were blocking MTR gates because the police force was using it as a private transport system to get around the city.  There were instances where the police would take the MTR (which was closed to the public) to where the protests were heaviest and storm out of the station behind them to make it easier to try and disperse the crowds.  Because of this, the MTR was deemed to be a pawn of the police and, to keep one another safe, protestors took extra measures to fortify their positions.

As I reflected on this, I thought back to our time at the London Advance where we were told to be curious, to ask the right questions, and to suspend our assumptions.  All of these guidelines are important for visual ethnography as well.  When we see videos, photos, or other forms of media, we can get caught up in our own preconceived notions and ascribe an inaccurate or incomplete meaning to it.  Pink writes, “The same image may simultaneously be given different meanings in different (but often interconnect) situations, each of which has ethnographic significance.”[1]  This is why it is also important to listen to other voices when we are trying to discern the meaning behind photos.  The narratives I had ascribed to my photo were not wrong, but they were not the whole story.

With these tools in mind, I think that the use of visual ethnography can be a valuable tool to utilize in research or even challenge the way that I view photos and other media.  Suspending my assumption and listening to other voices with a mind ready to discern meaning is just as important with visuals as it is with reading.


[1] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 3rd Edition, (London: Sage, 2013), 153.

About the Author


Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

14 responses to “A Thousand Words”

  1. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Thank you, Dylan, for giving us a glimpse into the Hong Kong uprising and for, with vulnerability, demonstrating how we can jump to premature conclusions, often based on our proximity to power or pain. The journey you took me on was one of visual ethnography…where you presented me with some context, an image, and some questions to consider. I found myself comparing what I was looking at in your photos to what I’ve seen in other riot zones and re-entering the scenes where I’ve seen the impacted community seemingly hamstring their own means of transportation. It was always confusing to me. Yet, your friend’s commentary brought those examples into focus as well. All of this makes me wonder about how close those of us who are proximate to power are to those who are proximate to pain and, if the closer we get to the pain, the more accurate we may see what is truly happening in our world’s uprisings.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      I think there’s something more personal when you’re closer to those who are suffering. At the same time, I think there’s also a balancing act that needs to take place in regards to discernment because there is still a narrative being told that carries its own charges. Another of the narratives that I’ve heard floating around (especially in the context of the international church scene) is the condemnation of both police and protestors in regards to the violence being used. My friend was telling me that one of their pastors mentioned that we cannot blindly condemn the authorities or protestors without taking the time to take careful consideration of what’s happening.

      I find Bonhoeffer to be more and more relevant in our current situation. In the Eric Metaxes biography of Bonhoeffer, he makes note that at an address, Bonhoeffer mentions the church as three responsibilities to the state:

      1. “To question the state regarding its actions and their legitimacy to help the state be the state as God has ordained.”

      2. “To aid the victims of state action.”

      3. To “not just bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself” (and this is permitted only when the church sees its existence threatened by the state).

      It’s important to follow the narrative to its genesis, to see the root causes for why various conflicts appear and then moving toward the direction where reconciliation can take place.

      Are there any examples from your own immersion trips that can provide insight to these questions?

      • mm Jer Swigart says:

        Solid Bonhoeffer references.

        From your perspective do you interpret the international churches as attempting to position themselves as neutral in all of this?

        In a completely different direction, I wonder what kind of visual ethnographical analysis could be done if we invited Chloe (photographer/artist from London) to take three images on the same Sunday: an image of the goings-on within an international church; an image of the goings-on within an indigenous church; and an image of the goings-on in the streets. Would be fascinating to understand (compare/contrast) the unifying messages, what’s causing collective anguish, and how each community is choosing to respond.

        • mm Dylan Branson says:

          Officially, yes. The different international church leaders I’ve spoken to have adopted a neutral stance publicly (which makes sense since within the congregations people’s opinions are split in who they support in some cases). Something I’ve been mulling over is a reflection on Jeremy Crossley’s talk about the bankers and how St. Margarets specifically opened their doors for them in the midst of their troubles. What would it be like for the churches to take a step back and open their doors for the ones who are demonized in Hong Kong – specifically the police since they’re the ones who take the brunt of the criticism outside of elected officials.

          I do think taking those photos on the same Sunday would be fascinating. When the protests first started there was an overwhelming support for the protestors, but that’s changed in recent months as more and more violence breaks out. Where once it seemed more black and white, the issue becomes more muddled as fake news or conspiracy theories or people’s actions get jumbled together in the narrative. So part of it is also working hard to discern what’s actually going on. I think part of the challenge as well is that as a Westerner, it’s difficult to get into the inner-inner workings of it all because so much happens under the surface that I don’t see. It would be cool to see those messages from those different perspectives you mentioned.

  2. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Just an aside, but are you capturing your daily experiences in HK in a form you could look back later, like a journal/diary? It could be a really powerful (and cathartic) endeavor.

