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?