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

Toilet Paper

Written by: on October 25, 2017

From my current vantage point writing a dissertation, even with terrific mentorship, seems like sheer nonsense and fantasy.  How on earth will I ever be able to adequately discern a meaningful question, conduct beneficial and focused research, and then formulate the acquired knowledge and information into something that contributes in some small way to a worthwhile dialogue?  Currently, I am afraid when complete, regardless of the question it seeks to answer, it will only be useful to ‘perforate it and put it on a roll’, to quote Robin Williams as Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.  I like words.  I like to read, write, speak, teach, preach etc. but, the dissertation scares me to death; far more now than it did before we started course work.  Maybe this week’s text, ‘Doing Visual Ethnography’, provides a glimpse of a way forward….also maybe not.

In coming to grips with the book and the idea of Visual Ethnography it was necessary first to understand the term.  Ethnography as an academic pursuit is primarily concerned with the study and interpretation of social organizations and cultures in everyday life.  Thus Visual Ethnography has the same primary focus but utilizes the mediums of photography, film, and video to achieve those ends.  Is it possible that Visual Ethnography could be a way forward, a useful tool for research and interpretation of my chosen field of study?

Being perpetually immersed in words means that I am not always alert to the power of images and the stories they can communicate.  We tend to think of the academic environment as one where the only true means of gaining understanding is through words.  But, Sarah Pink reminds readers “Images are indeed part of how we experience, learn and know as well as how we communicate and represent knowledge”. This does not imply that words are usurped altogether but, images in their various forms can be powerful means to know and communicate as well.  They have the ability to “provide a much more detailed sense of participant experiences than written reconstruction alone”.  Thus it seems that Ethnography has the potential to communicate more powerfully with the utilization of images for both interpretation and communication, than if words exclusively were used for these purposes.

However, my own unique dependence on words may in fact weaken any meaningful understanding I am able to gain.  Words bereft of any supporting images do not communicate as they once did.  In fact, some researchers are turning the writing process on its head by using words to support the bulk of the communication through images instead of using images to support the words.  “Rather than seeing visual data as supporting fieldnotes and transcriptions, our analytic perspective is to begin with the visual data as the primary ground of analysis, drawing on fieldnotes, analytic memos, and interview transcripts for triangulation and additional context.”  Further, it seems that utilizing images has the potential not only to be the way in which research is conducted but, can also be a far more powerful means of communication to others any sort of results.  With the power of images in communicating pertinent information one is “able to share much more primary data with readers than would be possible in a narrative that overwhelmingly privileged discursive data.”

Approaching the dissertation process from a traditional academic construct may inadvertently narrow the possibilities one is open to consider for conducting research.  Pink, in quoting McGuigan 1997, reminds readers that, “[t]he methods should serve the aims of the research, not the research serve the aims of the method.”  I therefore need to be open to not only the possibility of utilizing aspects of Visual Ethnography as my dissertation is developed.  There are likely other useful means of conducting valuable research that I have yet to consider or appreciate.

In many ways Visual Ethnography permits the viewer of any work to come to their own conclusions about the data presented rather than being unduly influenced by the chosen narrative of the author.  It represents a ‘snapshot’ (a term also incorporating videography and not limited to still pictures) of reality, what took place at a specified period of time.  How it is to be understood is largely at the discretion of each individual viewer and out of the control of the one conducting and presenting the research.  As Pink wisely reminds readers; “It is impossible for us to know exactly how any written or visual texts we produce will be used to make meaning by their audiences.”

As I have been in large part captivated by the possibilities of Visual Ethnography, there are some cautionary notes in Pink that I need to retain.  First of all despite my enthusiasm it is wise to consider that; “visual methods do not need to be used in all contexts, rather they should be used where appropriate, with the rider that appropriateness will not always be obvious in advance.”  Not being readily conversant with visual images it may be more challenging for me to recognize what is and is not appropriate.

Despite the limited knowledge and nearly nil experience I have with this medium of academic research I feel slightly empowered by the thought of alternative ways of conducting and then communicating my area of research.  “Photographs can be used to create representations that express experiences and ideas in ways that written words cannot.”  At least the dissertational toilet paper has the possibility of being visually captivating prior to being flushed.



1 Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography (p. 1). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

2McNely, Brian J, et al. “Spaces and Surfaces of Invention: A Visual Ethnography of Game Development.” Enculturation, 28 Feb. 2013.

