Guide Doing Visual Ethnography

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It is impossible to predict, and mistaken to prescribe, precise methods for ethnographic research. Similarly, it would be unreasonable to require that visual methods be used in all contexts. Rather, as Morphy and Banks have suggested, they should be used where appropriate, with the rider that appropriateness will not always be obvious in advance In practice, decisions are best made once researchers are in a position to assess which specific visual methods will be appropriate or ethical in a particular research context, therefore allowing researchers to account for their relationships with informants and their experience and knowledge of local visual cultures.

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Nevertheless, certain decisions and indicators about the use of visual images and technologies in research usually need to be made before commencing fieldwork. Often research proposals, preparations and plans must be produced before fieldwork begins the fieldwork may be in an area where technologies are difficult to purchase or hire if the project is to be funded and equipment purchased from a research grant, technological needs must be anticipated and budgeted for.

Most researchers work with or for or study in universities and other organizations. Usually such institutions also require that their committees should formally scrutinize and approve of research ethics that any project involves before fieldwork begins. Banks has divided visual research methods into three broad activities: making visual representations studying society by producing images examining pre-existing visual representations studyingimages for information about society collaborating with social actors in the production of visual representations Banks n.

These activities can, in a general way, be anticipated before one begins fieldwork. However, in reality our specific uses of visual images and technologies tend to develop as part of the social relationships and activities that ethnographers engage in during fieldwork. Some of these will be purposefully thought out and strategically applied.

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In Chapters 3 and 4 the specific applications of general models of visual research methods are discussed in detail. In other cases unanticipated uses of the visual may be discovered by accident and retrospectively defined as visual methods. Ethnographers might repeat such activities sometimes in collaboration with informants , thus developing and refining the method throughout the research. However, methods developed within one research context may not be transferable to, or appropriate in, others.

For example, when I started to research Spanish bullfighting culture I began photographing people at the many public receptions held to present trophies, exhibitions and book launches. After my first reception I showed my. By keeping note of their requests and asking questions about the images I gained a sense of how individuals situated themselves in relation to other individuals in bullfighting culture.

As I attended more receptions I consciously repeated this method and developed my use of the camera and the photographs in response to the relationship that developed between my informants, the technology, the images and myself as photographer see Chapter 3 Pink b. This method of researching with images was appropriate in bullfighting culture partly because it imitated and was incorporated into my informants existing cultural and individual uses of photography.

Yet in other fieldwork contexts it will not work in the same way. The ethnographer needs to consider both local photographic conventions and the personal meanings and both economic and exchange values that photographs might have in any given research context. An increasing number of social scientists do research with people who are more technology literate and especially for doctoral students wealthier than them.


For example, in John Postill's research about ICT uses in Malaysia he found that many of his informants, who were mainly middle class Chinese suburban residents, had more sophisticated photographic technology than he was using himself. At public events he was often surrounded by local people photographing the proceedings with their mobile phones and key local actors tended to use digital cameras to produce images for their own websites. One local politician had a portable printer that he used to print out a photograph of himself photographed with Postill at a community basketball match an enviable technology to any visual researcher Postill, personal communication.

Here Postill was able to sometimes share his own digital images of events with his informants. In other research contexts ethnographers equipment might well exceed the economic possibilities of their informants. This might be the case both in developing countries or when researching less powerful groups of people in modern western countries.

Radley, Hodgetts and Cullen's photographic study of how homeless people both survive and make their home in the city is another example of how in a context where photographic practice was not part of the everyday lives of their informants, photography was in fact an appropriate research method.

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In this study they asked twelve homeless people to take photographs, using disposable cameras, of key times in their day, of typical activities and spaces, or anything else that portrayed their situation Radley et al. Their photographic production was both preceded and followed by an interview. The researchers argue that their emphasis on the visual as a way of engaging the participants meant that for this research that had a particular focus on appearance, materiality and the use of space the data provided more information than simply interviewing would have.

Importantly, they also report that the participants said that they enjoyed making the pictures, enjoyed having the opportunity to show. Before attempting visual research it is useful to read up on visual methods used by other ethnographers. However, it is also crucial to evaluate their appropriateness for a new project. This includes considering how visual methods, images and technologies will be interpreted by individuals in the cultures where research will be done, in addition to assessing how well visual methods suit the aims of specific projects.

In some situations visual methods appear inappropriate. Moreover researchers should not have fixed, preconceived expectations of what it will be possible to achieve by using visual research methods in a given situation.

Sometimes visual methods will not support the researcher's aims. Hastrup's description of her attempt as a woman anthropologist to photograph an exclusively male Icelandic sheep market demonstrates this well. She described the difficulty and discomfort she experienced while photographing this event but notes that having accomplished the task she felt a sense of satisfaction to have been there and to have been able to document this remarkable event 9.

