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

Words, pictures and the worldwide web: a recipe for……?

Written by: on November 1, 2018

Disclaimer. Not my favourite book, nor subject. It was hard work.

Doing Visual Ethnography by Sarah Pink is a book dedicated to assisting budding ethnographers collect and synthesise their material in a way that offers academic rigour to a style of research that has many potential pitfalls in terms of viewer interpretation. Her primary media interests are, video, photographs, and the Internet. She considers how those web based components shape the understanding of the viewer.[1]

Pink sees the importance of conducting research in numerous public places and recognises that any meaningful interchange occurs in areas outside those classically used in ethnography, such as the Internet.[2] The view that culture can be investigated online is slowly gaining approval among the research community; some anthropologists have added online ethnography to their analysis, but others are hesitant to accept the soundness of this different method. Pink’s book appears to add to the growing discourse attempting to fix criteria for online ethnography. Ultimately there is a kind of hope that it will earn favour and be respected as an accepted research methodology. Personally, I’m not so sure the methodological structure and capacity for transparent peer review are all that obvious given the variety of subject areas it can cover.

“What the eyes see, and the ears hear, the mind believes.” Attributed to Harry Houdini, the famous quote reminds us both of the power of misdirection and the horrors of misinterpretation. This was my initial thought as I quickly scanned the book. In part, my concerned response comes from engaging with Wycliffe Bible translators years ago. The art of using symbols like written and spoken language to capture reality in such a way that most people will interpret the meaning in similar ways is challenging at the best of times. It takes time, expertise, an open mind, patience and testing. The problem, of course, is that Wycliffe was translating before the upheaval of postmodern relativism and its emphasis on the multivariate way in which individuals see and experience reality. Consequently, I had the feeling that Sarah Pink was heading in that same direction with impunity. Although it became apparent that wasn’t the case, there is a sense in the book that Pink favours using various media to emphasise the ‘experience‘ of the researcher alongside details. Though I like the concept of ‘experience’, it’s not always reliable as a source for explaining reality or defining historical events as a shared truth from which we can leap. For the modernist, a synoptic view of fact is central to social cohesion and cultural understanding; so long as that view is provable, rational, justifiable and bears scrutiny. Pink, however, through the back-and-forth dialogue between visual ethnographic theory and sociological critique, navigates visual ethnography’s more postmodern approach. Early on, Pink refers to Johannes Fabian who called for greater participation in observation to justify the need for visuals in research. As above, Fabian noted that recording reality is complicated, and observation alone does not form an accurate understanding. Merely assuming that visual ethnography in the right hands will cause viewers to grasp the context and message in complimentary but nuanced ways, is not reasonable or predictable. [3]

Attending to this critique, Pink refers to the use of “field notes” throughout the text. [4]  At one point making the observation that images are field notes too. Proper inquiry requires the ethnographer to respect the details not contained in the image; pictures, videos and even words can be deceptive on their own. Moreover, when words are added without reference to the context, we only have a perspective from the mind of the recorder, which may be politically motivated. So far as I can assess, Pink believes images should tell the story of the observations of the researcher and should be able to coexist with the interpretation of the researcher. [5]  The images should engage the script and vice versa.

Since I enjoy images among words, and audio-visual material too, I’m aware that they draw from within me an emotional response that doesn’t always correspond with the situation the visual media records. Those reactions may not be entirely rational, and they can have the effect of shifting understanding away from the author’s intention. It’s a little like telling a joke in a sermon, it may be appropriate and inoffensive, but it can leave people remembering little more than the fun they had. Emotional responses are tricky to predict or work with. Yet, they can also be helpful, if used judiciously.

