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

The Ethnography of Eli

Written by: on November 1, 2018

About a year or two ago, I found my old camera from college. I remember when I got the camera as a gift for graduation. It was small, maroon, and fit my lifestyle. After all, my sidekick phone didn’t have a camera on it. I was getting ready to go to South Africa for six weeks after graduation and I needed a way to document all my experiences. That camera stayed with me for many years after that, always in my purse and at the ready to document what important thing might come next. Then, I got an iPhone. Before I even recognized it was happening, I had no need for that camera any longer. It got shoved in a drawer to be pulled out every once in a while.


The last time it was pulled out, I realized that camera still had significance, but it wasn’t for me. It was for my then 4-year-old. He had a strong desire to capture the world as he saw it. Since my life was now on my phone, I gave him that small, maroon camera, which was now perfectly fit to his lifestyle.


Over the time he’s had it, he has documented so many things that have incredible significance to him, and the way he makes meaning has been changed. Sarah Pink alludes to this power: “Ethnographic research is likewise intertwined with visual technologies, images, metaphors, and ways of seeing…Images are indeed part of how we experience, learn and know as well as how we communicate and represent knowledge.”[1]


In order to more understand with more depth the idea of visual ethnography, I decided to pull out my son’s camera and unpack the images, as best as I could, to interpret what matters to him. I am, in essence, experiencing, interpreting, and representing my son Eli’s experiences, his culture, and his material and sensory environments,[2] and using them to gather data to present a version of his reality that is embedded in one of the ways he accumulates knowledge.[3]

I call the series below, “Life with a new baby”. A lot of what I saw on his camera were pictures of his younger brother, when he was about 6-8 months old. As you can see, there are pictures of his brother, as well as his house, all from his own perspective. It was interesting to focus on the things that he deemed to be important at that time. I saw a lot of close ups of his brother, Boaz, as well as a lot of Boaz’s items


The next theme I noticed in a lot of Eli’s photos centered around the idea of space and place. My son really took note of the things that he sees on a regular basis. There were a lot of different angles of our house, streets we walk, places we visit (hello, Target!) and perspectives from his view out the window. As I was looking through these, I’ve realized over the last few days just how introverted my son is, so to look through these made me realize how he values safe spaces and routine.

This is Eli’s room and his dad playing

This is the view of our kitchen window, from where I wash the dishes. It’s interesting to see this from his perspective since I’m so used to seeing it from my own.

This is our home

This is the view up our street from the end of our walk way.

This is the view of Target from our house. With our car in front. It’s a place we walk frequently. And much of our yard has changed since then. I wonder what it would look like to combine this photo with a more recent one.

This is my University from Eli’s perspective out the window.


Lastly, much of his work centers on people. Mostly our family. He did have a few photos of friends, which I will not post here, but family is clearly an important part of his life. I noted even a few photos of us facetiming with family. I’m intrigued by how much of our life has changed based on technology and how he sees those things. In one photo for instance, he took a picture of a picture, which I remember him saying at the time, was so that he could “have it forever”. I’ve noticed too, over the last few months, Eli has specifically asked us to take pictures of himself and people on his own camera. He wants to remember things for his own sake, not just to know that we have.

This has been an interesting study on my son. Pink reminds us that “The key to successful photographic research is in understanding the social relations and subjective agendas through which they are produced and the discourses through which they are made meaningful.”[4] I feel like I have understood a little more about his relationships and agendas through the 702 photos and videos I have seen on his camera. I can’t wait for more.


[1] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography (London: Sage Publications, 2013), 1

[2] Ibid., 33

[3] Ibid., 34

[4] Ibid., 102

About the Author


Karen Rouggly

Karen Rouggly is the Director for Mobilization in the Center for Student Action at Azusa Pacific University. She develops transformational experiences for students serving locally, nationally, and internationally. She completed an MA in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and is passionate about community development, transformational service and helping students understand vocation and service. Karen is also an active member at the Vineyard Church Glendora where she is a small group leader and serves on the teaching team. She is also a mom to two sweet boys, wife to an amazing guy, and loves being a friend to many.