She had left with the sensation that she even had photos from the sacred grove of a male secret society 9. However, her photographic method was not appropriate for recording the type of information she had anticipated and she wrote of the disappointment she experienced on later seeing the printed photographs: they were hopeless.

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Ill-focused, badly lit, lopsided and showing nothing but the completely uninteresting backs of men and rams 9. She emphasized the differencebetween her experience of photographing and the end results: While I was taking them I had the impression that I was making an almost pornographic record of a secret ritual. They showed me nothing of the sort but bore the marks of my own inhibition, resulting from my transgression of the boundary between gender categories 9. Hastrup's expectations of what she might obtain by using this visual research method were not met.

She anticipated that her photographs would represent ethnographic evidence of her experience of the event: a record of a secret ritual. To assess why this was not achieved she generalized that pictures have a limited value as ethnographic evidence, and the secret of informants experiences can only be told in words 9. While I would agree that as ethnographic evidence photographs indeed have limited value see Chapter 1 , this does not necessarily indicate that one may only represent ethnographic knowledge with words see Chapters The potential of photography or video as a realist recording device or a way of exploring individual subjectivities and creative collaboration will be realized differently in every application.

Sometimes using cameras and making images of informants is inappropriate for ethical reasons see below. In some situations photographs or videos of informants may put them in political danger, or subject them to moral criticism. The appropriateness of visual methods should not. Rather, such evaluations should be informed by an ethnographic appreciation of how visual knowledge is interpreted in a cross-cultural context. Therefore decisions about the particular methodologies and modes of representation to be used should pay attention to intersections between local visual cultures, the ways in which the visual is treated by wider users or audiences of the research and ethnographers own knowledge, experience and sensitivity.

By thinking through the implications of image production and visual representation in this way ethnographers should be able to evaluate how their ethnographic images would be invested with different meanings by different political, local and academic discourses. Without good knowledge of the context in which one is planning to do ethnographic research it is very difficult to predict how and to what extent visual images and technologies may be used.

Similarly, the basis upon which one may judge if visual methods will be ethical, appropriate, or a useful way to participate or collaborate with the people with whom one is working, will be contingent on the particular. Figure 2. My photographic prints, taken mainly in black and white, using a traditional stills camera, provided me with a way to fit in with and share one of the activities that local bullfight aficionados were involved in at that historical moment. Since doing that research both technologies and local practices have shifted.

Were I to begin similar fieldwork now in I would not be able to take for granted that exactly the same method would be appropriate. I would need to review the extent to which amateur bullfight aficionados now use digital photography and the implications of this for their practice.

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Plans to use visual methods made before commencing the research may appear unnecessary or out of place once the research has begun. For example, my original. However, once in the field I found my informants only occasionally used video cameras. I was working in a culture where photography was a dominant source of knowledge and representation about bullfighting. In this situation it was usually more appropriate to participate in local events as a photographer than as a video maker. Since some of my informants also participated in their bullfighting culture as amateur photographers, I was able to share an activity with them as well as producing images that interested them.

At the time photography fitted the demands of the project. However, retrospectively, I was able to identify ways in which video could have supported the research, fitted into the local bullfighting culture and also served my informants interests. Such insights could be used as the basis of future research plans, but would need to be reviewed on the basis of any changes in contemporary local practices at the point that new research commenced.

Usually ethnographers with some experience of working in a particular culture and society already have a sense of the visual and technological cultures of the people with whom they plan to work. Such background knowledge makes it easier to present a research proposal that defines quite specifically how and to what ends visual technologies and images are to be employed. This may entail developing insights from prior research in the same culture, doing a short pilot study, or researching aspects of visual cultures from library and museum sources, ethnographic film and the internet.

This need not be solely a traditional literature review about visual culture. The first stage of the research process may be an interactive exploration of websites and e-mail contacts where elements of the visual culture of a research area are represented.

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For instance, if I was to begin research into the visual representations of bullfighting culture now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, rather than the early s, the starting point from my base in England would be to examine the now numerous bullfighting websites and on-line magazines. E-mail communications and electronic exchanges of digital images are clear options for researchers working with informants who are technology users themselves.

When starting research about the slow living movement in Britain in , all my initial contacts were made on-line. My web searches included reading on-line materials but also discovering the snail logo of the movement and the visual images that form part of its internet presence. In some cases, a desk- based analysis of web pages can form the first stage of ethnographic fieldwork see Figure 2.

The web site represents what its producers call a social model, by which, for a fee, unemployed mothers the telemadres cook meals for young professionals the telehijos who do not have time to cook for themselves. Our wider research will include visual ethnographic fieldwork with the telemadres and telehijos. However, as a precursor to this we have developed an analysis of the visual and written texts of this website Pink and Martinez Prez The analysis both builds on existing theoretical and ethnographic research about Spanish gender and domestic life and will inform the research questions that guide our fieldwork.

