What the Camera Does – #RoR2018

What the Camera Does – #RoR2018

Black and white photo. A wall with two empty square holes where windows will be inserted. One has a large metal grate over it. The second grate leans up against the wall while two men prepare to mount it over the second window.
Two men mount the security grates over what will be the windows of my house. Title: La sécuriser. Photo Credit: Dick Powis. 2018

This series – #ROR2018 – has taken a backseat for several months. I’ve been mostly active on Twitter while I navigate state bureaucracies, assemble a research team, begin the process of data collection, management, and analysis, build a house, do my part to getting Footnotes off the ground, deal with #hautalk, fast for Ramadan, and focus on my visiting partner. Things have been hectic, but I found a fleeting moment to address something. Recently, I received an email from a student. Here is an excerpt:

I would be very curious and interested to read something about how you engage in what you named “visual ethnography” and how photography interacts in your practice in anthropological research: what use do you make of the camera? What place holds photography in your project? How does it change it?

I want to begin by noting that “visual ethnography” is not my term nor is it my invention. I want to first clarify how I think about ethnography. The suffix of ethnography should not denote that it is just about writing, but that it involves description, representation, and record more generally. It can be written and it can be recorded as a photograph and video, but it can even be a soundscape or illustration. The term “visual ethnography” may then seem redundant, but I think it’s necessary in order to distinguish a particular sensory engagement from the accepted standard of reading “written ethnography.” Importantly, I don’t think that any form of ethnography should stand alone: just as visual ethnography should be paired with text (or something else), so too do I believe that text should be paired with non-text. My hope is that we can move toward a significantly more mainstream “multimodal” model of anthropology, to use a hot new word. Multimodality describes just that: anthropology that engages with the world by many different ways. Text and photos and video, but also social media, art, experience, sense, and on and on and on.

Ethnographic photography, in particular, is practically as old as the camera,[1] but some of my favorite work comes out of the early to mid-20th century. While not deliberately ethnographic, you should spend some time perusing the documentary oeuvre of Kiowa photographer Horace Poolaw and portraiture of the Malian photographers, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. Among today’s active photographers, I admire the portraiture of Matika Wilbur and Omar Victor Diop, the street photography of Brent Luvaas, and the work of Jason De Léon. Not all of these photographers were or are “ethnographers,” but to say their work is not ethnographic or documentary[2] would be to undermine the expansive potential of ethnography itself.

Color photo. Abstract, largely light green negative space, a dark circle near the middle, and long stringy things emerging toward the lens. Some parts of the stringy bits are not in focus, giving a three-dimensional effect.
The first in an upcoming series on abstract photography and ethnography, which I call “ethnographic texture.” Title: TBD. Photo Credit: Dick Powis. 2018

To answer the above questions, it is tempting to say that the camera is another tool and photography another kind of data, but that would be a vulgar underestimation of what they actually can do. The camera is a tool, but also method, key, and weapon; photography is data, but also directive, generative, and educational.

The camera both opens doors and closes them. In my experience, people want to be photographed during the events for which they are dressed to the nines, like naming ceremonies and marriages, which I attend frequently, but also religious holidays like Korité (Eid al-Fitr) and Tabaski (Eid al-Adha). Being known as a photographer means being invited to these events which are so important to peoples’ lives and it means sharing in celebration with them. The camera has been at the center of conversations which jumpstart of new friendships.

Most of the people I photograph begin as strangers and become my friends. I help with the farm work, go through all the annoying ethics documents with them, and ask for their input into the creative process. (Kate Schneider, personal communication)

People do not always want to be photographed as they walk through the market, drive to work, or take part in other quotidian tasks – the kinds of things one captures in the genre of “street photography.” As a result, while I’m regularly told to take my camera everywhere, I’ve actually been taking my camera to fewer and fewer places. People treat me differently, sometimes as an interloper (one who invades private and personal spaces), other times as a tourist (one who is not significantly invested in the care and attention to the experiences of the community around me). Common sense is helpful: I would never raise the camera to my eye in the thick of a hospital waiting room, consultation room, or delivery room, even if childbirth lies at the center of my dissertation research. Those are moments best left to the memory of the attendees.

One reason I chose anthropology, as opposed to journalism, was because anthropology allows me to put my camera down. I don’t always need to “get the shot.” (Jeffrey Schonberg, personal communication)

The key, of course, is to be respectful and to ask permission, and to engage in a collaborative project and to pay or barter when appropriate. A collaborator’s time, labor, and voice are important to the development of strong ethnographic photography. When in doubt, one might ask themselves what they might do as not to embody the naked entitlement and privilege from which Diane Arbus and Susan Sontag have drawn.

“Photography was a license to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do,” [Diane] Arbus wrote. The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear. The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at familiar subjects—to fight against boredom” (Sontag 1977, 33).

Move slowly and with caution. Compose carefully. If possible, use film. Take the time to listen to those with whom you engage, or at least make yourself conspicuous to them, as well as your audience.

