Module 1: Understanding Visual Ethnography

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Visual Representation

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As we design our research, we must consider the choice of visual media and their implications
for our participants and for us. The subject we are researching, the culture of our participants,
their comfort and our skills will determine our choice and preference for a particular visual
media. Using visual media such as photography, or video, or even drawing, can make us more
visible in the context. All the more so when we are new entrants and still in the process of
immersing ourselves.

(Refer Slide Time: 0:40)

Depending on how our tools or equipment are viewed in our participants' culture, this visibility
may make it easier or more difficult for us to gain access. Using drawing, for example, is likely
to draw curiosity and attention to us. A researcher working with children living in the streets in
Vijayawada used drawing as a way to access and learn about her participants in the early part of
her fieldwork. Her participants were children and young women who worked at the scrap dealer's
unit. She would visit the scrapyard every day. Not wanting to distract the children from their
work and antagonise their employer, the owner of the scrapyard, she would sit in a corner of the

yard and sketch images of the children as they worked while making her observations about their
For several days this continued without any verbal exchange between the participants and the
researcher. One day, as she was walking through a street close by, she was approached by one of
the young women who worked at the scrapyard. The woman asked the researcher to make a
portrait of her when she came to the scrapyard the next day. Drawing images of the participants
had thus made her a benign and even a welcome presence in the context.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:00)

In fact, many researchers and visual artists find that drawing enables them to engage with
participants as they observe and record. One such work is that of artist Prashant Miranda.
Prashant is a visual artist who uses sketches to document his travels and observations.

(Refer Slide Time: 02:20)

Here we want to share with you one of his sketchbooks, where he recorded his time spent with
the Gond and Baiga communities in Madhya Pradesh. In these sketches, we see the everyday life
of his participants, the imponderabilia. His sketches carefully record objects and visuals that
exist in the context, the patterns of tattoos, the structure of the mahua drinking cup, the
traditional costumes and dances.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:50)

You might have noticed one drawing that explains two different processes of preparing the
mahua drink. This sketch is made by one of his participants, Lakhan Lal Bharwi. This kind of
shared record-making makes the process a collaborative one. Let us hear from Prashant on how
he uses drawing as a medium for engagement and learning.
Prashant Miranda: Hello, I am Prashant Miranda and I am in beautiful cuttact which in the local
A I Jutam language of the indigenous people here, who are the claimant people, this space and
the word cuttact means working together
(Refer Slide Time: 03:36)

I was lucky enough in 2012 to spend some time with the Gond and Baiga tribes in Madhya
Pradesh, which was just the most beautiful time. They were so welcoming and generous of me
being there.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:57)

But one of the things that struck me very deeply while being there was the visual medium with
which they interacted amongst themselves, and I would say with the rest of the world or the

(Refer Slide Time: 04:07)

When I was in Bhimbetka, there were these rock shelters and cave paintings from more than
20,000 years. Neo palaeolithic drawings on the walls. And then in the Mesolithic period horses
were introduced to India. So, then you see horses being drawn on these rocks. And then people
on horseback after that. And the way of life of dancing, riding horses, hunting, which for me was
a way of documentation, a way of recording their lives.

(Refer Slide Time: 04:49)

which I have been doing for close to 30 years in my sketch books. So, the medium of drawing is
such that we can participate and observe details and nuances of things going on in the
environment, which sometimes cannot be communicated through words. While doing it, of
course, I get to pay attention to a little bit more of the details going around.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:33)

So, whether it is me drawing a tree or a person's face or a building, or a structure, it forces me to
spend that much more time observing. And I find that to be an amazing tool. Because it is not as
pleating as a snapshot of a photograph, because that is so immediate, it is like getting a little
glimpse, and you move on. Whereas drawing for me as a tool helps me engage a little bit more

deeper with my subject and participate in a way that is I feel a bit, a bit more of a dialogue that is
(Refer Slide Time: 06:13)

So, it helps me look at intricacies of details that I would normally not have paid attention to if I
was just taking a little snapshot on my camera.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:29)

Noticing that they fold their leaves into cups to drink mahua. Or these little observations help,
and while drawing it you will realise, okay this is a particular kind of leaf. And even if I do not

have the capacity at that time to find out what the name of that leaf is, or from what tree it
comes, it is a great reference for me to go back to at a later date and do some research on what
these things could be. Whether the bamboo they are using as a still or a pipe and the earthenware
pots in which they boil these flowers and how it is distilled.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:12)

Just by the fact that I am spending that more time in, in observing the details helps me then
question a lot more. And in the process, helps me engage with whether it is my subject or my
audience, or communicate in a different way.

