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…”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.” 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.”
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.”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.”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.”
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.”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.
See included photograph, taken September 28, 2019, on an iPhone 6s, during an educational visit to St Margaret Lothbury.
Sarah Pink. Doing Visual Ethnography(London: SAGE Publications, 2013) 6.