Module 1: Understanding Visual Ethnography

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In earlier discussions, we have spoken about the importance of reflexivity in ethnography.
Now we would like to discuss what reflexivity means with regards to visual ethnography. To
be reflexive is to be aware of our presence, our role and our behaviour in the research
environment. It involves being conscious of our location in the context of our participants.
And therefore to be acutely aware of our participants' expectations from us and our work.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:38)

This also means to be conscious of the ways in which we use visuals to represent the other. It
requires us to be aware of the ways of seeing that influence the interpretation of visuals and

of the meanings associated with various visual media. We have to consider how our
participants and viewers will interpret the visuals and how it may impact them. So, how do
we bring reflectivity to our ethnographic records and representations?
(Refer Slide Time: 01:12)

The first step is to understand the meanings that our images convey. What we frame and how
what we include and leave out of the frame, how close or distant are we from the participant
or their objects? These decisions define the meaning and the message of our images. The
framing of an image conveys a lot more than we realize.

(Refer Slide Time: 01:37)

It conveys our presence that is the presence of the image-maker and the ideas and
assumptions which influence our ways of seeing. Importantly, it conveys our relationship
with the subject of the image. Let us understand this further.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:56)

Here is a short clip from the film Awareness by the MacDougalls. This film is also set in the
Rishi Valley School.

(Refer Slide Time: 02:05)

(Refer Slide Time: 08:46)

Watching this clip, what do you understand about the filmmakers' relationship with the
participants? And what are the clues that reveal this relationship? I would like you to note
down your answers. Some of you may have noticed that the camera is always at the same
level as the students.
(Refer Slide Time: 09:05)

When the student is seated on the floor and the teacher on the stool before him, the camera is
at a low angle looking up at the teacher, reflecting the student's point of view. It replicates the
relationship between the two from the perspective of the student.
(Refer Slide Time: 09:23)

Later, when the teacher sits on the floor playing the mridangam for his students, the camera is
at level with the teacher. Once again, the camera sees from the student’s perspective, which is
now at eye level. You may notice that the filmmakers have not placed the camera standing
above the student looking down at him as he plays the instrument nor are they looking up at
him like they look at the teacher on his chair.
(Refer Slide Time: 09:52)

In this manner, the framing of the scene reveals the perspective the filmmakers are
representing. In positioning the camera in this manner, the filmmakers establish a relationship
of empathy with the student, and the visuals convey the sense of equality in their relationship.
Let us take one more example to understand how researcher participant relationships translate
into visual representations.

(Refer Slide Time: 10:21)

This one is from David MacDougall's early film, To Live With Herds. The film is based
among the Jie, a tribe of semi-nomadic cattle herders in the Karamoja district of Uganda. The
film is set in 1972 about ten years after the country's independence from Britain. In this
period, the national government of Uganda was trying to establish a system of administration
and bureaucracy. These systems sometimes conflicted with the interest and ways of living of
tribes such as the Jie.
In the sequence, we are about to watch an officer of the local government holds a meeting
with the senior members of the tribe. He wants to explain to them some of the new rules and
systems the government is putting in place. Come, let us watch the scene.

(Refer Slide Time: 11:15)

The sequence begins with the filmmaker having a conversation with the officer, the
additional district Commissioner as they travel in his car. The commentary that the filmmaker
provides at the beginning of the sequence establishes that he is attending the meeting at the
request of the officer. So, we might assume that he is engaging with the officer and not so
much with the Jie.

(Refer Slide Time: 21:14)

And in the meeting, the camera is positioned in a somewhat neutral space, not on the side of
the officer nor the Jie attendees. None of this shows him as being close to the Jie community
members. And yet, we are left with the understanding that the filmmaker's attention and
concern lies with the Jie and not with the officer. But how do we know this? There are a
couple of clues.
(Refer Slide Time: 21:43)

During the meeting, the camera rests longer on the Jie members. This establishes that it is the
community members who are the centre of the filmmaker's attention.

(Refer Slide Time: 21:55)

And a more definite giveaway is that the camera stays with the members of the community as
the officer drives away in his vehicle.
(Refer Slide Time: 22:03)

These decisions of what to film and from what position visually express the filmmaker's
relationship with his participants. Let us watch the scene from Awareness once again. This
time, I would like you to pay attention to the frames that show the students playing the

(Refer Slide Time: 22:23)

(Refer Slide Time: 29:05)

Some of you may have noticed the camera often focuses on the student's fingers as they hit
the instrument. The frames shift between a tight close- up of the fingers, and the mid-shot
showing the way he sits and holds the instrument. The scene moves between the student
playing, the teacher's instructions and the teacher playing. In each of these, the focus often
returns to the player's hands, their finger movements or their body as they play. Why is this
framing a part of the sequence? And what do you think it conveys?

