Doing Visual Ethnography in New Orleans

This past week, I had to read this book for a Field & Lab class. The text proved to be advantageous as an approach that manipulates one’s ethnographic mindset into thinking visually rather than textually. While it’s not a how-to manual for visual ethnography, it does represent a particular enlightening approach that many novice researchers could benefit from reading.  It is primarily for ethnographers who wish to incorporate visual facets into their work, and in that it achieves its goal.

Although it seems a rather simple concept, training the mind to consider various media as potential representations of knowledge (Pink) has rerouted my thinking much as though learning right-hand piano on the left hand would do. In my limited experience, I’ve generally used video and photography whenever possible, however not with the deliberation as a means to create and represent knowledge – instead, more as a supplement to fieldnotes, or simply a way to remember those intricate details of settings or outfits that my mind would let slip away (as a means to “inform ethnography”). Both certainly are beneficial.

Of particular relevance is that Pink spent a great deal of time discussing how important [and different] it can be to work closely and for extended periods of time with your subjects in order to access the personal happenings in their daily lives and to eventually record histories and narratives. While this is one of the chief standards of ethnographic research, Pink notes that doing so within the framework of visual ethnography would allow one to get more intensely personal photographs and video. Again, this seems blindingly obvious, however it creates a certain mindset for the ethnographers to center themselves within.

The first couple chapters situate themselves in this idea of mindset. How do we train ourselves to become visual ethnographers? The endless premeditated reflexivity of our own research is one possible answer that seems to recur regardless of what we’re attempting to progress towards, and certainly a recurring theme of our disciplines’ ideology.  The text piqued my curiosity in consideration of an anthropological approach to consumption: of material possessions, and perhaps of visual media itself. What will the photographs I include in my work conjure thoughts of for those who read/view it? Pink briefly discusses how visual images and technology are woven into the culture of those we study as well as the academic culture in which we work. If there were a credo to visual ethnography, these points would unquestionably be bulleted.

A couple weeks ago in New Orleans, I found myself sitting on an elevated sidewalk in the French Quarter listening to a band of street musicians. The members were all homeless street kids, those I would consider “gutter punks”. Moments after sitting, I realized I had sat next to a couple who also fell into this category and after making small talk about how we both enjoyed the group, without being prompted the female began talking with me about their transient lifestyle, her own musical experiences as a street artist, and the relationship dynamics between those in their community. Although I wasn’t expecting it (nor was I prepared), I asked her if she would let me record our conversation. Two hours later, it ended up being the most productive unstructured interview I’ve concluded. This taught me several things about preparation, which Pink discusses throughout her text. I had two pieces of equipment with me at the time – an iPhone, and a 14 megapixel digital camera which does not record audio or video. Luckily, I had already downloaded several recording applications to my iPhone and was able to swiftly place it between us in an unobtrusive way. This allowed me to record the entirety of it. It also allowed me to take various video clips of the band as I was recording our conversation with the same piece of “equipment”. Towards the end of our time together, I was able to use my digital camera to take photos of them, and of the couples’ fantastic [and significant] tattoos.  In this way, visual research unexpectedly became part of my project.

Pink discusses visual media in many cultures as being an understood and “un-taboo” practice. In this New Orleans instance, various ethical issues arose that also came up in this text. Towards the end of the week, I found myself seeking out this gutter punk community, especially after my interview with a particular woman (above) where she clued me in on where they typically hang out, and where they sleep (I found this to be privileged information). For the first couple days, I found myself paying them for photos (anywhere from $1 for a photo to $20 for an interview, which I always offered and they never specifically asked for). Towards the end, I felt as though I were “stalking” them, taking high-resolution photos from several yards away using zoom, and at one point sneaking next to one sitting on the steps of the river and pretending to take a photo of the river when in fact I was interested in him, in his particular location, in his particular moment. Is this  part of fieldwork? As an aside, my purpose for this is that I’m documenting their locations in order to create a mapped delineation of their community – using visual representations to create knowledge. Ethical issues arose from the gutters themselves…

…as Pink states in this text, often ethical decisions cannot be made until you’re standing in the field. This is a continuous process.

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