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

Reflexive Ethnography and Ethics in Theological Practice

Written by: on October 26, 2017

Doing Visual Ethnography by Sarah Pink is at once fascinating and complex for the non-professional anthropologist. The concept of using images to scientifically describe the customs of people and their culture suggests engagement by a broad community. However, once the reader begins to examine the text more closely they will realize Pink is not interested in a simple picture book to display her research. If approaching visual ethnography from outside a formal social science discipline terms such as reflexive ethnography, the ethics surrounding the science and the means of conducting visual ethnography will likely be hurdles for the reader to overcome. As Jon Prosser notes in his review of Pink’s text, “The audience for this book are critical methodologists from across the social sciences seeking to include a visual dimension to their work.”[1]

As a practitioner in the field of theology, I was enticed by the idea of utilizing images to help convey a message to people. My first questions to myself as I began were, “How does visual ethnography work in theology? Can it be used to demonstrate discipleship? And how might ethnography help people to discover meaning about God?” My questions, all very practical, went straight to applying methodology across disciplines.

I was especially interested in this method of visually representing the culture and customs from my most recent visit to Cape Town where I had taken a multimedia approach to chronicling my trip. Since returning home I’ve shared photos and stories about my time but wondered if elements were missing or perhaps there were ways I had not considered in telling about the culture I’d experienced. Indeed, after reading Diana Riviera’s article I concurred that, “To Pink, visual ethnography is not simply combining words [with images] to produce a desired result. Pairing narrative with photographs and video assists the researcher in documenting and symbolizing the self-representations of the participants.’[2] In my retelling of the stories, I was proving a point to my hearers with modest representation of the subjects in my images and I recognized, beyond the symbolism and self-representations of participants, two other aspects of Pink’s work shined to me.

The most prominent theme comes from Pink’s focus on theory, in particular as mentioned above, of reflexive ethnography, and is what Pink defines as a method that “recognizes the centrality of the subjectivity of the researcher to the production and representation of ethnographic knowledge.”[3]  Pink refers to reflexivity and the nature of the researcher as not set apart from the participants in any ethnographic study. Rather, the ethnographer and the participants have a relationship to one another in which they impact one another through the medium and will, though subtly at times, influence one another’s reality by what is learned and experienced.[4]

In my own experiences with snapping photos and video throughout Cape Town, I recognized I was not objectively taking in data to give a report when I arrived home. I was there to learn about the history, culture and people of Cape Town, and particularly how Apartheid continues to affect South Africa and the world. My experiences were subjective and, as I photographed Michelle, Nombeko and others, there was at least a small recognition that our lives were influencing one another and our work as researchers and humans.

The second bright point of Pink’s work for me was the role of ethics in visual ethnography. Though this is possibly an elementary point for anthropologists and social scientists in general, in my consideration as a theologian and student researching a new community, the ethical impact of my visual ethnographic work is something I had not considered much until reading Pink’s text. Questions surrounding the benefit verses harm to a group by my photos or videos, how might I use this once I return home and of what help will my ethnography be to the participants through my work became more poignant to me.

In my investigation to best understand Pink’s perspective, I found an article by Steven Black on his anthropological work in South Africa, which concluded in March 2017. Black’s focus was to conduct “fieldwork with a Zulu gospel choir comprised of people living with HIV in South Africa. Here, I discuss how research participants guided my use of recorders amid inequality and HIV stigma.”[5] Black goes on to share how he would choose to record or not based on his relationship with participants and the level of trust at the time of recording. Black’s sensitivities caused him to forgo recording video at points, even to the detriment of the project, to keep the participants from felt or real harm.

Black represents what Pink notes as the challenges of doing visual ethnography with regard to ethics. “The challenges of doing visual ethnography that is ethical and appropriate should not be seen as obstacles to the application of predetermined methods, but rather as opportunities to work with participants and others to create ways of working ethically and appropriately.[6]

In response to Pink’s work, I found myself, while struggling to grasp content outside my field, enlightened by meaningful substance that easily crosses into the discipline of teaching and living theology. I was able to see that in fact, visual ethnography does work well, although it is not well known, within the theological framework. Visual ethnography creates room for mystery and relationship while researching, which directly correlates with theological themes of God and the church. Mystery is presented in the way that visuals represent more than what words can speak while educating through both imagery and narrative. Relationship comes through the willingness of researchers to not objectify the work or the participants but to engage in ethical and collaborative ways to create an experience in which both researcher and participants may benefit.