Perhaps the filmmakers are trying to show us the relationship between the player and the
instrument and the role of the body in building that relationship in learning to play the
mridangam. In learning the instrument, the student must learn how to sit with it, how to hold

it, how to position his hands and fingers over it. These very physical aspects of learning are
expressed through the close framing of the fingers and hands, the attention to the player's
body and posture and so on.
(Refer Slide Time: 30:17)

This is another important aspect of how we read images, the proximity and distance of the
image-makers from the subject of the image. How far or how close we position ourselves.
What we focus on and what gets left out of our frames? This depicts our interest and what we
want to represent. Do we contextualise a phenomenon? Or do we focus so closely on one
aspect of it that we leave out its environment?
(Refer Slide Time: 30:51)

For example, if we are recording the making of an object, such as a craft piece, we might
focus closely on the hands of the maker, and forget to include the body of the craftsperson,
and their surrounding environment. Thus, we focus on the craft, and not on its maker, and the
context of its making. This reveals a gap in our study. After all, being contextual and paying
attention to human experience is one of the fundamental principles of ethnographic practice.
Let us take another example where the particular human experience is situated in its context.

(Refer Slide Time: 31:28)

We return to another excerpt from Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar's film, So Heddan So
[Music playing in background]
(Refer Slide Time: 35:57)

As we watch this sequence, we might ask ourselves this film is about singing and music and
the spiritual connection that people feel with Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Then why is the
camera focused on the landscape? Is it simply to show us a pretty picture? Not really. Here,
the focus on the landscape expresses the role that the spaces of the desert play in the music of
the community. The landscape forms the context of the participant’s lives and inspires their

(Refer Slide Time: 36:21)

In this scene, as the camera lingers on the landscape, the music plays. The visuals and the
sound together connect the spaces of the Rann of Kutch with the poetry of Bhittai, and the
lives of the participants. Another important aspect of this scene is the steady lingering gaze
with which it watches the landscape. This we could say, is the video counterpart of observing
the context.
The task of observation, as we know, is to spend time in a context, to pay attention to it as a
whole and to the activities and elements that form a part of it. A continuously shifting camera
or one that moves too much from one activity to another makes it difficult for viewers to rest
their gaze to immerse themselves or reflect on
Refer Slide Time: 37:15)

We may apply the same principle that we follow in an interview while making a visual
record. In interviewing someone, we try to ensure that they have all our attention. Our, our
visual records must depict the same. If we are looking at something or someone else in the
room while our participant speaks, it means we are not paying attention to the participant. It
is also distracting for the participant and possibly annoying if we look elsewhere or record
other things while they are trying to tell us something.
(Refer Slide Time: 37:51)

As you have understood by now, what we leave out of the frame, expresses just as much as
what we choose to frame. As viewers, we read the image and its making.
(Refer Slide Time: 38:02)

The process of reading an image or deriving meaning from it is the collaborative one between
the image-maker and the viewer. The meaning of an image is, therefore, co-constructed. Let
us look at another example to understand this.
(Refer Slide Time: 38:17)

This is a photograph taken by a design researcher, Divya Dutta, from the Center for
Knowledge Societies. The picture was taken while Divya was on fieldwork observing the
process of vaccination in hard-to-reach areas. What does this image convey about health
workers in rural India, working on vaccination drives? The image itself shows little: a woman
carrying a heavy-looking bag, walking in the middle of a vast, empty landscape.
(Refer Slide Time: 38:48)

But to those who knew of the context, the participants, designers and researchers on the
project, it spoke volumes. It spoke about the difficulty faced by healthcare workers in
commuting the long distances they had to travel and the lack of infrastructure. It spoke about
the need for a more ergonomic way to carry vaccines and other medical paraphernalia. It
depicted for the more careful reader that the healthcare workers also carried personal
belongings besides their professional kits. For the designers and researchers working on the
project, this image suggested that multiple needs had to be considered by the design team.
This single image became a richly detailed expression of the participant’s requirements.
(Refer Slide Time: 39:43)


So, let us sum up this discussion. The conscious and the subconscious decisions we make in
recording and representing our observations convey meaning. They reflect our ways of
perceiving and seeing the other. By being aware of these by learning to read the images we
create, we can reflect upon our assumptions and our ways of seeing. This is an important
aspect of reflexivity while working with visuals.
There are other aspects that we are yet to discuss, and these shall be the topic of our
conversation in the following section.In our last section, we said that to be reflexive in visual ethnography means to be aware of the
meanings that our images convey. To be aware of the meaning associated with our chosen visual
medium and to be conscious of our role in the context.
We have discussed the first one. Now we come to the second, which is about the meanings
associated with our chosen medium.

