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Photographic Methods

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Ryan

Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

15 thoughts on “Photographic Methods

  1. i think of these clusters as documentation (1, 4), affiliation (3), elicitation (2). thinking about it that way, you can separate purpose from the choice of who is taking photos of what. for example, you can give informants cameras and have them take pictures – this is both documentary and affiliative. elicitation materials can be taken by you, taken from informants’s collections (as you suggest), taken from abstract/stock photos, etc. this is all covered in the lit on visual anthropology/sociology, of course.

    one cluster i don’t see above is communication. if you’re an applied fieldworker, you’re often looking for that image that is going to communicate a particular point or bit of reality to your audience. this may seem way too “POV” for the purists, but there it is.

  2. Paul’s framing of the functions of photography in fieldwork works for me. I would underline, however, how all three can be in play simultaneously. Consider the following series of shots from my first fieldwork, in Taiwan.

    http://gallery.me.com/jlmccreery#100446

    The rite in question is both real and posed. As a gesture of appreciation to my Daoist master, Tio Se-lian, I had commissioned a statue of Lao-tzu for his altar. This was the “Khai Kong” (opening the eyes) rite by which the statue was consecrated and activated as an efficacious avatar of the deity. At my request, Master Tio slowed down the ritual process and indicated for me when he was moving from one step to another, making it possible to shoot the sequence you see in these slides. Our interactions from the commissioning of the statue to the taking of the photographs contributed to strengthening the affiliation between us. It also contributed to documenting my research and became an occasion for eliciting new data. When I asked, for example, if the rite could be performed without the blood from the comb of a white cock, Master Tio told me that an infusion of red cinnanbar (red mercury sulfide, native vermilion) infused in alcohol could be used instead.

  3. Cameras are always great for documentation. However, on a recent project I worked on, our team incorporated “participatory photography” into our methods by having our participants actually do the photography themselves. This was important because, from a PAR approach, the participants were involved in both the data collection (photography) phase and the data analysis phase (we sat down with them and ask them what they thought the photographs meant). From this, we were able to tease out collective themes on the topics they photographed. We gave them disposable cameras and very few instructions, because we wanted it to come from their perspectives, not what we thought would be important to take pictures of. It was also less invasive. I highly recommend this participatory method, which allows participants, who are normally those being “studied”, to become more of a part of the research process.

  4. 1. Photographs as notes/mnemonic devices.

    Do you geotag? I’m kind of an anorak so I am surprised more ethnographers don’t. It takes just a touch of training with GPS, though as more and more camera phones pick up the capability (and I suspect it will eventually become an affordable option on standard digital cameras) it will kind of become impossible to evade.

    2. Photographs as social objects.

    Have you seen In search of the Hamat’sa?

    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.

    The citation below is from Field Methods ergo nice and sciencey for grant reviewers. And there’s always Tilley’s stuff about walking around the British countryside hanging Tibetan prayer flags. &_&

    De Leon, Jason Patrick, and Jeffrey H. Cohen. 2005. “Object and walking probes in ethnographic interviewing.” Field Methods 17 (2): 200–4. doi:10.1177/1525822X05274733.

    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.

    As someone who hails from a community with a long history as the setting for ethnographic research I can pretty much assure anyone who has the opportunity to do something along these lines that it will be worth their time.

  5. I did something similar to what Amy described above – in the mid 90s, I gave my point-and-shoot film camera to teenage girls in a Chinese village, and had them take a roll of film that I promised to develop for them. I then later analyzed what they took pictures of, how they framed the shots, etc. (I wrote this up in a Visual Anthropology article many years ago).

    I got the idea from the Colliers’ (actually, a student of theirs who led a workshop at the AAA’s in the early 1990s). I still use the Colliers’ book in my visual class.

  6. @Paul:

    “one cluster i don’t see above is communication.”

    That’s a really good point. Photographs can serve all sorts of purposes, but at the end of the day they are also used to convey meaning and information to particular audiences. This is definitely a good category to add to the list–thanks.

    @John:

    Thanks for the example–as a side note, your description adds a lot to that set of images. I think it’s really interesting how he was willing to slow down the ritual in order to allow you to take photographs. This one event definitely illustrates how dynamic the photographic/ethnographic process can be–it’s not as if images are automatically going to be “documentary” and nothing else–good point.

    @Amy:

    I have read a good amount about this method, and I think there are lots of good possibilities. I like how you did not flood people with a bunch of instructions too, so you could see what they do. Pretty cool. I have one book called the Border Film Project that has methods along these lines. I am always really fascinated by how different people use cameras, what they find important or good to take pics of, etc. Thanks for your comment.

    @MTBradley:

    “Do you geotag?”

    No, not yet. But this is something I have thought about, especially for images that are about specific landmarks or places. I do have a decent amount of experience with GPS/GIS, and have considered doing something along these lines. The only issue is whether or not I will need to keep my site anonymous or not–that would be the only reason to avoid something like this. Have you used this? How do you use it? Does your camera have geotagging capabilities, or are you using an external device like Trimble or a Garmen?