11 responses to “The Ethnography of Eli”

  1. mm Rhonda Davis says:

    Karen, I love this post and the opportunity it afforded you to see through your son’s eyes. It seems that this is exactly the point of visual ethnography. It causes us to pause and see what is really behind the image, just as you realized Eli’s love and appreciation for his own space. Thank you for sharing his story with us!

    • mm Karen Rouggly says:

      Thanks friend! I’ve really struggled this week with my son at times. As someone who is on the extreme end of extroversion, I’ve struggled to relate to him. I really noticed it on Halloween at his school. He was very disengaged and seemed upset. Every time I asked him, He was “Great!” He could have fooled me. My husband, who is also very introverted, kindly reminded me that he was fine, just not a fan of the large crowds. As I was flipping through these photos, I made the connections between Eli and my husband (who is an extreme homebody) and it helped me a ton!

  2. Digby Wilkinson says:

    What the…? You’ve got pictures! I’m having a moment of total insecurity, and inferiority. I’m not making any comment yet – I’m off to put pictures in my post. Blimey. Talk about raising the bar.

  3. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Great post, thanks for connecting the tool of ethnography with personal connections to your (and your son’s) world. Your notations added just the right amount of explanation and curiosity. Thanks again for sharing your son’s ethnographic view of his world. I will be ruminating on this for some time. Blessings, H

  4. mm Mary Mims says:

    Karen, I think you and Jacob hit on something special by capturing what children and youth feel through visual ethnography. Children often have a difficult time expressing what they think or feel. Using Eli’s camera to see life from his perspective is profound. Without him telling you, you were able to see what’s important to him and make adjustments as necessary. It will be interesting to see how his perspective changes as he grows.

    • mm Karen Rouggly says:

      Thanks Mary! I really hope so! As I said above, I’ve learned a lot about him this week and this was really a helpful excursion into his world.

  5. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Great parenting move Karen! Not only do you get to affirm Eli’s images, but you get an amazing insight into his world and viewpoint.

    Quite the treat to be let into his world for this post. Thank you!

  6. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    This is excellent, Karen. It made me go through my phone photos and take some time to reflect on what I have shot and why. Every now and then I get a notice from my storage that it is full and it is usually because of the number of photos I have. I am realizing, like your Eli, that I want to keep those memories forever. Whether words or photos, we humans want to memorialize important moments and new ways of understanding. Really good to think about, thank you!

  7. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Hi Karen. I LOVED your blog! It was so fun to see the world through Eli’s eyes. When we look through the eyes of someone else, we can really begin to understand their perspective of the world. What a great way to experience his values! Since most of Eli’s pictures are of his family, you can feel the love through the pics. Such a powerful post, Karen! If only we could always see others through the eyes of a camera lens to understand their values and their gifts. I so enjoyed your blog – thanks so much for sharing!

  8. Karen, I love how you’ve woven your understanding of visual ethnography with an actual visual ethnographical sketch of your son. I could only imagine and wonder what he was thinking as he carefully framed those shots. These photos are treasured memories that will live for a long time. As he grows and matures into a young boy and into an adult, it would be nice to ask him what he remembers of those photos.

    Your post reminded me of my boys as well. Now I’m confident in my knowledge that my boys when they were between the ages of 6 and 10 did a lot of strange things when their parents weren’t looking. They are of the iGen generation, screenagers as some experts would label them. One day a few months ago I decided to inspect what was causing our hard drive to slow down on our main computer. To my pleasant surprise I discovered a lot of photos and movies of my two boys doing silly things years ago. They’re older now but it was a blast recounting all the fun silly things they were doing when they were just goofing off while the parents weren’t present. It gave my wife and I a window into their world when they were young, naive and much more uninhibited.

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