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

Visual Ethnography: Building Blocks for an Innovative Field

Written by: on October 14, 2019

Sarah Pink, in her textbook Doing Visual Ethnography, inadvertently lays out reasons why the field of visual ethnography is itself innovative, and why the potential for future innovation in the field remains bright. As a surprising unintended consequence, she offers insights into how others might approach research more innovatively. Pink goes so far to boldly say, “[Visual ethnography] is itself a process of continuous innovation” (34). Allow me to extract the Top 10 Innovative Principles borrowed from Visual Ethnography:


  1. A Deep Sense of Empathy
  2. A Bias towards Action
  3. An Openness to the Unexpected
  4. The Ability to Co-create with the End User
  5. Interdisciplinary Involvement
  6. An Awareness of Building on the Past
  7. Openness to New Ideas and Mediums
  8. A Recognition and Celebration of Innovators in the Field
  9. Freedom to Pursue Unique Solutions
  10. ???


  1. One of the core tenants of both ethnography and design thinking innovation theory is empathy. Pink presents (and critiques) the definition of ethnography given by Martin Hammersley and Paul Atkinson as a set of methods that:

…involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research. (34)


Ethnography is marked with an active participation in the daily lives of people over an extended period of time. While Pink critiques Hammersley’s and Atkinson’s definition of ethnography due restricting the range of activities ethnographers may actually do, she affirms the “incarnational” – active participation – of the ethnographer. I would argue that the most helpful innovation and highest added value come when there is a deap, almost personal, understanding of the needs of the “end user.” When these are void of that experience, one points to multi-million dollar waste facilities that lay unused in developing countries because the cost to run them far exceed the community’s capacity. This shared value of empathy is a prime indicator of whether a field will innovate or not.


  1. Another shared value among visual ethnographers and innovators is a bias towards action. Pink devotes an entire section to the concept of image-makers as practitioners (43-46). The learning is in the doing. Visual ethnography, at least the kind presented by Pink, minimizes the time between this learn-do-assess virtuous cycle. 


  1. An openness to the unexpected further underscores innovation. There’s a deep-seated drive in every ego to be right, to foresee answers, and to be the source of these answers. This ego-driven posture is counterproductive to innovation. It takes a larger-than-average amount of humility to be open to surprise and unexpected insights and solutions. Pink embodies this posture as she points out, “Indeed some of the most thought provoking and exciting instances of visual research have emerged unexpectedly during field work” (55).


  1. Innovative fields rely on the end-user to co-create. Nehemiah wisely employs this principle when he has each priest rebuild the wall in front of their own homes (Nehemiah 3:28). He knows that when the end-user has buy in, they are motivated to solve their own problems and gain unique insights. Visual ethnography also “can become a product in with both informants and ethnographer invest” (67, and elaborated on in 86-87). This is particularly helpful and effective in contexts where power relations are complex (117). 


  1. Yet another indicator of continuous innovation is the openness to interdisciplinary involvement. Often innovation is applying an existing idea to a new field. Galileo knew there were mountains on the moon, not because his telescope was powerful enough to see them, but because his study of painting allowed him to recognize the shadows cast by the mountains. In the same way, visual ethnography consciously pulls from “consumer research, health studies, education studies, media studies, organisation studies, design research, buildings research and schools of art” (2).


  1. When one admits they are building on something from the past to create something new, they are far more likely to continue in that trajectory. There are no “ex nihilo” innovators, and this awareness puts someone in the posture to ask, “How else might I build on this?” and “Where else might I glean a building block?” Pink displays this mode of thinking as she situates visual ethnography in the broader concepts and history of anthropology and various approaches to ethnography (71-73).


  1. As visual ethnography advances along with technology, there exists an openness to new ideas and mediums. Even the overall flow of the book follows the advancement of visual technology, from photography (chapter 4), video (chapter 5), and then finally the Internet (chapter 6). 


  1. Pink generously recognizes and celebrates innovators in her field. People move towards the stories we share and the exemplars we crown. Pink highlights the work and advancements of Lyon (76-78), Lammer (117-119), O’Neil (25, 86) and Coover (210-211) and even uses the word “innovative” when describing these colleagues. 


  1. A culture and history of freedom in solving problems is crucial to innovation. Pink points out how the 1990s “set the ground for further innovation and freedom in the ways ethnographers might use photography in their written work” (173). Without a safe-to-try and safe-to-fail culture, it’s impossible to risk and pursue solutions that are out of the norm.


  1. Last, I was unable to thoughtfully identify a tenth innovative principle, so instead of fabricating (there’s another term one might use) one, I thought I would embody a few of these practices and have an openness to the unexpected by offering a place to co-create this list. What might you add to fill out the final place on my Top 10 list?

About the Author


Shawn Cramer

9 responses to “Visual Ethnography: Building Blocks for an Innovative Field”

  1. mm Joe Castillo says:

    …involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research.

    Shawn, when we was in Africa as a missionary with the Baka people, we used a similar approach that involves a series of questions as well as anthropology and ethnographic technic to learn about life with the Baka people. So we will sit around the fire, and every day once the time was appropriated, we will ask them questions related to many topics like topography, culture and spiritual world. By the way, the topography is another discipline. We will spend hours learning as much as we could. I think that a serious ethnography assessment could take months, if not years.

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      I get the sense we have so much to learn from your time in Africa. I’m hoping that gets teased out as we progress together.

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    I think creating a sense of empathy is one of the unique features you’ve pointed out. Visual ethnography entails stepping into the lives of those you’re observing. In effect, you’re looking into their story and piecing together a narrative (whether it’s a proper narrative or not is a different question of debate of course, but this is also where the concept of co-creation comes into play). And it’s as you collaborate that the most unexpected ideas or narratives can come out (as I shared about in my post about Hong Kong).

  3. Nancy Blackman says:

    Ok, Mr. Innovator. I have a question for you with regards to #7. With the percentage of people leaving the church in North America, but still wanting community, do you think that visual ethnography can be a useful tool for building an innovative faith community?

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      I certainly think that visual ethnography could capture some of the nuances in the seemingly conflicting research done on why this group is leaving the church.

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Pink states ” The work of the visual ethnographer can thus become part of life, while at the same time life becomes part of research.” A possible #10: Innovation should be life giving

    Absolutely amazing insights!

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    I’ll echo Greg’s suggestion for #10- innovation and ethnography should contribute something to the larger narrative of creation. In my context, I am surrounded by images of the past- artifacts, photographs, stained glass windows, etc.- they all communicate where the church has been. When I talk about moving forward (innovating,) the underlying question inside the push back is “How will this new thing fit into our story?” I have found greater success in introducing new things when I point to the old pictures and artifacts and talk about what was behind decisions made decades ago. I have had to become a bit of an archaeologist in my current setting, but having visual clues from the past has actually helped me cast a vision for our way forward in a way that feels authentic.

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Tough to come up with a tenth! The first 9 are thorough. I think a tenth that I could possibly come up with would most likely fit inside any one of the nine you found.

    How about #10: becoming the media? That is the place on which the subject is placed or rests. As the media, what can be extended is an invitation to the informant and observer/student/inquirer to come together? To understand one another and to understand themselves; visual ethnography as a relationship between one and another or a medium for community?

    I don’t know. Trying here! Thankful for the challenge and for your insights. Blessing.

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