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

Confessions of a Middle-School Ethnographer

Written by: on September 10, 2015

Have I been functioning as a visual ethnographer without knowing it?

Every year my wife takes her 7th grade class on a field trip to Washington D. C.


For several years I have gone along in order to take pictures and post a daily blog. The purpose of the blog is to give a picture of the activities and experiences of the children for their parents at home.


Each day on the blog, with text and pictures, I record history and commentary, giving the parents knowledge of this seminal week in the lives of their children. DC 2012 Day 4 Sunday 3-18. 30 DC 2012 Day 4 Sunday 3-18. 43







With my camera I gather knowledge of the life, and yes even the culture, of small-town middle-schoolers in the big city life of our nation’s capital.

DC 2013 Day 2. 39




As I read Sarah Pink’s book, Doing Visual Ethnography, I began to wonder if my D. C. blog is more the work of visual ethnography or photojournalism. I could see how my experiences in middle school culture in Washington D. C, and relating the events and experiences of those 7th graders via daily blogs, functions in part as visual ethnography. This blog entry today relates, in part, how my D. C. experiences provide me a frame of reference for understanding the world and work of the visual ethnographer.

I am beginning to think that my D. C. blogging experience becomes ethnographic as I live in the middle of middle school culture for our nine day trip. As I interact with, and gain extensive first-hand observation of middle school culture, I am able to create certain hypotheses regarding this culture. The text and photographs I present via my blog flow from these personal day-by-day encounters, so at the point that I present “knowledge” gained regarding middle school experiences and culture, I am being ethnographic.

I am leaning toward this conclusion because Dr. Pink cites a quotation by Martin Hammersley and Paul Atkinson: that ethnography is a method that “involves the ethnographer participating overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research.”[1]

As I continued reading Doing Visual Ethnography I wondered about the similarity or difference between photojournalism and visual ethnography. In that process I discovered that a photograph that is originally the work of photojournalism can become the focus of visual ethnography.

There are journalistic photographs that have become woven into our nations history and culture. For example, on February 23, 1945 Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press photographed the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. He eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for this photograph. [2] This picture became far more than photojournalism when the likeness was cast in bronze and stone to become the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington D. C.

DC 2014 Day 6.0115DSC_0870

If an ethnographer seeks to understand the values of American culture, he/she might draw inferences from examples such as this. Visiting the Marine Corps Memorial, and other memorials in Washington D. C, one might conclude that our culture revers and highly values those who have taken up arms in order to defend the interests and people of the United States.

Next March I will have another adventure into Washington D. C. and 7th grade culture, and I have concluded from this study that I will view my role as a blogger through the lense of a visual ethnographer. When our cohort travels to Hong Kong in ten days we, too, may assume the mind set of visual ethnographers.

Another consideration regarding visual ethnography is the modern challenge to the discipline that comes from “Photoshop Elements.” With this computer photo processing program, altering pictures is quite easy. Speaking with friend who is a trained journalist, he related that there are clear ethical standards in the world of journalism regarding presenting pictures that have not been changed by such programs. [3] Any visual ethnographer who desires credibility must live with the highest of such ethical standards.

Finally, as an application of one the Adler questions to Doing Visual Ethnography, we may ask what problem Professor Pink is trying to solve in her volume. There is an underlying tone in portions of her book (especially in chapter one) that one of the problems she addresses is a lack of scholastic credibility for visual ethnography among some scholars. Her numerous references to her own previous work make it appear that she was trying to build a case to defend her own field of expertise. But the problem she addresses includes clarifying how visual ethnography works together with other forms of recording and presenting knowledge. It seems that she makes her case because she demonstrates how visual ethnography works for many scholastic disciplines. [4]

Having loved photography, and telling stories with pictures, for many years I found a home in the world of visual ethnography. This will affect how I approach our work in the next three years.

[1] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington D. C.) page 34

[2] National Park Web Site (

[3] Conversation with Aaron Newton, Corvallis, OR, August 2015

[4] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington D. C.) pages 18 and 19

About the Author


Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

8 responses to “Confessions of a Middle-School Ethnographer”

  1. I believe if you put the label on yourself of being a “middle school ethnographer” that is what you are. According to the book your are actively bringing your experience to life. The only person who has you perspective on the journey is you. So continue on making a difference in the life of middle schoolers as you interact with them and then later as they interact with your photographs there is a collaboration of story telling as they bring to life what you have captured.

