Two thoughts come to mind in reading Pink’s book, Doing Visual Ethnography:
First, her work parallels the movement of the modern world to the post-modern world by articulating the argument that anthropologists have had over the years of how to make the best observation of culture: scientific-realist vs. reflexive. In an exploratory manner, she gently opens up the way for a fresh approach to understanding culture through ethnography, in particular visually, making a case that we’re being more honest through this kind of assessment, acknowledging that we all enter with a certain lens, regardless of how objective we try to be.
My last five-six years have been a similar journey as I’ve become involved with an organization that seeks the “spiritual and social renewal of the city” by viewing the city with the lens of it being a “playground” not a battlefield. With that change of perspective, I see many things differently in the city than I did before, and if I’m honest, most of it has to do with being more honest about what I feared and appreciated – a reflexive approach as I looked at things as a realist.
The other thought had to do with this statement as it relates to my daughter:
“To explore how all types of materials, intangible, spoken, performed narratives and discourses are interwoven with and made meaningful in relation to social relationships, practice and individual experiences.” Pg. 7
My daughter, Alison (20), worked on a documentary this last spring down in LA on police brutality. The visuals she worked with both in the filming of interviews and editing of the material had a profound impact on how she views the recent Ferguson, Missouri incident with the shooting death of a young black teenager, Michael Brown, by police office, Darren Wilson. Interestingly enough, while she is fearful of what might happen to her boyfriend, also a young black man, if he was to be pulled over for any reason, she didn’t appreciate the way the producer and director of the documentary were presenting the material: extremely emotional and without much regard for any of the families, both victims’ and perpetrators’. The visuals conveyed a message that elicited more polarization than understanding of the circumstances.
Sarah Pink’s book Doing Visual Ethnography reminded me again of the value and potency in visuals to understand a culture, bringing to mind the use of documentaries and indie films that are much more prevalent the last fifteen-twenty years, about the same time she first started writing the book (2001). Her approach to anthropology in order to understand a culture reflects the movement we’ve encountered in a post-modern world – we no longer can hold onto a “whole truth” as the only truth when it comes to viewing our world. Rather, we are given with visuals in documentaries, for example, the “partial truths.” (pg. 10) I know in my world of a conservative evangelical approach to the gospel those words are fighting words. Yes, there is a “whole truth” – it’s God’s truth, according to my circles. Yet, I wonder, don’t we all approach the elephant, to the use the proverbial metaphor, of truth, from different angles? I only see the “partial truth” of the tail. Another sees only the trunk. Alison sees through the lens of loving her boyfriend when it comes to understanding what racism can do. But on the other hand, one good friend of mine is a police officer who wants to protect and serve. Doesn’t she see through another lens?
How do we make sense of all of this? How do we take in visual information?
Going back to Pink’s statement: “made meaningful in relation to social relationships, practice, and individual experiences,” I think she’s making a point that we need all of these visuals in order to determine the entire picture. We need to see through the various lenses of others in the midst of their experience in order to fully understand.
What I appreciate about Pink’s exploration of visual ethnography is not a prescription, but rather a description that can inform. It’s not a formula, but rather another tool in our journey of understanding cultures, thus one another.
I’ll be honest – her book gets a little too technical for me. However, I can appreciate and actually embrace her approach to anthropology through ethnography. By the way, a good friend of mine suggested that unless I know my anthropology, I won’t be able to understand my theology. Any comment on that one?