Years ago, my wife and I made a simple audio-visual on poverty in Auckland city. It was before the days of computers, PowerPoint, data projectors and the internet. To put the whole thing together required some sophisticated equipment, so we received the assistance of New Zealand Christian Broadcasting. The CEO of the company was a well-known journalist and news host who helped us with the narrative. He made a comment that has stayed with me over the years, “People will rarely remember what you say, but they will remember how they felt”. He went on to say, “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”. The task was to articulate a message clearly and to use media to emphasise the point – never the other way around. My great concern with current Press Media is that truth has become the victim of entertainment, and entertainment is now the mediator between what we choose to believe, or not. When it comes to being judicious – the horse of falsehood has already bolted. Whether academia can genuinely rescue hypermedia from the growing legacy of infotainment, is anyone’s guess. My suspicion is not.


[1] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd: Kindle Edition, 2013). 2

[2] Ibid. 203-204

[3] Ibid. 38-40

[4] Ibid. 65, 144, 150, 156, 195

[5] Ibid. 51


Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd: Kindle Edition, 2013.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

6 responses to “Words, pictures and the worldwide web: a recipe for……?”

  1. Thank you Digby for your very good Article. I agree with you on the fact that Images are subject to different interpretaion by different people and thus may not work without being complimented with other methodologies. Images have to have narratives, either written or spoken as the context of research dictates, in order to be complete. I have witnessed how photos and videos posted in the social media have created problems because of misinterpretation, even breaking relationships and causing violence in our country.

  2. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    My articulate, theologian, scholar, pastor, friend; thanks so much for unpacking (and citing) your thoughts and, more importantly, your thought processes. Your title, “Words, pictures and the worldwide web: a recipe for……?” captures my general unease and discomfort with this topic. While Pink goes to great lengths to present this methodology as a viable and orthodox research tool, the subjectivity of one’s individual perception gives me pause. That is, while an image evokes an emotional connection (and I am Vineyard (a third-wave Charismatic)), I wonder how the range of responses along a spectrum of possibilities proves or disproves one’s research hypothesis? As always, Digby, thanks so much for your wise words. Blessings, H

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Harry. Thanks for your very kind comments. In response to your wondering, I guess the key for me is repeatability in peer review. Research, by it’s very nature, is an attempt to establish a benchmark that we might refer to as a truth statement. Because I can’t see Visual Ethnography as repeatable or easily peer reviewable, I have trouble with it’s place as a reasoned academic methodology. However, because I haven’t researched VE in any depth, it may be that there are ways of Structuring it as a method that proves to be reliable. This is me questioning a method I know very little about.

  3. Hey Digby. Great post. I echo your sentiments. It wasn’t my favorite book — and I thought the Modern History of Hong Kong was dense. This was worse for me. I tried several times to get the gist of her writing but chose to slough through it. Just like you I thought she was delving into postmodern ways of knowing. The theme of authorial intent not being a thing bothered me.

    But it looks like you appreciated the empirical ways of knowing that she is promoting. The rationalist in me had to be purged when I realized one day that emotions had no place in my world. That was bad. I didn’t mean for that to happen but somehow going to that extreme contributed to it.

    I reject the extreme swing to empiricism as well. I think somewhere in the middle is a good place to be.

  4. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    I appreciate your critique, Digby, and the important reminder of the subjectivity inherent in visual and sensory knowledge. I find the same can be true of the written word based on logic and reason. Who defines logic and reason in this era? I am amazed at how people can read the same words yet hear a very different message. I have even recently read questions posed of researchers regarding the legitimacy of their sample size, demographic or culture included, etc. I think it is indicative of the age we are in where people begin with skepticism, doubt and even cynicism rather than awe, wonder and openness. There is a tension I hope to hold between the two that guards against cynicism and gullibility.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Tammy. It’s certainly true that individuals can misinterpret words too. I think the critical difference between experiential research and objective empercism is peer review. Psychology would be a case in point. On one hand it measures how individuals interpret their ‘experience’ of reality, but it does so through careful measurement and repeatablility. Though I am certain Visual Ethnography has its place to make a creative point about reality that has previously been measured through repeatable methodogies, I’m not sure visual ethnography is one of those methodologies. Like all things, however, I am happy to be shown otherwise 🙂

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