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

Questioning Visual Realities

Written by: on October 13, 2019

Tucked in amongst foreboding structures of world financial institutions lies St. Margaret Lothbury, a small Church of England parish church established 1185 C.E., burned in 1666, rebuilt and reinstated in 1690 C.E. The worship space is cozy and decked out in some of the finest 17th-century wood carved elements. The sturdy pews are darkly stained, and the flooring mixed of wood, marble, tile, and stone. Thick, red, rectangular cushions hang on the back of the pews, waiting for parishioners to come and pray. Light streams through large stained-glass windows, illuminating the alter and designated prayer space. In the back of the sanctuary, located in the loft, large organ pipes stand tall, ready to belt out songs of praise.

Epitaphs line the walls and are underfoot throughout the church, providing snapshots and imagery of social and religious norms through the centuries. One example reads: “In the vault beneath the chancel are the deposited mortal remains of Jane Roxby…”[1]along with her three daughters, Edith Jane Roxby, who died at 3 months of age, and twin daughters who are not named and died in infancy. Jane’s husband, the Rev. Henry Roxby Roxby, served as Vicar of St. Margaret Lothbury for 27 years and has his remains interred in the cemetery at Norwood.


The life of a family, these members of a specific community who lived and died in the mid-1800s, are remembered, even enshrined as part of the “great cloud of witnesses” overlooking the parish. Their remains join many others in that space, and serve as ethnographic artifacts which inform us of the “customs of individual people and cultures.”[2] Though many of these artifacts existed before the development of photography, video, or the internet, it can still be argued that examination of them falls into the category of visual ethnography, a research methodology that seeks “to bring together the theoretical and practical elements of visual approaches to learning and knowing about and in the world, and communicating these to others.”[3]

As I examine these epitaphs, I have to consider the societal value placed on remembering deceased loved ones. Why were their names and remains placed within the walls of the church? What is it about the proximity of those remains to the living that is important? What values or theological understandings are communicated when a person is standing or sitting amongst the dead of their community, not only in a contemporary context, but also in a historical context? Whose remains were allowed or not allowed to be buried there and why? How do these visuals differ from the visuals we incorporate for remembering our deceased loved ones? What do those difference communicate about our theological and cultural understanding of death?

Sarah Pink, a renown visual ethnographer, notes that “Visual ethnography does not necessarily involve simply recording what we can see, but also offers ethnographers routes through which to come to understanding those very things we cannot see.”[4]Thus utilizing visual ethnography as a research mythology necessitates embracing a level of mystery and incorporating degrees of creative imagination. Visual imagery used for research purposes “…do(es) not necessarily take on the status of being knowledge about the research question or findings in themselves, but rather can be understood as routes to knowledge and tools through which we can encounter and imagine other people’s worlds.”[5]The visual routes to knowledge and understanding are necessarily limited, in that “different people use their own subjective knowledge and biographical understanding to interpret them.”[6]

Thus, because I’m fascinated with the theological and spiritually formative constructs that inform how we treat our dead, when I see a centuries old epitaph in a small church in England, questions arise in my mind that are informed by my religious background and cultural context. But let’s say someone else entered that same space of worship, not for academic endeavors, but rather to discover previously unknown branches of their family tree. The questions and curiosities that arise within them are very different than those that bubble up within me, especially if they were to discover their long-lost relative Jane Roxby.

Same visual environment, different interpretations.

Who I am affects what I see and how I interpret and experience visual images, both from the past and the present. When incorporating visual ethnography into research methods, understanding my biases and predispositions is of paramount importance.

Actually, this principle applies not only to academic research, but to everyday interactions with visual materials, from YouTube videos to Instagram posts. I must be careful to not make the imagery say something it was never meant to say or communicate. While imagination and mystery are part and parcel of interpreting visual imagery, I must absolutely remember that “reality cannot necessarily be observed visually, recorded and analyzed.”[7]If disagreement of this statement arises, one only has to think of the countless staged social media images and videos to know that it speaks truth. Discernment and thoughtful investigation are and will always be integral components to any evaluative conclusions we make for academic research endeavors, and for all the visual imagery we take in moment by moment during our days.


[1]See included photograph, taken September 28, 2019, on an iPhone 6s, during an educational visit to St Margaret Lothbury.


