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

Honest about my Lens

Written by: on September 10, 2014

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?

About the Author


Mary Pandiani

Spiritual Director, educator/facilitator, follower of Jesus, a cultivator of sacred space for those who want to encounter God

19 responses to “Honest about my Lens”

  1. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Mary! It’s so interesting to look at our current events through the lens of Pink’s book. We all know our media often portrays specific events with an agenda in mind. That agenda shapes us and motivates us. However, like you said, it is often just partial truth. How can we develop the characteristic of curiosity? Or how can we try to find value in trying to understand the way others view things? That would help us get a better big picture perspective. I really love you analogy of the elephant…We must work together to see the entire thing and that means having an open mind and trusting others.

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      Nick – I love your question: “How do we develop the characteristic of curiosity?” I hope that I always cultivate a heart of curiosity.

  2. mm Dave Young says:

    I’m also firmly in an evangelical world that sometimes sees through only one lens, at times a narrow lens at that. I also appreciate the value at looking at any situation, especially those as emotionally charged as racism and prejudice in America from a wide variety of perspectives. As you mentioned, the classic analogy of many blind people grasping onto an elephant, each describing it in completely different ways is something that I have to keep in front of me. They could all share their perspective on what was true to them.

    It’s easy to lean in one direction, take a position prematurely. It’s a challenge to weigh perspectives and in fact hold contrary views in tension. I appreciate your post, and I look forward to getting to know you better.

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      Dave – while I was in a cohort with Fuller a few years back, I was trying to explain this whole idea of holding something in “tension” as you offer. I think it’s about the only way we can function in the mystery of God. But the funny part was one of my peers from Israel who said, “you Americans, you like tension, like in the neck?” Guess this is a case of explaining the use of my words in context. 🙂

  3. mm Jon Spellman says:

    Mary, I would love to comment on the statement: “unless I know my anthropology, I won’t be able to understand my theology.” One theological approach I use often is to study the Creator by investigating the created. As the pinnacle creation, man contains the purest reflection of the Divine so the more we can understand in the arena of anthropology, the more we can know HIM!


  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Mary, I love your illustration through your daughter’s story. That is a powerful example of the need/reality for a reflexive approach. I wish such a compelling example was in Pink’s writing. 🙂 I would agree with your friend’s line of thinking of what is now days commonly referred as the need to “exegete our community” as much was we “exegete biblical passages.” While that is a bit of a shallow pop-culture way of saying something similar, I do like the depth to which saying it using the lens of anthropology and theology adds!

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      Phillip, I would agree that Pink’s words were a bit dry at times. However, I felt like she tried to cross-over the researcher line of writing to appeal to the heart.
      Thanks for the support in the story – it’s always a bit risky to share a story that’s close to us when we haven’t actually met one another.

  5. Mary, a few days ago I was on the phone to my daughter (26) about her graduate research with Mexican migrant laborers on some farms near her town. She has become a strong advocate for not only clearer and more just laws, but more just enforcement. In the process she has had a couple of uncomfortable run-ins with farm owners. But the workers have become like her extended family – she has even had calls from Mexico and Jamaica when they return to their homes, wanting to share with her the arrival of new children, or other family milestones. It’s been pretty cool to watch it unfold. Related, I’m reading Clemens Sedmak, Doing Local Theology. I can’t help feeling that it is the ability to run our experience through multiple frames or lenses that really enables thoughtful engagement in the first place. That’s one of the reasons cross cultural experience has become so important.

  6. PS. Sedmak closes the first chapter with this topic – “A Guiding Image: the Local Theologian as Village Cook.” That’s appropriate for many reasons, but also gave me quite a ‘zing’ moment as I closed the last chapter of my book on place with this section – “Re-Placing the World through Gardens and Baking.” Touche!

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      Len – first, how did Kimberley do when she preached for you? 🙂
      Second, I love your line from Sedmak’s book. It reminds me of what my late husband used to say from one of Caedmon’s Call’s songs, “I just drive the bus.” Oh how we notice the world in the ordinary things that we do, like baking, gardening, and driving the bus.
      I look forward to meeting you in Cape Town, and it sounds like I’d like meeting your daughter one day too 🙂

  7. mm Brian Yost says:

    Thank you for sharing part of your daughters story with us. I could sense her frustration as you shared; “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.”