For example, in our analysis of the web page above that represents a Tupperware container as the preferred method of storage for the prepared food we note how we have learnt from our existing ethnographic experience that: When adult sons still living at home worked away from the parental home it was. This occurred even in cases of sons who lived relatively independently in their own homes Pink and Martinez Prez The Tupperware container thus becomes a culturally relevant image.

The implication is that when we follow this study up with our fieldwork we will need to attend to this question of the meaning of Tupperware to our informants and the extent to which this helps to embed the economic exchanges between telemadres a n d telehijos w i t h sentiments of kinship. Pre-fieldwork surveys of literature, electronic and other visual texts and examples of how other ethnographers have successfully worked with visual images and technologies in specific cultures can indicate the potential for using visual methods in particular fieldwork contexts.

Combined with some considered guesswork about people's visual practices and discourses, this can form a basis from which to develop a research proposal. However, neither a researcher's own preparation, nor other ethnographers accounts can predict how a visual method will develop in a new project. Just as ethnography can only really be learned in practice, ethnographic uses of visual images and technologies develop from practice-based knowledge. Moreover, as projects evolve novel uses of photography or video may develop to explore and represent unexpected issues.

Indeed, some of the most thought provoking and exciting instances of visual research have emerged unexpectedly during fieldwork. Orobitg, who notes that During the initial design of my fieldwork I did not consider using a camera. Rather it was a fortunate coincidence that led me to first experiment and then reflect methodologically on the value of visual technologies in anthropological research and for anthropological analysis Orobitg was asked to take photographs for some documentary filmmakers who wanted to develop a film project in the area and needed some images to support their application.

However, from the moment she showed these photographs to the Pum people she was working with, the images began to inform her research in some key ways: as a visual note book as a way of communicating with the Pum and as a medium through which to reconstruct the imaginary sphere of Pum life Orobitg Like images, and any material object, technologies are also interpreted differently by individuals in different cultures.

If possible, ethnographers should explore the meanings informants give to different visual technologies before purchasing equipment. The selection of a digital or traditional camera, a semi-professional video camera or the cheapest hand-held domestic model may be related to economic factors, but should also account for how the equipment one uses will become part of one's identity both during fieldwork and in academic circles. Individuals constantly re-situate themselves and constructtheir self-identities in relation to not only other individuals but also to material objects and cultural discourses.

The visual technologies ethnographers use, like the images they produce and view, will be invested with meanings, inspire responses and are likely to become a topic of conversation. Some informants may have a shared interest in photography or video in some cases they will have better cameras and skills than the researcher. For example, in Spain my amateur interest in bullfight photography was shared with several local people. This led us to discuss technical as well as aesthetic aspects of bullfighting photography. Then, in the early s, this included themes such as the best film speeds, zoom lenses and seating in the arena.

Later in and , in video interviewing projects in the United Kingdom and Spain, interviewees appeared relaxed with my domestic digital video camera, simply seeing it as one of the latest pieces of new video technology. In comparison to solitary field diary writing, photography and video making can appear more visible, comprehensible activities to informants, and may link more closely with their own experience.

Photographs and video tapes themselves become commodities for exchange and the sites of negotiation, for example, among informants, between researchers and informants, between researchers and their families and friends at home and among researchers. In short, the visual technologies and images associated with ethnographers will also be implicated in the way other people construct their identities and thus impact on their social relationships and experiences.

Therefore, when selecting and applying for funding for technology it is important to remember that a camera will be part of the research context and an element of the ethnographer's identity. It will impinge on the social relationships in which he or she becomes involved and on how informants represent themselves. Different technologies impact on these relationships and identities in different ways.

In some cases image quality may have to be forsaken to produce images that represent the type of ethnographic knowledge sought. For example, the relationship between ethnographer and subjects that can develop in a photographic or filmic situation created by the use of professional lighting and sound equipment will differ from when. The images may be darker and grainier, the sound less sharp, but the ethnographic knowledge they invoke may be more useful to the project. In tandem with the social and cultural implications of the use of visual technologies, practical and technical issues also arise.

How will a camera and other equipment be powered and transported? Will there even be electricity? What post-production resources will be available? Finally, what resources will be available for showing the images to informants? In some locations cameras can be connected to TVmonitors and video recorders. D Milne. Julian Sefton-Green.

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Writing Up Qualitative Research. Harry F. Doing Visual Ethnography explores the use and potential of photography, video and hypermedia in ethnographic and social research. Reflexivity and subjectivity. Gendered identities technologies and images. Unobservable ethnography and visual culture. Images technologies individuals. Consuming technology and practising photography. Organizing video footage. Electronic archives. Ethnographic Photography and Printed Text. Deconstructionism turns to photography. Planning visual research. Choosing the technology for the project. Ethics and ethnographic research.

Visual research methods and ethical ethnography. Photography in Ethnographic Research. The ethnographicness of photography. Ethnographer as photographer.