(Refer Slide Time: 07:34)

I have realised that one of the things about drawing kind of very simply breaks down barriers.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:43)

So, when I draw in front of people while I am interacting with people, it feels like it is a less
intrusive medium for me, because does not feel like I have a camera in my face, or putting a
camera in someone else's face, that automatically makes me a bit more conscious, or the other
person a bit more conscious. Whereas drawing is a little less intrusive and a gentler way to
participate in an event or in a your surroundings. It is a different language altogether and you do
not need words when you are using drawing as a tool.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:46)

And likewise, while being with some villages of the Baiga tribe, I could not speak or
communicate in a way. But there are other ways while drawing or asking how mahua has been

made. While engaging with these people also helps me to interact and say, can you draw and
show me how this is made because I cannot visualise it. But you know, it helps to form a kind of
a communication which otherwise would not have been possible for me just purely through
words. Sketching for me is really important to notice and to observe and to pay a little more
attention to the details in these everyday life events.
We see from these examples, that people often enjoy being sketched. They consider it a kind of
compliment, and a harmless, less intrusive form of documentation. The use of still or video
photography may bring a more diverse range of reactions. One the one hand, if photography or
videos are already common in the context, making images can be a good way for us to e a part of
the context. It can make us accessible and useful to our participants.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:04)

You might recall the visual ethnographer Sarah Pink, whose work we discussed in the last
section. She began her research on bullfighting culture in Spain by attending the many public
events organised to felicitate bullfighters. Photography is common at such events, and there are
often professional as well as amateur photographers present.

(Refer Slide Time: 10:26)

Pink too would carry her camera along and make photographs as she observed the events. This
made her feel comfortable in the environment since she had 'something to do' there, taking on the
role of an amateur photographer. And soon enough, people started asking her to make pictures of
(Refer Slide Time: 10:43)

This enabled her to establish her role as a researcher photographer in a local bullfighting culture.
Through this kind of engagement, she also got to meet others who were interested in bullfighting
culture or amateur photography or both.

(Refer Slide Time: 11:00)

Many of these people eventually became her friends and participants. And the images she was
asked to make became valuable research records. Later in her research, she would discuss these
images and the moments they represented with the participants who had asked her to make them.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:18)

Through such discussions, she gained insights into what her participants saw as a valuable
moment and why. For example, some of her participants wanted to be photographed with a
particular bullfighter, or with some other important person.

(Refer Slide Time: 11:35)

This gave Pink a sense of the value that her participants associated with various personalities in
the social world of bullfighting. However, if the camera is uncommon in the context or makes
participants uncomfortable, it can create additional challenges in our attempts to gain access.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:56)

This is something that anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup discovered during her fieldwork in
Iceland. Hastrup was studying a particular event, an Icelandic sheep market, which is usually
attended only by men.

(Refer Slide Time: 12:10)

Uncertain about her own presence and the presence of a camera in a gathering from which
women were otherwise excluded, the pictures she made failed to convey the essence and
meaning of the phenomena. Instead, they showed completely uninteresting backs of men and
rams. The presence of Hastrup, woman from another culture with a camera were both
transgressions against the culture norms of the gathering.

(Refer Slide Time: 12:40)

Thinking back, Hastrup interpreted the poor quality of the images as a reflection of the
inhibitions that she felt in going against these established norms. The tools, methods and devices
that we use often come to be associated with us and define how our participants see us. The
relationship that we build on the field are defined as much by our behaviour, as by the techniques
and methods we use. Imagine being approached by someone who is holding a sketchbook or a
small camcorder. And now imagine being approached by a crew of people with a big camera,
sound recorder, some lighting equipment.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:22)

A heavy-duty setup is quite likely to intimidate even those who are not uncomfortable with
photography in general. It is possible that the discomfort and the curiosity that participants feel
with being visually recorded through photography or sketching changes with time. As the device
and the ethnographer are seen more and more, they both become a ubiquitous presence.

Even if we expect the discomfort to reduce in time, we cannot take it for granted that it will. If
while recording, the participant seems uncomfortable, it is a good idea for us to pause and speak
to them and make them comfortable. And if they feel better with the camera turned off, then we
can continue with audio recording and written notes.

