Ethnographers study culture through the lens of individuals. Sarah Pink describes visual ethnography as a way to “offer ethnographers routes through which to come to understand the very things we cannot see.” This is done through multiple mediums, but Pink’s focus in Doing Visual Ethnography is on photography, video and the web.
I am fascinated by the way the camera is able to capture a distinct perspective and cause us to view the world in new ways. The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true on multiple levels. Pictures invite us to explore new worlds and imagine narratives represented within the images. Photographers can be skilled storytellers, and I am often captivated by their work.
However, I found Pink’s Doing Visual Ethnography difficult to read in light of our current cultural climate. Almost daily, articles are sent my way concerning social media and its negative effect on young adults. Early this year, I came across an article entitled “Why Instagram might be affecting your mental health (and what you can do about it).” It echoed many of the voices I hear in student development right now, struggling to help students in their 20s with anxiety about image and feelings of inadequacy about their work and lifestyle. The article referenced a study conducted by the University of Notre Dame in which young adults, especially women, were negatively impacted by the frequent use of apps like Instagram and SnapChat. In 2017, a study by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK found that even though Instagram was seen as an opportunity for self-expression, it ranked highest in negative effects on self-image and a sense of inadequacy.
Even though I am intrigued by Pink’s description of the power of visual ethnography, I wonder if we have entered a space in our culture where everyone is serving as a personal visual ethnographer, offering carefully curated visual representations of the life we wish to project to the world. Rather than expressing the true life behind the picture, we are only portraying the life we want others to see…the “perfect life.” If Pink is correct, and visual ethnography offers a route to understanding the unseen, I would offer that we are falling short of embracing the realities of our own lives and have come to a dead end. Obsessed with arriving at the picture-perfect destination, we have kept the hard work of the journey a secret. I wonder what it would look like if our lives and relationships weren’t reduced to only what can be viewed on each frame of a social media feed. What if those feeds were true visual ethnographies, inviting others into the difficult but immensely rewarding journey of becoming more like Jesus. It might look messier; a combination of high-highs and low-lows, and all that lies between. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be remarkable!
 Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 2nd edition. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd: Kindle Edition, 2013). 38
 Raynes-Goldie, Kate “Why Instagram might be affecting your mental health (and what you can do about it.” Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2018-01-instagram-affecting-mental-health.html (accessed November 1, 2018).
 Fox, Kara “Instagram worst social media app for young people’s mental health” CNN.com. https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/19/health/instagram-worst-social-network-app-young-people-mental-health/index.html (accessed November 1, 2018).