    The field of visual ethnography is dominated by people with agendas. Let’s face it, we all have agendas and are motivated by something. I am reminded of the supposed quote attributed to William Randolph Hearst;
    When Hearst Artist Frederic Remington, cabled from Cuba in 1897 that “there will be no war,” William Randolph Hearst cabled back: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” (,9171,854840,00.html)

    Whether or not this exchange actually happened is debatable, but it does show how easy it is to manipulate truth and “prove it” with visual images. I have had several instances in which I was involved with something that ended up in the newspaper or on the evening news. In nearly every circumstance, I was frustrated with the way the story was reported; It appeared that the media was more interested in ratings and sales than in the truth.

    As commented followers of Christ, we need to recognize that we also have an agenda and we need to be upfront regarding our bias and purpose in sharing visual stories.

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      Brian – you just reminded me with Hearst’s words about Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath” where he talks about the picture that started the Civil Rights Movement in a positive direction. Ironically, the picture wasn’t even really about what it was used for, but it certainly provided momentum to get people motivated to do something (i.e. it’s the classic black and white picture of a young man getting attacked by a police dog). It’s amazing what pictures can do to motivate.

  8. mm Travis Biglow says:

    Greetings Mary,
    I enjoyed your take of the reading because you are really bringing it home. I thank God we are in the time of “hypermedia” if I’m getting that definition wrong. People are caught more on tape now because of I phones and I pads. I am grateful because of the ability to visually catch injustices and i am also at the same time feeling totally exposed to the world because it so easy to take a picture anywhere at any moment. I guess its a double edged sword but to look at it from a bright side, it does keep us in check with our behavior ! Blessings

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      Travis – in light of the video caught on the elevator with Ray Rice and his now wife, it makes me realize nothing is private anymore. In many ways, that is good exposure, but then again, when (not if) will it be taken to the extreme?

      By the way, did you make it through last Monday? Sounded like it was a crazy “ordinary” day for you.

  9. Dawnel Volzke says:


    I appreciate your post this week. I believe your example is significant, in that visual images can easily be used to distort or hide the truth, or to expose the truth. Everyone has some type of bias, and this is not different in the church. We perceive God’s truth through our limited world view.

    This made me think about a story a friend posted on Facebook recently. A prostitute had been invited to church by a friend. She was seeking and asking questions about Christ. On Sunday, she dressed for church in the most modest skirt she could find. When she arrived, people only saw the short skirt and immediately commented on her lack of modesty and poor character. Instead of seeing her through God’s lens, they judged her without knowing or understanding her life story. Yet, if someone had taken pictures of this young woman and exposed her entire story, then it is likely that these same church people would have more readily accepted her short skirt and rejoiced in her decision to start seeking Christ. In this example, I can see how Visual Ethnography could help to soften people’s hearts and to expose them to God’s truth, but at the same time it can also create more damage and misperceptions. There is a responsibility on the ethnographer to avoid causing harm to the innocent, but it seems there is equal responsibility on the person viewing the images. Pink’s book focused on the ethnographer and the science of visual research. However, it seems equally important to teach people techniques on avoiding bias and more critically analyzing visual content.

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      What a beautiful story, Dawnel. It grieves me when we are so quick to judge. I just came from a Memorial Service of a 58 year-old friend of my husband’s. The last time, Bill (my husband) saw him was at a golf outing of a group of guys supporting John (the man who passed away from cancer) at the country club where my husband plays regularly. Someone complained because John was wearing sweats. Little did the complainer know that the sweats were the only clothes that didn’t hurt his body. Made me mad then to hear that news, but reminded now with your friend’s story, I’m just sad.

      • Dawnel Volzke says:

        That makes me sad also…I wish more people would open their eyes to truly see other through God’s lens instead of getting caught up in their own judgement and lack of love for one another.

        • mm Nick Martineau says:

          Mary & Dawnel, thanks for sharing these two personal stories. They both express our great need for integrity and compassion. As story tellers and as listeners/observers we have great responsibility. As Brian mentioned in a previous comment, as followers of Christ we must admit we come with our own agenda. Hopefully our agenda leaves us being known for loving one another.

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