(Refer Slide Time: 14:12)

From our discussion so far, we have come to see that making visual records is a lot more than
documenting. In making visuals during fieldwork, we are simultaneously doing several things.
We are engaging with our participants, learning from them, recording our observations and
interpreting them. Often visual ethnographers use the recorded material to represent the outcome
of their research. We shall discuss representation in our next section.And now, we come to one of the most interesting aspects of visual ethnography: representation
or presentation of our ethnographic knowledge through visuals. This is where to use the analogy
of text; we write our research output using visuals and images. As with any ethnographic text,
our visual representations need to incorporate certain fundamental characteristics.

(Refer Slide Time: 00:33)

Constructing such representations requires a keen understanding of meanings embedded in the
visuals we create and the media we use. We need to learn to 'read' the images we create. And to
learn the grammar and language of our chosen visual media. Each visual medium has its own
grammar. It uses certain visual and narrative devices which viewers learn to read and interpret
for meaning.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:02)

Films, for instance, use metaphor, sequencing and juxtaposition of images to convey stories,
concepts and ideas. As an example, we have for you a clip from a film by David and Judith
(Refer Slide Time: 01:22)

You may remember the MacDougall's from our earlier module, where we had watched an
excerpt from their film, Lorang's Way. They use film as a way to record and represent their
ethnographic engagements. Since the late 1960s, they have been making ethnographic films and

are considered pioneers in the field. David MacDougall is also an academic and has written
extensively on the visual ethnography. You can learn more about their work at this link.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:51)

The clip we are about to see is from their film, the Photo Wallahs: An encounter with
photography in Mussoorie, a north Indian hill station. The film is an exploration of the many
meanings people associate with photography. The film is composed of observations and
conversations with photographers and photography enthusiasts in Mussoorie and Dehradun.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:17)

The sequence begins with an older woman and her companion making photographs of graves in
a wooded cemetery. The graves are old, and the encryptions on the epitopes can barely be read.
The woman participant narrates a small anecdote to the filmmakers about falling into an empty
[Video The Photowalas shown 02:37 to 04:39]

Woman participant: I do not think the ant will come here. Except that, is gone too, has not it?

Filmmaker: This is gone.
Woman participant: Yes, okay. And it has got some sun on it too, which is good. In 60s, oh, that
is too recent, too modern. Oh, I fell into a grave in Dehradun, one of the year 1830s or
Filmmaker: What happened?
Woman participant: Well you see, these very old graves with very big architecture of structures
you know, on top. What happens is, they are kind of balanced across the opening of the grave
that animals have dug in. So your one leg went right in, and underneath the grave, total vacuum,
nothing there, marvellous for creatures.
Woman participant: Oh, that is good. They have received two reports from Doctor Coley. One on
the Dehradun cemetery and the one on the Indian Christian cemetery and Doctor Coley has
reported that they are very pleased, and it has led them to think about a booklet on cemeteries of
India. So they will need pictures.
And what are these pictures and help from Baxar, who have, they have taken a lot of
photographs all around India, you know. They could produce quite a nice little intake booklet on
cemeteries. Whoever wants to read it, I cannot imagine, but it will be a record, heritage record.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:47)

This sequence is followed by another featuring another old woman, someone who is possibly
connected to the family, whose name appears on one of the old gravestones.
[Video shown 04:50 to 07:14]

Old woman: This is my cousin, my only living relative in England. The one with the child
standing on the railing is Ereth Goliv with her cousin Ray. Ray Morclue her name is.
Filmmaker: Is that a different Ereth?

Old woman: No, the same Ereth. I shall. Ereth is very fond of keeping chickens at one time. She
kept Australorp and Rhode island reds And here she is feeding her Australorp. The Goliv's were
very fond of keeping cats. So that is one of their many cats.

Person 1: Do not remember his name?
Old woman: I do not remember his name. No. That is a long table where the television tower
before the television towers. The highest peak in Mussoorie. that is why we have climbed up the
tree, to be higher than anyone else. I suppose I am about 10 or 11 years old in that picture. The
elephant is in near . And the cousins are riding on the elephant, the little cousins.
Person 1: And yourself?
Old woman: I am not on the elephant. I do not know I may be on the elephant. I think only the
children are on the elephant.
Professor: And the sequence ends with photographs of missing persons shown on the state’s
[Video shown 07:21 to 09:53]

[Hindi Audio]
(Refer Slide Time: 09:55)

Now, what are the filmmakers trying to say through these seemingly unconnected scenes put
together in such a sequence? And what do these visuals and conversations tell us about
photographs and photography? Can you think about this and write down your answers.