    Thanks, also, for the citation–that’s PERFECT. Getting citations that have that “sciency” merit to them is really valuable. Part of the issue with writing about these kinds of methods in grants, it seems, is convincing certain folks that they are legit. Not always an easy task…

    “As someone who hails from a community with a long history as the setting for ethnographic research I can pretty much assure anyone who has the opportunity to do something along these lines that it will be worth their time.”

    I can say that it was one method that kind of came about in the field, since I had copies of earlier ethnographies with me when I went down there. People asked to see them, and just started talking about who they recognized, memories of places, histories, etc. It was really cool, actually–and they also had lots of stories of the ethnographers themselves.

    @Fuji:

    Thanks for the heads up about your article. I have briefly looked through the Colliers’ book, and it sounds like I should probably add that one to my bookshelf.

  7. I’ve used photography for many of the purposes noted above, but I’ve also used it as a way of “carrying water” – that is, I have taken photos of folks to give to them as gifts and on their request. Even nowadays, being able to go into the city and get prints of photos is of value. I gave little albums of photos to my research assistants last summer, for example.

  8. The only issue is whether or not I will need to keep my site anonymous or not–that would be the only reason to avoid something like this. Have you used this? How do you use it? Does your camera have geotagging capabilities, or are you using an external device like Trimble or a Garmen?

    In general I am just kind of a geek about it and like to see where my photos were taken. But sometimes I do make photos as your #1 above, sometimes in lieu of a waypoint, and sometimes specifically with the intention of incorporating the photo into a gis. And location data is like any other type of metadata in that it might help me with context at some point in the future as well as with pattern identification.

    My Garmin handheld has a built-in 3.2 mpx camera. Wonderful for your photos as notes but the image quality is hit-or-miss (though bearing is included in the exif which is nice). I also have the time on my Garmin and my compact digital synced to give me the option of tagging those photos on my laptap (I use a piece of donationware to do the tagging but there are a number of options).

    As for anonymity, it’s one more hassle to keep in mind when judging whether geotagging would be worth your time but you can always scrub the data from the relevant exif lines in any geotagged photos you choose to share or archive.

  9. @Fuji – do you have a PDF of your article you can share? Also, what is the Collier reference you mentioned? Send me an email through my website if you are able.

    @Ryan – I’ve added this book to my wishlist, as it’s a method I’d like to further expand upon.

  10. Hey!
    Not sure where this would fit in. In my MA thesis I used photography and sketch to explore public sexual activity between men. Faced with the unavoidable ethical dilemmas of using photography in this context I began drawing informants, however photographs still proved critical in providing a contextualizing architecture to the drawn figures.

    I created collages designed to convey particular subtleties of light, body positioning, visibility and visuality that seemed important during my fieldwork and were more difficult to convey using writing. I suppose I treated photographs as a tool for my memory when making sketches but also as a visual fragment that I was able to use to construct visual ethnographic description.

    I don’t have a website set up but you can see a sort of performative slideshow of them here: http://www.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk/disciplines/socialanthropology/visualanthropology/archive/sensorymedia/

    My piece is called ‘just walking through’ but there are some other interesting uses of photography by some of my colleagues. I’d be really interested in hearing peoples comments. There are more and more projects experimenting with photography that emerge from the sensory media pathway on the Granada centers MA in Visual anthropology. We are just getting the handle on posting these each year so keep an eye out!

    My current work for my PhD is making use of these collages of sketch and photography to tell ethnographic stories.

    Mike

  11. PS Fuji, my ILL access has unfortunately ended now that I’ve graduated, so if you are able to find a copy I’d love to see it! In the mean time I will see if there’s someone who can access it for me.

  12. Wow, I sure hate to spam the comments section, but I just had a thought/question. My team is planning on using participatory photography in an upcoming project that will look at the lived experience of poverty in three Memphis neighborhoods for a client that wants to know how poor people feel about poverty and what they think should be done about it. I’ll recap what we did for the last project from my previous comment:

    For a project that looked at the relationship between limited social capital/networks and health and well-being, our team incorporated “participatory photography” into our methods by having our participants actually do the photography themselves. This was important because, from a PAR approach, the participants were involved in both the data collection (photography) phase and the data analysis phase (we sat down with them and ask them what they thought the photographs meant). From this, we were able to tease out collective themes on the topics they photographed. We gave them disposable cameras and very few instructions, because we wanted it to come from their perspectives, not what we thought would be important to take pictures of. It was also less invasive than us coming in with our own cameras into people’s private lives and sensitive living situations. I highly recommend this participatory method, which allows participants, who are normally those being “studied”, to become more of a part of the research process.

    So, my question is, does anyone have any ideas for how to expand upon/refine this method? I feel as though it definitely can be improved upon in terms of both participation as well as its value as a research method… I’m going to do some of my own research before we begin but thought I’d solicit suggestions here, too.

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