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.
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:
- What do you see?
- What emotions come to mind as you see it?
- 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.” 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.
 Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 3rd Edition, (London: Sage, 2013), 153.