(Refer Slide Time: 10:17)

Some of you may have said the sequence conveys the feeling of losing someone or something.
Others may have said that the visuals and anecdotes in this sequence, all link photographs with
memory. These are both possible interpretations of the sequence. The photographs featured in
the different scenes stand-in for those who are absent. They help people remember and identify
those who are lost to them.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:43)

According to David MacDougall, this part of the film is about photographs as evidence of life
and death. Photographs are acting documents which bear the traces of real people and which

marks the presence of their absence. This meaning, the association of photographs with memory
and identification is conveyed in the film by the careful placement of one scene next to another.
For instance, the anecdote about falling into an empty grave, tells us little about photography.
However, it is part of a sequence that speaks about memory and absence. And it appears within a
scene that is about photography of cemeteries.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:30)

. Placed in this context, this anecdote deepens the sense of absence that is prevalent throughout
the sequence. The emptiness of the grave that she speaks about becomes a profound metaphor for

absence and points to the task of the photograph as something that records absence. And so we
see, visuals become metaphors. By arranging visuals, juxtaposing them around one another, we
are able to express complex meanings and ideas. Let us look at another example of visual
metaphors and juxtaposing, this time using images and text.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:10)

For this, we return to the work of Prashant Miranda, the visual artist. Here we have another of his
sketchbooks, this one recording his travels in Kashmir. In Prashant's work, words are more than
just explanatory captions for the sketches. They express the state of mind of the observer and
place us the viewer in the context. By writing himself into his observation, Prashant makes
himself and his interpretations visible.
In this work, just like in Photowalas, images are juxtaposed against each other to suggest
meaning. And words are juxtaposed against images to convey the many layers of the artist's
experience. You can see some more of Prashant's sketchbook in this link. In any medium, we
construct meaning and convey ideas through the narrative and sequentiality of our visuals. We
can work with still images, or moving ones, with sketches, video recordings or photographs with
visuals alone, or with visuals and text.

(Refer Slide Time: 13:18)

And in the case of film, the visual is accompanied by the oral and by sound. As an example of
this, let us watch this clip from a film by Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar. This is an excerpt
from their film, So Heddan So Hoddan.

[Video shown 13:34 to 15:46]

(Haji Umar Suleiman talks in Hindi language)
The film is about the lives and the music of the pastoral tribes of the Rann of Kutchh. It speaks
about the importance that they attach the poetry and philosophy of the Sufi saint Shah Abdul
Latif Bhitai.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:02)

In the sequence we just watched, the visuals and the singing together established the theme and
the central premise of the film. They emphasis the place of music and the words of the spiritual
masters in the lives of the participants.

(Refer Slide Time: 16:18)

As seen in this sequence, through the visual medium of film, we can bring the voices of our
participants into the representations that we construct.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:29)

Take, for example, The Stitches Speak. The narrative of the film is based on the voices of the
artists as they narrate their experiences.

(Refer Slide Time: 16:43)

Let us pause here for a moment and reflect on our discussion so far. What is the value of
including the participants' voices in our ethnographies, particularly in ethnographic films? Note
down your answers to this question. Some of you may have said that it brings credibility to our
(Refer Slide Time: 17:05)

Others may have said that it makes the representation more detailed and descriptive. These
answers are acceptable. Some of you may have pointed out that it makes our ethnographic
engagements more equal and nuanced. This answer is correct.
(Refer Slide Time: 17:21)

Including the voices of our participants in our representations is one way to bring their
subjectivity into our research. It can ensure that they have greater control and ownership over
their narratives.

(Refer Slide Time: 17:35)

And in audio-visual medium, such as film, there is also the sensorial quality of the voice. The
sound of the participants' voice is just as important as the words they speak. Sound carries with it
all the markers of the participant's history and identity - regional, socio-economic and cultural. It
expresses the emotions that accompany their words and silences.
(Refer Slide Time: 18:08)

Think back to an example we had discussed earlier in this module, the work of Donna Barnes
with women infected with HIV. You would recall that one of the reasons that the women chose
video as a recording medium was because it would carry their complete bodily expressions and

not only their words. And it is not only sound or words; visual representations also bring in other
sensorial modalities of touch, smell and taste
(Refer Slide Time: 18:34)

like in this excerpt from another film by David MacDougall.
[Video shown 18:39 to 21:49]

Sure, it is only sound and image, but viewing this scene, we experience the physical contact, the
texture, the sensation of touch, that is part of getting a haircut. Having experienced a haircut, or a
similar physical contact, we are able to understand the sensations of touch and texture that are
depicted here through image and sound.