    I really like your three questions with the picture, especially the last one. In my research, I’ve been coming across the very human hard-wiring of creating stories. There’s some interesting research on children trying to remember pairs of words: when just given the word pairs (i.e. water, hair), a very small amount is recalled half an hour later, but if those same two words are put as a story (i.e. Dylan poured a cup of water on Nancy’s hair) the pair had a significantly higher recall. The difficult posture to maintain, which you modeled, is the willingness to challenge the story we see.

    I continue to pray that you can live as salt and light there.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      It’s all about a willingness to be wrong, right? 😉 Or at least be open to corrections as they make themselves known. I think it’s easy for us to forget the power that stories have interspersed in them. A wrong narrative can be just as damaging as a “correct” narrative is life giving.

      Good idea to keep a journal through it all. I haven’t been doing that (didn’t even think of it to be honest).

  3. Nancy Blackman says:

    I’m going to answer your questions!

    What do you see?
    I see the pain of the people wanting to have their city back and, more importantly, having peace. Is that irony? Think about it. Not really.

    What emotions come to mind as you see it?
    Sadness. Deep sadness.

    What is the story being told?
    Maybe it’s because of my context (living in a sprawling city where 244 different languages are spoken) and homelessness is growing at an exponential rate. Maybe it’s because I live in the heart of downtown and see crazy every day — sometimes all day. The pain of the city oozes out and your photo only reminds me of some of the imagery that I see on a daily basis in LA. The story that I think is being told is that people don’t want to live like this. Somewhere deep inside of them they know this but they don’t know how else to express themselves so they turn to vandalism. When the police take over the main transport system and that affects people’s livelihood, there will be an uprising.

    I agree with Shawn. I hope you’re photojournaling this for the future, but hey, that’s me the photographer/artist speaking :-D.

    I pray that God will use you during this time. May you see with new eyes and hear with new ears.


    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      “When the police take over the main transport system and that affects people’s livelihood, there will be an uprising.”

      Good observation. The weekend I got back, the MTR was all but completely shut down for three days. Was talking to a friend about whether they thought the system would be running again by the time the long weekend finished and they responded with, “Definitely. They’ll close the MTR for potential protests, but for money they’ll keep it open.” Sure enough, the day the holiday weekend ended the trains were opened (though it closed early for repairs (in theory)).

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    I will be honest in that I have little or no experience with big city issues. I see things on the news whether about Hong Kong, Seattle or London and I find myself reaching for thoughts and understanding. Having been raised in the country on a small ranch and living most of my life on the outskirts of the city in the suburbs I am at a disadvantage when dealing with inner city life. How ill equipped did you feel when you first moved to Hong Kong from Kentucky?

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      I think it was Nancy I was talking to about this, but I always say it wasn’t the Asian culture that gave me culture shock, but rather moving from the farm to the big city. I don’t know if I ever felt ill-equipped necessarily, but it was definitely a very quick broadening of my mindset as I came into contact with people all over the world. On the surface it looks like different problems, but at its core I think it’s still the same issues that plague us everywhere, just manifested differently – broken families, broken social systems, broken governments, etc. I think those problems seem bigger or more intense because it’s in such a concentrated environment or because it’s a more diverse city where different people’s cultures clash.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    I had considered including a picture in my own post that demonstrated (from a different angle) the point you made about assumptions we make in images. Without context, we are forced to take what we see at face value. Where most of us go wrong is by then locking in our initial assumption and closing our minds to new information or insight. I appreciate the way you talk about digging deeper for more understanding to uncover nuance and perspective you had not noticed at first. If this program enhances our collective leadership abilities to encourage ourselves and others to be more reflective instead of reactive, it will be time and money well-invested.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I appreciate your position here, John. Where, once upon a time, the idea of “face-value” seemed to refer a ground-zero, shared understanding, now it cannot be assumed that one person’s “face-value” is in any way close to that of another. So much humility, grace, and curiosity are needed and, I join you in the never-ending pursuit of all three…for the sake of our world.

  6. Steven Wingate says:

    I see the entrance blocked and wonder what entrances are blocked into the lives right next door. Or what entrances are blocked from me because I have not asked why are they blocked. I cannot just walk away because they are blocked. That is what the images bring to my soul.

  7. mm Chris Pollock says:

    People fighting for what they believe. It comes to this. This is passion expressed and perhaps the response to the feeling of being violated for too long. This is demonstration.

    Thank you for the picture.

    What do I see? Organised power and control. And, I see a revolt; one that needs organisation.

    What emotions come to mind? Bitterness. Complicated, disorganised rage. Hope.

    What is the story being told? Perhaps a story of ‘Stop and Listen!’ Seems that the trains have stopped. There’s a message in that. Now, who’s listening?

    Appreciate the help along with these questions bro. Certainly helps to work the visual out a bit! Lesson received.

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