[3]Sarah Pink. Doing Visual Ethnography(London: SAGE Publications, 2013) 6.

[4]Pink, 36.

[5]Pink, 39.

[6]Pink, 40-41.

[7]Pink, 40.

About the Author


Darcy Hansen

16 responses to “Questioning Visual Realities”

  1. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Haunting post, Darcy. 😉

    I really love how you chose to explore this in the context of your area of study. I remember standing in the balcony with and listening with rapt curiosity as you pointed to the memorials around us and spoke of your wondering about death and how we remember our dead. Very cool to see it translate into this piece.

    You say in the last paragraph that we must be careful to not read into an image what is not there. On the one hand, I adamantly agree (see my post). On the other hand, isn’t imagery a form of art that stands to be interpreted by the beholder? Is it possible that, as we allow our imaginations to roam, levels of meaning will surface for one that will differ from those of others and, once combined, could unlock a more robust, textured “truth” (if you will) about the image? Wonder with me here…

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      I agree with Jer here about how interesting it is to see your topic begin to unfold here. I might add the distinction between images used in visual ethnographic research and image as art. I recall the photographer that shared with us in London. This book really helped give me context for her work. I remember looking at a few of her photos and thinking, “It looks like she just snapped a picture of that like I would.” This was heightened as I followed Kayla’s artistic expression of photography. While any observation is subjective by nature, the goal, as I see it, of visual ethnography is to enhance research and make a case (or argue a thesis) of findings, not present an image to the “eye of the beholder.” What do you think?

      • mm Darcy Hansen says:

        Shawn, I agree there is a blurry line of differentiation here between art and image used for research. When Chloe Dewe Mathews shared her images, I thought they looked like something anyone could snap. But I think it was her engagement with the subjects (to the extent they desired or cared to engage) that made her work visual ethnography. Asking the questions, and seeking answers not only in the images, but also from the subject of the image seems to matter for study. Is this a different kind of understanding than that of beholding an image for the sake of beholding and walking away with whatever that image “spoke” to you personally…maybe? I think so. The concept is fascinating and has opened my imagination to exploring ways to incorporate visual ethnography into my project. We shall see how it goes. I trust you’ll keep me on track as to differentiate snaps from study.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Jer, even when I wrote those words, I questioned them. I think there is a both/and tension that exists. Reading Pink, it seemed that navigating that tension between mystery and imagination, and factual reality given in that specific image from a set time and place and people, is a difficult balance. I wonder if the difference is the categorization of the image: art vs research study? And what latitudes are allowed within each realm? Are parameters necessary with one or the other? Thoughts?

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    “The life of a family, these members of a specific community who lived and died in the mid-1800s, are remembered, even enshrined as part of the ‘great cloud of witnesses” overlooking the parish.'”

    I love the imagery here. That was something that didn’t even cross my mind when we were at St. Margaret’s. It reminds me of something my church back in Kentucky did ages ago as I reflect on it. When we were trying to pay off our family life center, we did a fundraiser where sold bricks that would be engraved with the family’s name or a message and then installed into what we called a “walk of faith” that surrounded an angel statute in the middle. I remember walking the path once and just taking a moment to read what people had written. As I scanned the different names, I realize (now) the history that is captured within those names. If you were to ask someone in the church about Maurice Clayton for example, they would tell you the story of how he brought his ventriloquist dummy to church to perform at times, how he was a master wood whittler, or how he was there every Sunday counting the people on his attendance clicker with a smile on his face. Simple visual images of names can carry such a huge weight that we don’t realize at a first glance. Thanks for reminding of that truth.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:


      I love that I know about Maurice Clayton now. Thank you for sharing a slice of your past community with me. There’s beauty in the remembering. I think we all want to live lives in such a way that we are remembered well. Documenting people in various ways reminds us of our humanity and our impermanence. Having visuals keeps us humble, and reminds us that in some small way, what we do while we are breathing on this earth matters.

  3. Nancy Blackman says:

    YES! You’re doing this thing.

    Isn’t it fascinating how God turns our heart towards a subject and suddenly you see with new eyes? Your questions are so on point. Whose remains were allowed to be there? I immediately thought of Arlington Cemetary in the outskirts of Washington DC. To be able to be buried there takes some finagling, I’ve heard. The same seems to apply here. Who decides(d) who is eligible to be buried in the hallow grounds of London?

