Picture This: A Review of Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research by Sarah Pink

By Riviera, Diana | The Qualitative Report, July 2010 | Go to article overview
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Picture This: A Review of Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research by Sarah Pink


Riviera, Diana, The Qualitative Report


"Take a picture, it lasts longer" and "a picture's worth a thousand words" are quintessential statements often used either sincerely or facetiously to make a statement about a specific occurrence. In qualitative research, researchers combine visual media and ethnographic research to provide purposeful presentations of meaning relating to social occurrences. Sarah Pink, the author of Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research (2001), provides a contemporary look into how the arrangement between photography, video, and hypermedia, along with ethnography, has the potential to provide a greater understanding of social phenomena. It is important to note that the author's objective is to offer an additional technique for conducting ethnographic research and not to make this book a guide for conducting visual ethnography.

As with any research project, the researcher must be able identify and defend the need for the method of choice. Visual methods are no exception; ethnography with the use of visual tools must be thoroughly investigated prior to embarking on a project that will utilize this method. The importance of this step is critical to the setting and to the participants who will be studied. Pink (2001) imparts two examples of how and where visual methods seemed appropriate. In a study of bullfighting, visual methods were appropriate as they helped Pink analyze the way that participants positioned themselves within the bullfighting culture. In contrast, Pink's research in Guinea Bissau suggested that visual methods were questionable in that context due to the value that is placed on photographs within that culture. Pink labeled this as an "economic inequality" and a possible reason why ethnographic visual research was not suitable in that setting. The context is a determining factor when contemplating the application of visual methods.

Once it is determined that visual methods will be used for a research study, Pink (2001) encourages the researcher to choose technology wisely. While a camera or other media equipment may seem to be mundane tools, based on the way technology is used in our western culture, they nonetheless inform our sense of identity. Researchers and participants create a dynamic identity when technology is introduced. The information that a participant shares will vary greatly depending on the type of visual tool used. For example, participants in a study conducted with no visual tools may have the tendency to produce rich narrative information; on the other hand, the use of a still camera may alter the information that is offered by the participants, and their sense of identity may also be adjusted. A video camera may further alter the way in which participants share information and represent themselves.

As an anthropologist, Pink (2001) offers the use of visual methods paired with ethnography as a qualitative research method. However, an innovative researcher may opt for the use of visual methods with any other form of qualitative research. A researcher conducting an ethnographic research study will, for the most part, have control of the research. However, the use of visual material, such as still photographs, will carry a variety of meanings to the audience. Pink states:

   [T]here are no fixed criteria that determine which photographs are
   ethnographic. Any photograph may have ethnographic interest,
   significance or meanings at a particular time or for a specific
   reason. The meanings of photographs are arbitrary and subjective;
   they depend on who is looking. The same photographic image may have
   a variety of (perhaps conflicting) meanings invested in it at
   different stages of ethnographic research and representation, as it
   is viewed by different eyes and audiences in diverse temporal
   historical, spatial, and cultural contexts. (p. 51)

To support Pink's statement I will offer a visual example. The picture below shows a patrol cap that is worn with the United States Army combat uniform.

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Picture This: A Review of Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research by Sarah Pink
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