(Refer Slide Time: 0:38)

Is a representation a true copy of what it depicts? Or is it an 'improved', idealised' version? Is an
embellished image a false image? Or is it an artistic presentation of something that is otherwise
ordinary? Most forms of visual art and representation have always held this tension between the
'real' and the 'ideal'. And perhaps this tension is most pronounced in the case of photography.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:09)

The MacDougalls' film, Photo Wallahs, explores this. One of the participants in the film is a
wedding photographer who is trying to take pictures of a young woman that will be sent to you
prospective grooms by her family.

"As you are seeing this picture here, this is the picture of my sister Sushila and us and it been
taken by me and after taking this picture, we have sent this picture to the boy's family. So after
they have seen these picture, so she been selected with this picture and here now you are seeing
the picture of the same girl which is my sister Sushila. Now she calls Sushila Saini with her
husband Mr Vijay Saini.

And this is the picture of their, after their marriage. And here is the picture of a doctor - it is send
by to this, this family as you are seeing two girls in this picture. So, they have got this picture
from this doctor's side and now they have to send the one picture from the girl's side. So, I got an
appointment from this family now for this engagement pictures, so probably next week I am
going to take the picture of this girl, this one and this is the sister of this girl the second one. So,
actually they are both want to get married now."

"As you see that it used to be like that in the past times when the people used to refer the studio
photograph which is taken by the good lights and the different sort of touching on it. But that
would be alright just for seeing if you are saying just the picture only. But in the real way when
you see the person who is on the photograph so then you will come to know the real story what is
in it.

And I have seen one black and white picture with one girl which she got from the boy's family
and he was looking very nice in that picture just smart, but when he came in front of that girl so
it was very embarrassing for that girl even she could not talk to him she was not feeling very nice
to talk to him and she just came from one door and went from another door because the picture
was saying something else in that picture but the person was not like that."

We see in the sequence, and the photographer says it quite well, that a photograph is expected to
show a more desirable version of reality. But if it departs too much from the real, it fails its
purpose. There is a careful balance or rather a tension between how real and how idealised a
photograph should be. Speaking of this tension inherent in photography, through the work of the
wedding photographer, David MacDougall has said.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:36)

"Even though he tries to show the women at their best amidst signs of their affluence and
sophistication, he is careful not to idealize them too much because he knows that the couple will
probably meet. Then it will be discovered what they really look like. If he idealizes too much, the
photographs will fail as evidence.

This tension between the constructed nature of a photograph and the reality it presents is a
recurring theme in the film. In another sequence, a group of photography enthusiasts, discuss this
tension in their own work. They are not under obligation to present an idealised reality like the
wedding photographer.

(Refer Slide Time: 6:23)

Yet the same tension between the ideal and the real exists for them when it comes to representing
'reality' or 'beauty'.
Through a discussion of this tension, the photographers emphasise that a photograph is not
simply captured but is made it is constructed. For many years and across cultures, this is what
visual arts and photography have done represent people as they want to be seen, as they want to
be remembered by others.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:19)

You can see an example of this in the ethnographic film, Future Remembrance by Tobias Wendl
and Nancy du Plessis set in Ghana in the 1990s.
Refer Slide Time: 10:32)

(Refer Slide Time: 10:38)

The film explores various forms through which people are visually represented in Ghanaian

(Refer Slide Time: 10:39)

Photographs, painted portraits and funeral statues. In each of these, people ask the artist to depict
them as they are and as they aspire to be. The reality that an image construct is made up of both
these aspects. This constructed nature reminds us that an image like all forms of representation is

(Refer Slide Time: 11:03)

It usually presents the perspective of the maker. Reflecting on the subjectivity can reveal our
ways of seeing. And those, or our participants. This is the point that Christopher Pinney makes as
he recounts an incident from the early part of his career as an anthropologist. In the early years of
his fieldwork in India, Pinney took a photograph of his neighbour, the kind of 'ethnographic
image' that he wanted to produce.