The embodiment of the theologian in reflexive and ethical practices, be it visual ethnography or study and practice of scripture, creates space for new meaning and insight to be gleaned if done in community rather than isolation, choosing to enter into relationship with the other as they do their work.



[1] Prosser, Jon, Book Review: Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research. Qualitative Research, 2008, Vol.8 (2), p.268.

[2] Riviera, Diana. Picture This: A Review of Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research by Sarah Pink, The Qualitative Report. Fort Lauderdale, Vol. 15, Iss. 4, July 2010, p.990.

[3] Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research (Second edition). London: SAGE, 2006, p.36.

[4] Pink, 35-36.

[5] Black, Steven P., Anthropological Ethics and the Communicative Affordances of Audio-Video Recorders in Ethnographic Fieldwork: Transduction as Theory, American Anthropologist, 2017, p.46.

[6] Pink, 69.

About the Author


Trisha Welstad

Trisha is passionate about investing in leaders to see them become all God has created them to be. As an ordained Free Methodist elder, Trisha has served with churches in LA and Oregon, leading as a pastor of youth and spiritual formation, a church planter, and as a co-pastor of a church restart. Trisha currently serves as leadership development pastor at Northside Community Church in Newberg, OR. Over the last five years Trisha has directed the Leadership Center, partnering with George Fox and the Free Methodist and Wesleyan Holiness churches. The Leadership Center is a network facilitating the development of new and current Wesleyan leaders, churches and disciples through internships, equipping, mentoring and scholarship. In collaboration with the Leadership Center, Trisha serves as the director of the Institute for Pastoral Thriving at Portland Seminary and with Theologia: George Fox Summer Theology Institute. She is also adjunct faculty at George Fox University. Trisha enjoys throwing parties, growing food, listening to the latest musical creations by Troy Welstad and laughing with her two children.

12 responses to “Reflexive Ethnography and Ethics in Theological Practice”

  1. mm M Webb says:


    Excellent “Critical Thinking” questions focusing on how ethnography works in theology. I think you read ahead with Elder’s “Mini-Guide to Critical Thinking.” (1)

    I agree in part with your critical analysis of Pink and the reflexive (circular reasoning between cause and effect) ethnography and the relationships that are formed with people. As a class of Christian leaders, we are drawn to relationships. Therefore, the use of visual research approaches have their proper place in our Great Commission tool-box. However, I sense that Pink is missing a core influence in her work, which says that human beings are wired to seek, the “Christ factor.” I believe it is Christ who is the real medium that connects people and ultimately influences their reality and learned experiences. For example, after only meeting you for a week at Cape Town and hearing and watching you interact on our Elite-8 type of Hollywood Squares, I know that your Christ factor is always present in your ministry and relationships with others. So, I think there is yet a deeper connection with images, relationships, and knowledge that we must find outside of Pink and her conflicting mix of ethical practices based on her recipe of subjective realities.

    Great job engaging outside authors, reading “around” Pink’s work, and critically engaging her book from a peripheral position (Bayard). Did I miss how you connected Pink to your research question? Sorry, I guess I am on a quest to promote connections with our dissertation question. Plus, I am interested in what you have to say, in the context of Pink vs. Trish’s research question.

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

    1 Linda Elder and Richard Paul. The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. Kindle ed. (Tomales, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009) Location 29.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Mike, Thanks for your insightful questions. I too agree that all people are looking for meaning and depth that can only be found in Christ. As a methodological anthropology book, I did not expect Pink to get into the spirituality aspect and tried to process what she did offer as I use it in my own context with that known Christ-factor. I do wonder what changes in the world would come if anthropologists saw ethnography with that same Christ factor.

      Also, I did bring up discipleship in my post as that is my core research topic and my focus right now is to find the varying definitions of discipleship and theology that surrounds that in different contexts. Thanks for checking in on that!

  2. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hey Trish, your post is in-depth and gives me a lot to chew on! You conclude with this tought: “The embodiment of the theologian in reflexive and ethical practices…creates space for new meaning and insight to be gleaned if done in community rather than isolation, choosing to enter into relationship with the other as they do their work.” I like the connection you are drawing between the ethnograper’s need to see herself as a participant in the study with the theologian’s need to do the same thing. In my experience, there are a lot of theologians that are not practitioners. When I have these people as professors they come across as highly intelligent, but sadly naïve about the realities of faith in action. How will you study discipleship “in community” and “choosing to enter into relationship”?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Jenn, thanks for always asking great questions. I am not completely sure how I will study discipleship in community. I am just diving into texts and really like Bonhoeffer’s ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ as I know that it also relates to his other work ‘Life Together’ which both talk about discipleship in community in many ways. Do you have any thoughts or ideas that come to mind? I am all ears.

