We Are All Visual Ethnographers Now Laying in my bed as try to chase sleep, I often times find myself picking up my favorite digital device and taking a stroll through the halls of social media. As a pastor, this can be a dangerous walk. When I go to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any of the other social media sites and begin to look at pictures of friends, family members, and church congregants, I see a totally different side to them than what they portray in person. There have been many nights that my blood boils as I find out that an elder has an opposite stance than our church does in regards to marriage, or I see the picture of someone who was the embodiment of holiness pose in a not so holy way. Instantly, my casual stroll has set me off on a crusade against these images.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I believe this is true. In age where more and more people live their lives through images, sometimes there is a story behind the image that evokes a variety of emotions for a variety of different people. For example if you take an image of Bruce (or Caitlyn) Jenner, it will spark a wide array of emotions. Some will see the picture as abhorrent and some will see it as heroic. Some will see the opportunity to pray and love the person the picture represents, and some will castigate those people instantly to hell.
While I will be honest, I had a difficult time with Sarah Pink’s Visual Ethnograpy text at first. The research data alone was enough to make my eyes cross. However, once I realized that we live in an age where all of us in one way or another engage in this new practice, the light bulb went off in my head. This is not some distant research methodology that will never be used in my lifetime outside of my program. Rather, this is real-time, real world stuff (I know not a great word for a doctoral student) that has a host of implications for the everyday man or woman. A photograph is not just a photograph. There are layers behind the image that tell the story. In her retelling of her work at carnival, Sarah Pink stated that she photographed and videoed the event, but there were many layers to her research. Understanding the sites, sounds, personalities, and context behind the images gives an ethnographer a greater appreciation for the image conveyed on the screen. Pink states that, “The visual is therefore inextricably interwoven with our personal identities, narratives, lifestyles, cultures and societies as well as with definitions of history, time space, place reality and truth.”(1) In other words, the entire context is vital to grasp the full meaning of the image, and because so much hangs on that image it can often times be impossible to grab the full meaning of it.
While Pink does offer a wealth of information on how to do visual ethnography, the giant take away for me was not the practical “how to’s” but rather the underlying premise of why these methods are critical for life in the 21st century. We all carry a responsibility to fully understand an image or a video when we see it posted or tagged. What is the person in the image saying, how am I bringing my prejudice into view when I see the image, what has been the history, cultural upbringing, or truth that the person holds that took the image? All these questions must be brought into view.
At the risk of being polarizing, I want to demonstrate what I mean. As a pastor in the deep and somewhat rural south, the image of the stars and bars (confederate flag) means to many southern pride, heritage, family values, and patriotism. While I do understand these ideals, I recently took the image above in the blog and talked about it with my parishioners. (The image above was taken in Selma during the March on Selma in 1965. These police officer stood near the Edmund Pettus Bridge) I did not know at the time, but I was doing visual ethnography. While those of us who are southern white males may see the image of the flag representing one thing, there are others who see the flag and they do not think of the Civil War, but they think of lynchings, hangings, police dogs, drinking from another water fountain, Emmett Till, Medgar Evars, and the death of Dr. King. My point to my church was simply this. If the flag (which is an image) evokes this type of hurt for our black brothers and sisters in Christ, then why not just abandon it altogether. After all, I am a citizen of heaven before I am a son of the south.
An image is not neutral. I think Pink would agree with that point. There are layers and layers of data behind the image. A good visual ethnographer is going to realize that and not just rely upon an image to tell the story, but rather they are going to understand the background of why the picture was taken in the first place as well as understanding how the viewer brings their own level of context into the interpretation also.
We are all engaged in ethnography whether we like it or not. From a pastoral perspective, it should make us walk through the halls of social media slowly, meticulously and purposefully. We should understand that there are many reasons why people show an image and there is a greater story behind it as well, so we should be slow to make a judgment before we research all the data.
(1) Sarah Pink. Doing Visual Ethnography. (London: Sage Publishing, 2013), 145.