3 Ibid

4 Ibid

5 Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography (p. 10). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

6 Ibid p. 161.

7 Ibid p. 49.

8 Ibid p. 178.

About the Author


Dan Kreiss

Former director of the Youth Ministry program at King University in Bristol, TN and Dean of the School of Missions. I have worked in youth ministry my entire life most of that time in New Zealand before becoming faculty at King. I love helping people recognize themselves as children of God and helping them engage with the world in all its diversity. I am particularly passionate about encouraging the church to reflect the diversity found in their surrounding community in regard to age, gender, ethnicity, education, economic status, etc. I am a husband, father of 4, graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, an avid cyclist and fly-fisherman still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

11 responses to “Toilet Paper”

  1. mm M Webb says:


    Great use of visual images on your introduction to Pink’s book on visual ethnography (VE). You were humble, transparent, and mentioned using Pink’s visual researching methods in your dissertation. So, like Trinity said to Neo in the Matrix, “it’s the question that drives us.” (1) Dan, what drives you? How are you going to apply what you learned from Pink into your research question? What is you question? I read your post twice and could not find it.

    When you said, VE permits people to “come to their own conclusions about the data presented” my 6th sense warning of the devil’s schemes alerted me. I think we need to apply caution to how we personalize Pink’s loose constructs on truth and reality. Once objective truth and absolute reality go south, then a loss of morality quickly follows.

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

    1 William Irwin, ed. The matrix and philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the real. Vol. 3. (Open Court Publishing, 2002) 5.

  2. Dan, first of all, I think your dissertation will not even come close to being perforated and put on a roll. You are a brilliant teacher and learner and I can’t wait to see what you end up creating. I agree with you that it is a daunting task and that Pink’s book gives another method to consider in the process of research and communicating our ideas. I also think it is challenging to interpret pictures since they are just a snapshot of a moment in time without the full context to go with it. Also, I’m curious about your thoughts on the ethics of photographing people without their knowledge or consent and how that fits with the ethnography process? Great post as always Dan!

  3. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Clear and well-thought out post, Dan. Have you been able to think through the specifics of how you might incorporate VE into your specific research project? I understand the concept and accept the value, but struggle to see application in my specific field of study. How do you photograph missionary effectiveness and sustainability?

    • mm Dan Kreiss says:

      You might consider before and after photos like the ones they take of US presidents before their term and after their term. The aging process for those individuals is astounding. I wonder if there would be similarities with missionaries?

  4. Shawn Hart says:

    Oh captain, my captain…I appreciate the fears you have concerning your dissertation, I know we all have our own concerns as well with our own efforts; however, I am not sure that you should have those reservations from this reading, unless you feel as though your dissertation needs visual reinforcement. Though I appreciate and even agree on the role that visual ethnography can serve today, I am not convinced that it is necessary for all things. I bought a new bible recently, and within its pages, I found a number of photos of biblical locations. Upon returning from my trip to Israel two years ago, I was looking through my photos and found that I had taken almost and identical photo of one of the locations; almost as though I was standing in the same place the bible photographer had been standing in. The strange thing was that I only connected so powerfully to the photo because I had actually been to that location. I know that Pink was showing the powerful impact that photos/videos can have, but I also saw some limitations…photos especially, will never truly help someone to experience exactly what happened.

    Do you see visual ethnography as a tool that you will use in your dissertation? Have you started thinking about adding it now that you have read Pink?

    • mm Dan Kreiss says:

      At this point I have no idea whether or not I will be able to utilize VE for dissertation purposes. I feel less certain about the whole process now than I ever have. VE was just something I had never really considered before. There were aspects of it I thought were valuable but others I found less so. I guess it might depend on what other ideas are gained over the next several months that might also add fodder to this process. Right now it’s all a muddle to me.

  5. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    The dissertation is certainly overwhelming! Thanks for sharing the useful and maybe not so useful part of visual ethnography.

  6. I’m with you, Dan, in that at this point I have no idea if I can incorporate VE into my research or ultimate dissertation. But the book opened the doors to think about the possibility.

    In my opinion, each researcher should probably use the means of expression that they are most conversant and comfortable with. In Pink’s case, she is also a skilled photographer, and it makes sense for her to use images. In my case (and in yours?), we are trained and have some measure of facility with words. Would these not be the best vehicle, therefore, to communicate the research to others?

    • mm Dan Kreiss says:

      While you and I might be most conversant with words as our main medium of communication I wonder how much will be lost to those who do not have the same level of comfort with words that you and I do.

  7. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dan,

    I find it interesting that, after reading all 14 posts, many of us came up with different definitions of Visual Ethnography. Yours is different than mine, but I think that is okay. It seems like our definitions depend on our own perspectives. Not sure if the world of academia (of which your college work is a part of) would be okay with floating definitions, but in this case, I can see how it fits. Especially since using visual ethnography allows subjective interpretations of so many different forms of media…

    • mm Dan Kreiss says:

      I noticed that as well. It also might have much to do with the greater effort this week to pull from different sources as encouraged by Jason Clark. The definition I found/developed came from other sources. It seems as though despite its use within academia there has not yet been an agreed upon definition of the term or the best use and purpose of VE. Pink may be one of the leading experts but apparently there are many others out there who have developed their own ideas.

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