Anthropologists, and ethnographers specifically, use photographs all the time. Whether on the covers of ethnographies, or interspersed throughout the pages of texts, photographs are a pretty common element of many anthropological publications. Like the ubiquitous locational maps and statistical figures, images of places or ethnographic participants are pretty standard fare. What tends to be absent, however, are overt discussions of the actual use of photography as an anthropological/ethnographic method. This isn’t the case with all ethnographies, mind you, since there are indeed some that engage with photography in a very direct manner (Righteous Dopefiend is one recent example that comes to mind). But in many ethnographies that I see, photographs seem to just exist, floating in a sea of words. While many ethnographers spend a decent amount of time writing and thinking how and why they employ key methods such as participant observation, interviews, and even writing fieldnotes, the use of photography gets the silent treatment. Why?
Margaret Mead once said that anthropology is a “discipline of words” (Mead 2003), and I think in many ways this is still true today. Sure, American Anthropologist now has a section devoted to visual anthropology, and there are other great journals like Visual Anthropology Review that focus specifically on the use of still photography and other visual methods. However, when it comes to the main canon of ethnographic methods, discussions of photography are conspicuously absent. The methods courses that I have taken, and the standard methodological textbooks and articles that I have been exposed to, generally do not mention much about photography or other visual methods*. They talk about writing proposals, designing research plans, sampling strategies, interview methods, participant observation, and so on. Rarely are cameras mentioned, yet, ironically, photographs continue to crop up in ethnography after ethnography. Clearly, most anthropologists bring cameras of some sort to the field, but for some reason they don’t talk much about them.
So what’s with the silence? In some cases, it might be because some anthropologists and ethnographers see photographs and other visual materials as less objective or scientific than, say, fieldnotes. And this is a pretty old debate in anthropology, one that has gone through a series of concatenations. These debates about truth and representation are pretty fascinating since when photography was invented it was–at least in some circles–seen as the ultimate technological arbiter or truth. This battle between words and images continues today. From my experience in anthropology, it seems pretty clear that words reign supreme for the most part, despite the long history of engagement that the discipline has with visual methods. This is a curious and fascinating situation–especially for someone who is in the thick of writing grant proposals, which require plenty of tactical choices when it comes to methods. Are words more reliable than images? Are they less subjective?
Granted, the photographic process is highly selective. In fact, that’s what photography is all about: making good, effective images is very much a matter of deciding what should be including in the frame and what should be left out. Photography is, after all, grabbing fragments from oceans of chaotic information. Probably one of the biggest mistakes that beginning photographers make is that they put far too much in the frame. Lens choice, angle, lighting, timing, shutter speed, and f-stop selection are all part of this calculus of composition and exclusion. Clearly, there are a lot of editorial choices that go into making photographs. During the observation of a particular situation or event, a photographer is always selecting small bits and pieces of reality to focus on and capture. Life moves, so you grab what you can with the camera as it passes by. That’s just how things work–there is no way to completely capture an entire situation, ever. Perspective, choice, timing, and the limits of photographic equipment always guarantee one thing: it’s only possible to capture fragmented, partial realities. That shouldn’t be a shocking realization. So is photography simply too subjective for use in anthropology? Are words–and fieldnotes–more reliable, accurate, and stable?
Imagine you’re doing participant observation and you’re taking fieldnotes. You’re in a public plaza filled with 50 people, and you have your notebook and pencil at the ready. Your goal is to capture the situation. There is a flurry of activity all around you, and you frantically jot down as many details as you can. Participants are engaged in numerous conversations, but you can only hear bits and pieces of those that are close by. Your perspective, which is anything but omniscient, is partial–you can’t see exactly what everyone is doing. Later, you will take these rapid notes and expand them in more fully developed fieldnotes. This is pretty standard practice for taking fieldnotes. This is what “doing ethnography” is all about. This is the ground floor of ethnographic data collection that results, eventually, in finished ethnographic texts. I think it’s pretty safe to say that fieldnotes–and writing in general–take precedence in the production of ethnographic authority. This is the methodological foundation of ethnography.
Yet, there literally endless editorial choices that go into taking fieldnotes, much like there are choices that go into taking pictures. The decision to focus on one particular event or interaction is also very much about excluding other possibilities. There are always choices involved in any observational process, whether it be note-taking, photographing, recording audio, or filming. There is no way to capture the entirety of any human interaction, even if you have a multi-million dollar light, sound, and film crew at your disposal. Not gonna happen. Ok, you might be asking, so what does this all mean?
My point here is not to go down the rabbit hole of “truth” and attempt to argue that either photographs or words are somehow more truthful, accurate, or reliable. That’s not where I am going, at all. Each method has its positives, of course. What I am saying is this: if ethnographers use cameras all the time (whether they are using iPhones or $5000 SLRs), it might be a good idea to rethink how and why they use them. Simply avoiding the discussion doesn’t really cut it. Now, rethinking the use of photography doesn’t mean that every ethnographer needs to become a master photographer overnight, and it doesn’t mean that using photography needs to be turned into some overcomplicated methodological nightmare. It simply means paying attention to how and why photography is used as part of the larger ethnographic process, from preliminary note-taking to the production of finished articles and books.
From my perspective, it just makes sense to open up the discussion about the ways in which we use photography in anthropological fieldwork, rather than making uncritical assumptions and just putting pictures in books and articles. Photography is another tool, and it might be beneficial to treat is as such. This isn’t a discussion that only applies to visual anthropologists, since pretty much every anthropologist uses photography in some form or another. The use of any medium for data collection, analysis, and presentation–whether paper and pencil, laptop, or camera–has its limitations and possibilities.
Photography, in the end, isn’t any more or less subjective than taking fieldnotes. It has its own benefits and drawbacks, and to me it makes sense to add discussions about using cameras–as a primary component of anthropological research–to our general methodological conversations. It would be even better to incorporate the use of different forms of media into our overall disciplinary training and teaching. I know this is happening in certain cases, but I think there is considerable room for rethinking not only how we put photography to use, but other forms of media as well. Anthropologists are producers of media, after all, and while we spend a lot of time exploring how and why we use words, for some reason we often overlook all of the images and photographs we happen to make along the way.
In an attempt to continue this conversation, my next post here will be about anonymity in ethnographic photography. Should we keep identities hidden and anonymous at all costs? Are there times when it’s best to show faces and reveal identities? Who should make these decisions? This is definitely a subject that covers some pretty tricky ethical territory, so I will be interested to see what some of you have to say. Until then.
*Yes, there are several books that talk about visual methods. For example, check out the work of Sara Pink, Paul Hockings, Fadwa El Guindi, and Gillian Rose, among others.
Mead, Margaret. 2003. Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words. In Principles of Visual Anthropology, 3rd Edition. Paul Hockings, ed. Pp. 3-10. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.