(Refer Slide Time: 11:34)

Candid, revealing, expressive of the people I was living among. The photograph was half-length
and showed his participants standing in the fields in the evening hours. His participant, however,
did not like the picture at all.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:51)

Pinney says that he complained about the shadow and darkness cast over his face and the
absence of the lower half of his body. The photograph that he wanted instead required
(Refer Slide Time: 12:03)

Clothes to be changed, hair to be brushed and oiled and in the case of the upper caste women, the
application of talcum powder to lighten the skin.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:14)

And it had to be framed in a particular way; it had to be full length and symmetrical with
expressionless faces and body poses. In short, the photograph that his participant wanted was a
typical studio photograph. To Pinney, this kind of picture was the anti-thesis of an ethnographic
image. According to him, an ethnographic image should show the participant in their natural
context, engaging in activities that form their daily lives.

(Refer Slide Time: 12:47)

How could a posed studio style photograph be ethnographic?
(Refer Slide Time: 12:51)

The photograph that Pinney first took ok and the one that his participant wanted were defined by
the difference in their cultures and ways of seeing. Pinney's idea was influenced by the realist,
documentary style that ethnographers value.

(Refer Slide Time: 13:07)

The participant's ideas were based on the conventions of studio photography familiar in his
culture. These two photographs represent the subjectivities of the researcher and the participant.
An important part of being reflexive is to be aware of these subjectivities - our own and that of
the participant's. We must attempt to create ethnographies that are an outcome of the interaction
between the subjectivities of the researcher and the participant.
In other terms, our ethnographies must be intersubjective in nature. What does this mean in terms
of visual ethnography? Let us return to Pinney to understand that. The photograph that he finally
took was as per the directions of his participant. It matched the conventions of studio
photography. But it was also a record of the researcher's engagement with his participant.
Thus the image represented the interaction between two different ways of seeing. It was a record
created through the coming together of two subjectivities Pinney's and his participants. And it
represented the interaction of two visual cultures; modern anthropology, and Indian studio

By admitting such intersubjectivity into his work, Pinney learnt a little more about his participant
and the notions of self-representation in his culture. He also learnt something about his own

practice and the ways of seeing that defined his discipline. Pinney's experience brings home one
more point with regards to reflexivity.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:54)

To be reflexive means to be aware of our role and location in the context and the expectations of
our participants. We may see ourselves as researchers in the world of the other but how are we
perceived by the other? What are their expectations from us? What roles have they assigned to
us? Recall our discussion on access and the role of the ethnographer.
Sometimes even when our role as professional researcher is overt, we are assigned another role
by our participant community. They could assign us the role of documenters of their lives and
worlds, apprentices and learners, fellow-travellers and even friends and confidants. They are
likely to have certain expectations of us as per the role assigned and these expectations extend to
the records that we make of their world. They may want these records to portray a particular
aspect of their lives or to serve a function.
Sara Pink's participants for instance, who wanted her to take pictures which they could keep as
personal records and share with family and friends. Raniben and Meghiben wanted a record of
their personal narratives that would reach a larger audience. An awareness of these expectations
and how our records and representations fulfil them is important.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:22)

It helps us answer some of the questions that we begin our research with. What is the objective
served by the research, and how does our research impact our participants and their community?
And so, it helps to remain true to the objectives we had started out with. And, it helps us
understand a little more about how our participants perceive certain forms of visual
representation. In the examples that we have shared in this section, researchers explored how
their visual medium and the representations they create were perceived by their participants.

In the process, they became aware of their own ways of seeing. This led them to reflect on the
media they use, whether it is photography, film or animation. They learned about the meanings
associated with their chosen medium. And they discovered that participants have a say in how
they want to be represented. That participants often assert their agency by defining the terms of
representation. So, to be respectful of how the other wants to be represented is an important part
of the ethnographer's responsibility.

(Refer Slide Time: 17:41)

To summarise: To be reflexive means to be aware of our intentionality in making an image. It
means to be conscious of subjective ways of seeing and to attempt inter-subjectivity in our
representations. And it means to be conscious of the implications of our representations on the
lives of our participants.
This kind of reflexivity is essential if we are to move from using images as illustrations or as
substitutes for words, and if we want our research to be truly collaborative and participatory. For
those of you who want to further explore what an image or a visual representation means, we
have an exercise.
(Refer Slide Time: 18:26)

We would like you to watch the film Future Remembrance by Tobias Wendl and Nancy du
Plessis. Based on your understanding of the film, answer a few questions on the meanings
associated with photography and memory in Ghanaian culture