(Refer Slide Time: 22:19)

Let us dwell on this point a little bit more with this scene from the film Schoolscapes. The film is
MacDougall's exploration of life and learning in the Rishi Valley School in south India.
[Video shown 22:29 to 24:10]

Here too, the composition of visuals and sounds evokes a physical sensation that of flowing
water of something being washed clean.

(Refer Slide Time: 24:23)

Our understanding of visuals is at the level of experience and at the level of interpretation. The
maker of the visual and the viewer work together, experiencing and interpreting what they see.
Meaning is constructed based on shared and individual experiences. And so, a visual is more
than just scene. Through a visual, we can experience touch, texture, sound, movement, smell and

any number of sensations. Visual ethnographies we might say are not only visuals but multi-
sensorial in nature.

In visually representing our research, we often try to present our participant's ways of scene.
These ways of scene may be very different from ours. Visual media, particularly drawing and
animation films, are able to represent different ways of seeing because they are not so dependent
on 'realistic portrayals'. Sometimes these attempts at presenting the other's way of seeing may
take the form of a collaboration between the researcher and the participant. In The Stitches
Speak, for instance, the worlds created by the artists follow a visual and spatial logic that is

[Video shown 25:41 to 26:05]

The placement of objects, people and animals depict a way of seeing, that is different from a
more commonly seen way of drawing where usually all the figures are placed upright.

(Refer Slide Time: 26:20)

Drawing and animation filmmaking allows us to manipulate their canvases and their perspectives
to depict these alternative visions of reality. And through this, we attempt to present our
participants' ways of representing their verse. In the beginning of this section, we had spoken
about the grammar of the visual and visual media.

Different participants and communities too have different visual languages. Sometimes their
grammar is so different from what we are used to, that it pushes us to question our own ways of
seeing and representing. By representing multiple ways of seeing, visual media are able to
convey the constructed nature of reality. Visual ethnographers sometimes like to blur the line
between fiction and non-fiction, to challenge the idea of objective depiction. By bringing
fictional narratives, or alternative tellings, together with documentary ones, visual
representations are able to present diverse versions of reality. This includes realities that are not
visible per se, such as imaginations and memories.

(Refer Slide Time: 27:33)

Memories and dreams form an important part of the ethnography of the graphic novel memories
of the Vani, which present the story of Tamil refugees effected by conflict in Northern Sri Lanka.
(Refer Slide Time: 27:49)

The ethnography depicts the experiences of refugees during the war and afterwards as they wait
to be granted asylum. It represents their lived experiences through fictionalised accounts based
on anecdotes, dreams and memories narrated by the participants. The characters portrayed in this
work are fictionalised. The fictionalisation of narratives empowers the participants by making
their stories visible, while also protecting their safety by anonymising them.

(Refer Slide Time: 28:22)

So, we see visual ethnographies often bring fictionalised narratives and mythical stories to create
analytical and descriptive presentations of their participants' lives. Instead of compromising the
reality or 'truthfulness' of ethnographic representation, we can use forms such as fiction and
storytelling,to provide a common ground for communication between the researcher and the
audience. Thus making it easier to convey meanings and concepts without falling back on verbal

(Refer Slide Time: 28:57)

. In We Make Images, a folk tale, a 'fictional story' becomes an ethnographic film representing
the meaning of painting in the lives of the Bhils.
[Video shown 29:07 to 30:17]

The story is set as you may have noticed against a blank background. The blankness represents
the 'nowehere' space in which myths and folk tales are situated. The visual medium used here
animation film enables such a representation. The conscious exclusion of detail contextualises
the myth.
The blank background seems to say that for the Bhils, myths and folktales exist in the mental
landscape and are not confined to one particular place or region. These are some of the elements
that form the visual language of different media. They are by no means all the elements to use in

constructing visual ethnographies. Our ways of representing can be as varied and unique as our
participants' ways of seeing.
(Refer Slide Time: 31:12)

For those of you who may want to explore this subject some more, here is a presentation by
Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar. Through our course, we have seen many excerpts from their
films and have discussed them. In this presentation, they discuss one of their films, Saacha, The
Loom. And at the end of the presentation, there is a quiz that you can take to reflect on your