  3. Greg says:


    I think that you began really asking yourself engaging questions allows your to personalize this book in greater ways. I do wonder how often as we are all fall into the bad habits of taking photos that we think are interesting rather than with the eyes of telling the stories of those we met and the stories that we need to tell. It is difficult going into a new culture or situation and knowing how and when to take pictures that can adequately express even a portion of that culture. I like the idea of creating spaces for God give new insights and new meanings. As pastors we are challenged to find creative ways within our busy lives to open others up to hearing and seeing God.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Greg, thanks for these good thoughts. I think I better understand your comment based on your own post and how you tell stories and learn from the places and people you have encountered. I would say I often take pictures of objects/nature for me and pictures of people to tell a story or communicate something to others from their life. I see this a lot when I take pictures of my son. I sometimes do so to capture his wonderfulness and others to reveal how he’s grown or changed in some way. He’s my ever present ethnographic study.

  4. Shawn Hart says:

    Tricia, wonderful job demonstrating the benefit of establishing relationships, not just as ethnographers, but as ministers. I loved Jay’s photo this week because it demonstrates your point beautifully. I also appreciated the challenge that you found in relating some of this topic to your own areas of specialty. Though I can see value in visual ethnography, I too found some struggling points in this reading.

    I was intrigued by your own question regarding the ability to use visual ethnography to help others “discover meaning about God.” I was speaking to my son today regarding why I love studying the Old Testament; I believe it show God to us…His true nature. Upon reading your post, I was wondering the same thing you were asking: Is it possible to use visual ethnology in order to teach people a better understanding of God?

    So my question for you: Other than traditional photos used, how might you try to go about “showing God” to someone in a visual way?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Shawn, Thanks for your insightful response. I have used a variety of ways to reveal God through images and video but maybe one of the most interesting and the first that comes to mind is when my husband and I hosted a creative arts night on a regular basis at the community college. We did this with a bunch of Christian friends who loved the arts and wanted to show love to the art students there each month. One of the art students there was a painter and she and I would often discuss her work as it was portraits in nature. There was something spiritual about her paintings and we would talk about how creativity comes from a place beyond us and I would share I believed all creativity comes from God who makes us like him with the ability to create beautiful work. This didn’t happen with everyone but my friend, through many of our conversations and her art eventually decided to follow in the way of her Creator.

  5. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    The ethical dilemma of photography not only in manipulation of a picture, but the setting and the reality of the picture taken and for what reason it was taken really made me think in how I would represent South Africa to those I showed them. The idea of how to use visual ethnography in our theology and our discussions with others about Christ is something well worth studying,.


    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Thanks for this thought Jason. How have you changed how you are sharing with people since reading Pink? I am at least thinking twice before sharing about the subjects in my images.

  6. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Trisha!
    What a well-researched, in-depth look at ethnography in theology. One of your statements resonated with me: “Rather, the ethnographer and the participants have a relationship to one another in which they impact one another through the medium and will, though subtly at times, influence one another’s reality by what is learned and experienced.[4]” This, in essence, is why I believe Pink’s research and writing about sensory ethnography is so important. One thing I struggled with in Cape Town was photographing oppressed and marginalized people and their homes and communities – I never want to be exploitative of people and I often wonder the intention behind the photographs. What are your thoughts?

  7. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    I did have a hard time at first with the same photos when we were in Cape Town, especially in the townships. Deon said it was okay at one point so I remember feeling a little more at ease but still like a tourist. Yet, I did not see myself as benefiting from their plight as my intent was to connect and reflect their life to others so their story could live on. If my pictures were taken in private homes or in places that were more intimate I may not have taken them or at least asked and then asked again if it was okay to share. It seems most of the places where we were going and photographing were largely public and without many people’s faces up close. My hope is to not pity the people we encountered but show their dignity and beautiful identity. One way I communicate when sharing about the people I met is to tell what their name meant if I was able to catch it. People have really been impacted by this as it creates a rich sense of the South African’s personal pride in who they are.

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