Ethnography. What a word – or is it more than mere words?
In all honesty, this was a tough read for me, not because of the subject matter (I love cultural anthropology), but because of the highly academic style Pink uses in her text. It was like walking through quicksand for me at times, but I never gave up. That is not an option. The reason I am sharing this is that I am wondering if I am the only one who struggled through this text. Can anyone else relate to these feelings?
In Visual Ethnography (2007), Sarah Pink argues for a reflexive research model to study culture, one that includes not only written data but visual data as well. Throughout her text, Pink argues that researchers of culture move away from the “scientific-realist” style of cultural interpretation and move toward a more collaborative, participatory, and subjective style of ethnographic methodology. Rather than stick to conventional processes that place the ethnographer as the authority, the author suggests that equal importance be given to local informants who can better interpret the meaning of photographic and video data being used in her research projects. Pink’s emphasis on honoring her informants brought to mind the words of Scripture: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…” (Romans 12:3). It is not about us. It is never merely about us.
Every culture has its own battles with ethnocentricity, not just Americans. And if we are not careful, the “privileged culture of the highly educated” will also think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Pink boldly confronts this self-centered thinking by embracing her informants and trusting their interpretations of her photos and other visual artifacts created in her research. This attitude made me excited about doing ethnographic projects myself. The learners then are not just the local people but the researcher herself becomes a learner. It is this epistemological truth that shines through Sarah Pink’s work.
Pink also argues that “reality is subjective”; it is not always easy nor is it always black and white. She repeatedly affirms that the most important part of her work is found in the relationships she forms. Pink seems to be urging her readers to pay attention and to be aware of what is going on around them relationally. Honor those who are giving of their time and of their lives to your projects. Don’t take them for granted. And don’t think you are better than them because of all you know. This message spoke powerfully to me, even when I was in deep quicksand.
As we approach London and our ethnographic projects, what can we learn from Pink? In our overt and covert work of observing, photographing, interviewing, and interpreting our work, let’s not forget that it is not about us. We will be unable to interpret clearly what we see on our own. In fact, we will probably makes fools of ourselves in assigning categories and meaning to our photos and films. Without guidance from the locals, we just might be filling SD cards. I for one am going to focus on building relationships in London and not merely on taking photos. It is only then that I will learn what I am supposed to learn. In the end, I trust that the ground of understanding will be solid and I won’t find myself sinking again.