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.
5 Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography (p. 10). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.
6 Ibid p. 161.
7 Ibid p. 49.
8 Ibid p. 178.