    Thank goodness someone took a picture instead of it just being captured in your mind. Those pictures fade because of the volume of content that comes into the mind but a simple picture can revive that moment for all who see it.

    I am looking forward to the visit to Hong Kong with my fellow ethnographers!


  2. Aaron Cole says:

    Great connection of the book to your personal world. I loved the pictures and the story behind it all. I love when a book or teaching makes sense and connection with the world in which we live. You blog makes that connection. Very enjoyable.

  3. Claire Appiah says:

    You have certainly demonstrated your ethnographic expertise in these significant images that you have captured and preserved for posterity and also provided interpretive commentary. Fortunately, you have already been advised of certain protocols and ethical practices to inform your endeavors as you advance in this field. What a valuable asset you are to the church, your family, all those seventh grade classes, and many others. You have proved Sarah Pink to be correct in her statement, “Images are thus an inevitable part of the experiential environment we live and research in” (Pink, 1).

  4. Wonderful pictures, Marc! It must have been such an amazing experience seeing D.C. from a varied outlook. You can definitely tell through the images, that each child had their own distinct personality and perspective.

    As I perused through your photos, I thought of the verse in 1 Corinthians 12:12, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.” Each of these students varied in personality, but they individually painted a full picture of the experience.

    You stated something profound, when you said, “I am beginning to think that my D. C. blogging experience becomes ethnographic as I live in the middle of middle school culture for our nine day trip.” You chose to experience life from their perspectives. You stepped into their shoes and understood their stories.

    I had a similar experience when ministering with Campus Crusade one summer. We were sent out in groups and given Solarium cards. Each card contained an abstract picture without caption. The purpose of the outreach was to interact with people and ask them to explain their spiritual journey using images alone. They had to pick three cards and discuss their story. It was the perfect ethnographic tool in aiding us in discourse. The walls were torn down and hearts become open to Christ, because we gave them the opportunity to present their testimony, questions, doubts and struggles with visual illustration.

    Ethnographers need to approach the participant without assumption and give them the opportunity to interact with the graphics. Did you find it difficult to capture the personal voice and perspective of each child’s experience on the trip, since ethnography is so focused on the voice of the individual?

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Colleen I look forward to talking more about Solarium cards; they sound fascinating.

      The middle school students are required to produce a “Memory Book” (which functions on a report on their field trip) after they return home. Many of them download some of my pictures to use in their books. I have opportunity to see them interact with my pictures in that way. I’ve never paid attention to any patterns in the pictures they choose to use, as a way to learn of their values and world view. One change Pink’s book has made for me is that next March when I look at their books I will be paying closer attention to what pictures they use.

      I’m not sure that I did capture the voice if the individual kids; although once again this has given me more to think about on our next trip. I would say I’m more inclined to try to capture the dynamics of their relationships and the nature of their friendships, through their interplay.

      We have had fun with ‘voices’ at times, however. I ask the chaperones to bring me the “kid-quotation of the day” to include in the blog. For example one day I heard one of the girls say that later we were going to visit the “Maybe Memorial.” (We see so many memorials in a week.) When I asked her what the “Maybe Memorial” is, she replied, “It’s for people who might die.”

  5. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    You definitely brought your post to life with the inclusion of the picture. Yep, you’re an ethnographer. Your post shows you have a great understanding and application of the book. It took me a while to fully understand the scope of the book but as I continued to read the different posts, everything became clear. We’ve all functioned ethnographically throughout our lives and I believe Pink simply brought awareness to that fact. I’ll be very intentional over the next three years to include different approaches to engage my audience with visual aids.

    By the way, I studied music at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA.

    • mm Marc Andresen says:


      Berklee – really? Back in the day it seems to me they were very hot in the realm of jazz. We will have notes to compare. (Sorry for the pun.)

      Thanks for the comments.

  6. mm Phil Goldsberry says:


    Not only did you read the book, you implemented the process in your blog. (would have been great to add the audio and smells from the field trip, especially a group of middle-schoolers). Seems that you have been functioning ethnographically for some time. The prowess and expertise that you showed in this blog are living proof.

    I look forward to meeting you in HK. Want to know more about the love of British racing cars.


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