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

Roles and responsibility of the visual ethnographer

Written by: on September 12, 2013

Doing Visual Ethnography is full of practical considerations for the researcher embarking on this field of work. Pink places visual ethnography firmly within the field of anthropology and examines quite a number of important considerations around integrity and process in this increasingly recognized area of research. From the question of ethics and the large subjectivity found among this kind of research, to the importance of choosing appropriate equipment and sufficient preparation for the research encounter, Pink provides wisdom and insight for the budding ethnographer.

As I read her work, I was reminded me of a mission experience I was part of a few years ago in Haiti, soon after that nation had experienced a natural disaster leaving many without the basic necessities of life. We had set up a clinic in one of the tent cities that had sprung up, and the medical team I accompanied got on with the business of treating and supplying medicines to the crowds who lined up for our services. We found ourselves working long days in searing hot temperatures and carried around bottles of water in an attempt to fight off threatening dehydration. After some time I came to realize that those whom we were serving were probably longing to have their own bottles of water. I felt totally ashamed of the freedom I had to drink and embarrassed over my complete ignorance of how these people must have felt, watching me drink. I learned then, and was reminded by Pink, that we need to be properly informed about the culture and its needs when venturing to intrude into it through our lens or persona.

Pink highlights another important point: the need to seek permission to create visual work from informants. On that same Haiti team, we had appointed one person as the photographer who took hundreds of photographs, plus video footage, of the work we conducted there among the natives. Not once did we stop to think about asking permission from the people we were filming. How did they feel about what we were doing? I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even think about this at the time, and so I find Pink’s insight about seeking permission first, incredibly helpful.

While I liked many of the important tips Pink makes, I do feel there were a few areas she could have touched on. First, the need to express respect and value to the people we may find ourselves working among, whether it’s for purposes of ethnographical research or providing aid. One particular morning, I was responsible for taking the blood pressure of people prior to them seeing the doctor. There were so many people and children waiting, one felt tempted to rush them through the process, almost like cattle. Instead I wanted to look at each person in the eye, and treat them as human beings, loved by God. So I asked each individual their name, wrote it on a piece of paper along with their blood pressure reading and handed it to the nurses. That one tiny act of human engagement gave them an opportunity to express their precious identity at a time when they felt nobody cared. Others on my team thought it completely unnecessary, but I disagreed. Surely there is a place for showing respect whether in the area of ethnographical research or going a step further and engaging practical human need. One must not only remember the technical considerations but also treat those you work among with dignity and respect, especially when researching among poorer people groups.

A second area which I felt Pink doesn’t explain is the potentially enormous power ethnographers hold in their hands. As Pink rightly states, images have the prospective to be more impactful than words. The work that ethnographers create, the images they produce for the masses to see, hold tremendous influence and sway, with no greater witness to that fact than television and Hollywood. Even the poorest of homes in Asia own a television! As Jesus Christ once said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” (Matthew 6:22-23) In other words, the images or narratives we allow ourselves to see, have tremendous affect upon us. After all, you cannot ‘un-see’ something once you’ve seen it; it’s made its mark on your mind and heart. Therefore visual ethnographers ought to understand the reach of their influence and not just produce research findings for their own work’s sake. Moreover, although visual ethnographers cite that visual field research is often just a representation of a situation rather than actual fact, those who watch the images or films in the end, don’t always understand or see things that way. There is power and responsibility in the lens, an area perhaps which invites greater appreciation and research.


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Liz Linssen

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