Academic journal article Human Organization

Visual Interventions and the "Crises in Representation" in Environmental Anthropology: Researching Environmental Justice in a Hungarian Romani Neighborhood

Academic journal article Human Organization

Visual Interventions and the "Crises in Representation" in Environmental Anthropology: Researching Environmental Justice in a Hungarian Romani Neighborhood

Article excerpt

Participatory visual research, or "visual interventions" (Pink 2007), allow environmental anthropologists to respond to three different "crises of representation": (1) the critique of ethnographic representation presented by postmodern, postcolonial, and feminist anthropologists; (2) the constructivist critique of nature and the environment; and (3) the "environmental justice" critique demanding representation for the environmental concerns of communities of color. Participatory visual research integrates community members in the process of staking out a research agenda, conducting fieldwork and interpreting data, and communicating and applying research findings. Our project used the Photovoice methodology to generate knowledge and documentation related to environment injustices faced by Roma in Hungary. I discuss the promise and limitations of "visual interventions" as a pathway leading applied environmental anthropologists beyond the three "crises in representation."

Key words: applied visual anthropology, participatory action research, environmental justice, Photovoice, environmental anthropology, eastern Europe, Roma (Gypsies), Hungary.


On a Saturday afternoon, six young people gather around a laptop computer to share their digital photos. They are not just looking at snapshots of friends, but at photos they have taken to document environmental issues in their predominantly Romani1 neighborhood in northern Hungary. The young photographers discuss the underlying ideas they wished to convey. Judit, a Romani community organizer who grew up in the neighborhood, leads the discussion while I take notes. We click on Sandor's photo of a woman on the steps of her house, surveying her flooded, muddy yard (Figure 1). Sándor is new to digital photography, but already creating memorable images. He shares the story behind the picture:

When a pipe breaks, it floods people's yards. This woman, our neighbor, could not leave her house for hours. Since there are outhouses in the yards, this is a health problem. The water pipes in this community are old, and they are not well maintained by the responsible authorities.2

Sándor relates that the repairman who came to fix the break complained that neighborhood pipes were in such bad condition that he had been called in three times in recent months. Máriann, another photographer, mentions that water pipes are being upgraded in non-Roma neighborhoods across the bridge. The following Monday, she walks across town to photograph the new infrastructure, documenting the disparity.

The photos and discussion are part of a participatory visual research project. Sándor, Mariann, Judit, and four others documented neighborhood environmental conditions using Photovoice, a methodology in which community members use photographs to document issues, stimulate discussion, and gain policymakers' attention. Residents have long lamented that their neighborhood lacks the infrastructure and green space enjoyed in non-Romani neighborhoods "across the bridge" while also enduring substantial illegal dumping. Conditions of environmental injustice are widely experienced by Roma, who make up over 5 percent of Hungary's 10 million citizens and are by far the largest ethnic minority.3

In a political setting where Romas' voices remain on the margins, our research team's Photovoice project allowed residents to present these problems in an accessible medium that invites discussion and demands policy action: making "visual interventions" into the way their neighborhood and its environment are represented (Pink 2007).

For environmental anthropologists, participatory visual research provides a response to three "crises of representation" challenging the authority of anthropology, the environmental social sciences, and the mainstream environmental movement. The "first crisis of representation" of the 1980s criticized the way anthropologists represented the ethnographic research encounter, especially those portrayed as the "Other" through colonial, racializing, or other power-inflected tropes (Asad 1973, Marcus and Fischer 1986). …

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