Most anthropologists take cameras into the field, whether they consider them a part of their formal methods or not. They may take iPhones, point and shoots, “prosumer” SLRs, or maybe even some amazing old Nikon from the 1960s that can be used for picture-taking and hammering nails (if you have ever owned an old Nikkormat, you know what I am talking about here). What I am interested in here is how different people actually use cameras during fieldwork. For this post I really hope to hear from some of you about how you put cameras to work during your research, whether you’re formal about it or not. To start this off, I’ll talk about some of the ways that I use cameras—and how I am thinking about using them in my upcoming dissertation fieldwork. So here goes:
- Photographs as notes/mnemonic devices. I use cameras all the time during fieldwork as a way to record all sorts of details—from the covers of newspapers to bus schedules and new graffiti. I often do this in conjunction with taking quick notes or “jottings” in a small notebook. Sometimes it works to write a few lines, and sometimes it’s a lot easier—and maybe more effective—to use a camera phone or small point and shoot to record something that I might otherwise forget. These kinds of photographs are really useful when I sit down at the end of the day and write up more detailed fieldnotes, and I find that they jog my memory pretty well. This way of using photography is a bit different, since I am often less concerned about making a technically “good” photograph (framing, exposure, etc) and more concerned with getting something recorded so I don’t forget about it. Of course, it’s always a good idea to get the best image possible, but the most important thing is getting that detail, bit of information, or idea secured so you can write about it later. I have a feeling that plenty of other ethnographers do something along these lines and I’d be interested to hear if and how they do so.
Photographs as social objects. I am really fascinated by this approach, and I have borrowed a lot from folks like Elizabeth Edwards and Arjun Appaduri with this particular method. Sure, it’s important to think about photographs based upon image content, but it’s also really fascinating to look at how photographs are social objects that pass through different networks of meaning. I explored this aspect of photography during my MA fieldwork in Oaxaca, when I asked research participants about their photographic collections and then used particular images as research prompts during interviews. This was amazingly interesting, since many of these personal collections illustrated all kinds of histories that do not exactly show up in more formal histories (by politicians, historians, anthropologists, etc). For this method I also brought down a few of the ethnographies that had been written about this pueblo, and used the photographs in those texts as starting prompts as well—that worked pretty well to get conversations going, and to talk about how the pueblo had changed since the 1950s and 1970s.
Portaits. This was another way I used photography during my MA research, and at some point I need to revisit these images and put them into some sort of final form (book, website?). Basically, at the end of each interview I asked people if they would allow me to take photographs of them, and many of them agreed. I tend to avoid directing people very much, and tried to give them photographs that they like. This is the really great part about digital photography: I could show people the images I’d taken immediately to see what they think. I would then run into town and get some prints made and hand those out during subsequent interviews and visits. It pays, of course, to follow up on these sorts of things—this is one way in which photography can be a sort of rapport-building tool. This is one way in which my photographs become social objects that start getting passed around (whether in print or digital form). They definitely have a lot of value for research participants, and I think they also have plenty of ethnographic value as well. I certainly do not think that these sorts of images should be seen simply as illustrations of ethnographic texts, but that’s just me. These kinds of images are best, in my view, when combined with captions that detail the moment the image was taken and other contextual information. Sure, there are times when photographs can stand alone, but I tend to prefer some direction/focus.
Place/space. I often use photography to document key places during the research process. This could be a plaza, a house, a road a landscape, etc. These kinds of images tend to be somewhat mid-range shots to distant shots. I started off in the landscape photography tradition, so I end up taking a lot of these kinds of photos. Much like the note-taking photography listed in #1 above, this type of photography can have many different uses. For my dissertation work I am working on a way to use photography as a tool to document how people think about and use particular places. Borrowing some ideas from geographers and anthropologists who employ “mobile methods,” the plan is to use photography to record key landmarks and places while walking with people through landscapes/places. These photographs will then be used during later interviews. I have a good amount of experience doing archaeological surveys, and I used a similar method to document sites and cultural landscapes. Walking through a particular site, especially with someone who has a close connection to a place, is very different from sitting in a room talking about that place. I am still working on how I am going to employ this method—and how I am going to write about it in grant proposals. But I think this particular use has a lot of potential, especially since the creation of meaning and place is a key question for my research.
This is just a rough sketch of some of the ways that I use photography, and I am more interested in a discussion about using this tool (and writing about it) than rehashing my own ideas. So if you use photography, and have written about how and why you use it, I hope you’ll post a response in the comments section. I definitely think that it’s about time for anthropologists to look into some different methods, and to rethink the standard methodological canon that we rely on. Yes, participant observation and written fieldnotes are foundational, but there is definitely room for exploring some other methods as well, especially since they can be useful in a very synergistic way. Anyway, I’m interested to hear what some of you think about this.