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.”
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.’ 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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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.
 Prosser, Jon, Book Review: Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research. Qualitative Research, 2008, Vol.8 (2), p.268.
 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.
 Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research (Second edition). London: SAGE, 2006, p.36.
 Pink, 35-36.
 Black, Steven P., Anthropological Ethics and the Communicative Affordances of Audio-Video Recorders in Ethnographic Fieldwork: Transduction as Theory, American Anthropologist, 2017, p.46.
 Pink, 69.