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

Visual Ethno-what?

Written by: on September 12, 2014

When I ordered the book Doing Visual Ethnography by Sarah Pink, I was not sure what to expect. I had never heard the term “visual ethnography”, so I began to search for a good working definition. I discovered that there are schools, like Leiden University that offer specialties in Visual Ethnography. Apparently it is something real and well-known within certain circles, but I still did not know what it was. I opened up my new book by Sarah Pink looking for answers. What I found, was that Pink seemed to expect the reader to already have a basic understanding of what it was. It wasn’t until about page 34 that I began to wrap my mind around what visual ethnography is. Pink offers a good working definition, “I understand ethnography as a process of creating and representing knowledge or ways of knowing that are based on ethnographers’ own experiences and the ways these intersect with the persons, places and things encountered during that process. Therefore visual ethnography, as I interpret it, does not claim to produce an objective or truthful account of reality, but should aim to offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, the embodied, sensory and affective experiences, and the negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced.” (Pink: 34; emphasis mine).


As I proceeded through the book, I realized that I knew what visual ethnography was, I just did not use the same term. In fact, I have practiced it for many years. As a missionary, this is a normal part of my job. Our sending agency has stressed that about 25% of our time should be spent communicating with the supporting churches. Much of this communication is written, but a large percent is represented using photo and video images. In fact, visual ethnography is very useful in our ministry and is an expectation of our sending agency and supporting churches. Pink reminds us that, “Indeed the camera and the digital image, as an increasingly constant presence in our pockets, our hands and our computers is part of our contemporary reality.” (Pink; 31) I am not real big into taking pictures, but I never leave home without a good camera because I know that the ability to capture the right photo at the right time will help me communicate the realities of what I experience.


This brings us to another issue that Pink continually revisits; the question of ethics. Pink refers to a situation in which, “The informants did not like the images of themselves in the video; while they admired its landscape scenes, they found themselves ‘ugly’ and ‘poor’” (Pink; 108). She goes on to say; “Consent is one thing, the extent to which it is really informed, or by what it is informed is another” (Pink; 190). In the field of missions, there is the constant challenge to explain to the american church the need for continued support. It is sad too say, but the more emotional or shocking the images, the easier it will be to raise support. An image of a half-naked starving child will raise more money for missions than a picture of a young, middle-class professional working at a computer in a fancy office. The reality in which I live and work brings me in contact with each of these extremes. The question is, how will I represent them to the american church?


We have had the privilege of hosting many short-term mission groups. Many are surprised that we live in a large city with McDonald’s, Home Depot, and Walmart. Their idea of “missions” is rural poverty. While missions does take place in areas of rural poverty, let us not forget that our mission is to take the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lost world; this includes the big cites and the economically well-off. Where did the american church get this limited view of missions? Was it perhaps from the missionary ethnographers?

About the Author


Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

11 responses to “Visual Ethno-what?”

  1. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Brian! I really appreciate your honesty about the struggle for missionaries, that was a great insight I hadn’t thought of as I read the book. It’s so important to check our motivation when sharing about our experiences. There is no culture or economic level that doesn’t need Jesus. How do you balance communicating both realities with your donors?

    • mm Brian Yost says:

      That is a great question.
      As we share, whether in person or through written/visual communications, we try to engage the mind, not just the emotions. We remind people of the heart of missions and share stories and challenges from many different perspectives. When we receive groups, we try to provide an orientation that allows them to see and experience many different aspects. With that said, it is still a constant struggle.

  2. mm Jon Spellman says:

    Brian, great connection to your field. When you began to realize that you were a practicing visual ethnographer but just didn’t call it that, what was your gut-level response to that realization?


    • mm Brian Yost says:

      My first response was, “Why all the technical mumbo-jumbo? Why not just use plain English?” On a deeper level, I felt challenged as I reflected back on the ways that I have used visual ethnography and wondered how well I have represented those with whom I minister.

  3. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Brian, Your stress of trying to get your head around what “visual ethnography” is, is hilarious and common to me:). I went to the dictionary and encyclopedia after having read the whole book and after having gone back to where Pink, herself, attempted to define it. I agree, an would say having an understanding of what “ethnography” is and the field and the general practices would be very helpful before reading this book. I am enjoying the book much more now that we are talking about and processing out actual applications to our contexts.

  4. mm Dave Young says:

    So I’m right there with you, and others, not knowing what it was and a bit frustrated to have read the entire book and really not feel any more prepared to “do visual ethnography” (at least that’s how I felt). To your point, just a brief study of some of Pink’s vocabulary would have better prepared me to read her book. And if it really as simple as studying a culture, a people group, their social interactions etc, then that’s something you’ve likely done for years as a missionary. In fact it’s something every new missionary or pastor should do whenever they find themselves in a new context. Thanks for post, pushed me to think about it further.

    • mm Nick Martineau says:

      Dave, I appreciated this comment, “if it really as simple as studying a culture, a people group, their social interactions etc, then that’s something you’ve likely done for years as a missionary. In fact it’s something every new missionary or pastor should do whenever they find themselves in a new context.”

      This really is something we all should be doing. Not just once but consistently.

  5. mm Travis Biglow says:

    Thank you for your honesty about this subject. The depiction of missions has always showed us the worst possible situation to get the most response. I understand the principle but as you stated missions is about all walks of life not just the poverty stricken in the world. I feel its important as you do, to bring the real picture of what missions is to the world and not the less fortunate ones because those pictures solicit the most money! God bless you!!!!!

  6. mm Mary Pandiani says:

    I’ll be curious how many big words we’ll find we’ve been doing all along without knowing it 🙂 While I’ve not been a professional missionary, I can see how your background in missions work would necessitate the art of ethnography. In fact, I think a missionary is only as good as it knows the culture she/he is serving.
    I appreciate your words about what visual to offer for what purpose. I struggle with organizations that appeal with emotional/shocking pictures. It’s like a sugar high that can only last so long before you start to feel manipulated. But then again, those pictures are real. How do we provide them in an honest manner?

  7. Dawnel Volzke says:


    Great post! I appreciate your comments about people’s perception of the mission field. I wonder if the news and advertisements from NGOs have also contributed to people’s misperceptions. When I was a little girl, our church hosted an annual missions conference. At that time, there was no internet and even making phone calls internationally was very, very expensive and limited. My favorite thing about the missions conference were the pictures, slide shows, and stories. They captivated my attention and gave me a passion for missions. The missionaries raised funds at the conference, but their main focus wasn’t on money. Instead, it was to bring people into their world and to raise awareness as to what was happening on the field. At some point in the past twenty years, there has been a huge shift to where missionaries are more focused on funding. Further, most are specifically trained to use pictures and to tell stories to further their funding efforts. I appreciate Mary’s comments about manipulation…what has caused the shift in focus to money and how can missionaries avoid falling into the trap of manipulating people for money. My husband served for a while with a missions organization, so we appreciate the difficulty that missionaries have in raising funds. But, we also struggled with raising funds as our pictures and stories weren’t of starving children in the middle of the jungle. Do you think that the overuse of media in this area has desensitized people to the true work being accomplished on the mission field?

    • mm Brian Yost says:

      “Do you think that the overuse of media in this area has desensitized people to the true work being accomplished on the mission field?”

      Great question, Dawnel. There is a powerful story to be told and visual images are a great way to tell it, but the reality for most missionaries, NGOs and a myriad of other ministries is that they must raise funds. Many do this well and with great integrity but others seem much more focused on their own self-preservation than on the essence of sharing Christ with a lost world. As a result, I do believe that many people are desensitized to the true work.

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