    “I must be careful to not make the imagery say something it was never meant to say or communicate.” I actually disagree with this. Imagery is imagery and it will speak to people in so many different ways. You already mentioned that your lens walking into St Margaret Lothbury would definitely be different than someone else’s (anyone else’s, for that matter). Imagery is the same way for me. What soothes and speaks to me might not have the same affect for you or anyone else. Art is so personal and art can be healing.

    You mentioned people who will have a different reason for entering into the church. What are some ways you might include different people in your research?


    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      I think I am seeing there’s a line between VE and art. Thinking back to our time in London and listening to Chloe Dewe Mathews, it was interesting to me that her first go at capturing the people and the churches didn’t communicate what she felt was to be communicated. So she gave it another go to allow the images space to say what they needed to say. While displayed in art galleries, she presented herself as an ethnographer and documentarian. So it seems that a particular message was to be communicated in that work. Is all image art? Maybe? And yes, I agree that based on who is viewing it, the image will communicate certain things. So then, is VE a methodological form of study, or is it just a structured way to present art to the world? Are they the same thing or different?

      I am hoping to include a variety of voices, though not sure all will accept. I really want to have diverse ages and backgrounds represented in whatever becomes of this project. I am working to hold that loosely and allow the process to dictate the outcome. But I do have hopes and dreams.

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy, I understand there may be a difference in the purpose between an image used for research and one used for art. Where the challenge comes is that despite the purpose of the image the viewer will draw their own meaning as they view it. Even in writing it is often clear the intent and opinion of the the author. With images the authors intent is not easily discerned and often ignored by the viewer, especially if the image causes an emotional response.
    When I travel I often find myself walking through cemeteries. I read the epitaphs written and realize that in life we have but a hyphen to define our lives. We have no voice in the brith date and little to no voice in the death date, but what happens in between we alone make the choices that define our lives.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Agreed, it is difficult to control how images and words are received. It makes me think of Martyn Percy and how he encouraged us to be “receivers more than broadcasters.” I wonder if this shift is necessary because the world is so inundated with image and sound? Connection often happens best in stillness and spaces where silence outweighs sound.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    It’s always puzzled me the way people (Christians in particular) relate to death. Scientifically, death is part of the life cycle. Theologically for Christians, death is but a door to another life. We have this hope and proclaim this hope, yet death still seems like the enemy. I’m a bit off subject here, but your post reminds me of the tight bond churches (and church goers) have with death. Memorials and crypts inside church buildings as you mention. Cemeteries on church grounds. Images of the dead in stained glass and sculptures. Remembrances in the Christian liturgy about the “great cloud of witnesses.” Our ancestors seemed to get this in a much deeper way that most people do today. I’m looking forward to seeing how your work helps the church develop new language and a new understanding of our relationship with death, ritual, and memory.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      War and industrialization forced a hard shift in how we walk with those dying and remember those who are dead. My previous research showed that in America, 80% of people die within medical care facilities, and are tended to by professional death care givers. Most families never see or spend time with the dead, as they once did through countless generations. Often the dead are scattered or buried in locations removed from our rhythms of live. I think this disconnect does something very profound to our souls, though I’m not quite sure just what exactly.

  6. Steve Wingate says:

    John mentions the “great cloud of witnesses.” I think Ms. Pink would add to this account you so aptly laid out for us that it is a honed, sustained-look. The look like you alluded too has changed due to fire, other cathedrals closing and St. Margaret’s securing woodwork and other artifacts. Even your post is a sort of honed, sustained-look. Good work

  7. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Thank you Darcy. Photo ethnography could be challenging without questions to guide. Challenging because it can be difficult, without some perspective ie. ‘where is the photographer going with this’? Questions can help the process along and, how to be reflexive with our questions so that we are not answering them and directing the teaching moment too much with our wording? Thank you, with the pictures you’ve shared, for asking questions that help to recall a time and place and leaving it open enough with space to be moved uniquely!

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      In the process of reading many posts and commenting, I think you misplaced this one under mine instead of Nancy’s. Pretty sure you can copy and paste it there, and possibly delete it here if you’d like:)

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