Take your time, shoot film. Publish photos, lest we keep our interlocutors invisible. Be visible in your work. (Jason De Léon, paraphrased from my #displace18 notes)

Black and white photo: A large Senegalese man wearing jeans, Adidas running shoes, and a nicely pressed white button-down shirt sits on the edge of a mattress. The mattress is on top of a short stack of wooden pallets. The house is under construction, so the walls are pitted and peeling with cement scars. The man holds a phone to his ear while a cable connects it to the mobile charger in his other hand.
At this point, we’ve moved into the unfinished house. My brother, a businessman, sits in a pose with which I am all too familiar: on his phone while it charges. Title: Trop bossé. Photo Credit: Dick Powis. 2018

I like to joke, perhaps to the chagrin of my committee, that if “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then I should be able to submit a portfolio of 100 photographs as my dissertation. What it really means is that photos can be coded (if coding is your thing). Codes are thematic keywords, which are akin to hashtags, that one can assign to words, phrases, paragraphs, but also photos (or parts of photos), video, sound – anything really. The codes I use have been collaboratively developed and defined (in Wolof, French, and English) with the assistance of two Senegalese graduate students. I use these same codes to organize my photography in order to tie visual representations of themes, ideas, or just memories to those that are written (i.e. notes) and spoken (i.e. transcriptions). Like notes, not everything can be coded and photography is therefore also generative; it gives way to new ideas, directions, and questions, particularly when they don’t fit neatly into categories. Photography gives me pause for reflection. It provides visual cues from which I recall details that I might not have put into words at the time, or maybe I can catch things that I had not seen before.

So, then, back to methods: Photographs can also be cues to others. With a method called “photo elicitation,” we may present a photograph to someone and ask, “Can you tell me about this?” With another called “photo voice,” we call on a group of participants to take photographs and then present them to each other in a focus group-style interview session. In both cases, though to varying degrees, what we’re seeking is the perspective of the participant in a different way than we might in informal conversation or formalized interviews.

My journey with photography – like the rest of my work and my approach to it – is still unfolding, but I know that it will occupy a significant portion of my dissertation. (Editor’s Note: Dear Committee, Not 100%. Sincerely, Dick.) There’s only so much of the story that I can tell in writing.

[1] Early examples of photography that told us something about people and their relationships to histories, experiences, and power can be found in the works of Augustus Washington, a Black American portrait photographer and daguerreotypist who worked in Senegal, Gambia, and Sierra Leone and opened a studio in Liberia in 1853; the Lutterodt brothers, Ghanaian portrait photographers of the late 19th century; Alphonso Lisk-Carew, the Sierra Leonean portrait photographer of the early 20th century. Even though they came after some of those listed above, the following three White Dudes™ tend to be a starting point for the history of ethnographic photography in Visual Anthropology curricula and “household names” (at least in the house of North Atlantic Anthropology): Franz Boas was using photography as early as 1894, the photographer Edward Curtis began his career in “salvage ethnography” in 1895, and Bronislaw Malinowski was photographing during his research between 1915-1918.

[2] In my Visual Anthropology course in college, we were asked, throughout the semester, to ponder the difference between visual ethnography and documentary. The best answer I could come up with was that it depended on whose voice was most apparent – researcher, collaborator, participant. As filmmakers and photographers collaborate with ethnographers, or as students seek dual training in ethnography and film/photo, I’m not so sure it’s a question worth asking any more.

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.

8 Replies to “What the Camera Does – #RoR2018”

  1. Dick, what you have written here is very interesting. Please pardon a tangential remark.

    I have, I believe, noticed a trend in the last three posts on Anthro{dendum}, this one, Adam Fish on permisionless innovation, and Daniel Miller’s on cookbooks. All three are interesting, informative, readable…and closed. What I mean by “closed” is that none of these carefully crafted essays includes the gaps or hooks that stimulate comment and conversation. I am aware that in parts of the world where the academic year stretches from fall to spring, the summer vacation has begun and online traffic on academic sites has predictably declined. Still, if I compare the response to these essays to those that address such hot-button issues as the #HAU controversy, I glimpse something more than seasonal fluctuation. That is where those missing gaps and hooks come in.

    Working in advertising in Japan, I learned the importance of gaps between word and image, openings in which readers or viewers can insert themselves and become engaged with the message. Reading Henry Jenkins, I later learned the importance of the shift in popular culture from production of carefully framed aesthetic wholes to sprawling franchises with innumerable hooks (cameos, unfinished story lines, trailers, that sort of thing) to attract and engage fans. In the essays mentioned here, I detect an older habitus, the writing of essays conceived as finished works of art instead of interventions in on-going conversations. I could be wrong. Given, however, our now perennial concern for public interest and appreciation of anthropology…Am I completely off the wall?

  2. Thanks for this post Dick. That’s a great quote from Schonberg: “One reason I chose anthropology, as opposed to journalism, was because anthropology allows me to put my camera down. I don’t always need to ‘get the shot.'” I appreciate this take on photography, especially in comparison with certain approaches to ‘street photography’ etc. I’m all for capturing decisive moments, so to speak, but it’s important to think about when it’s time to aim the camera, and when it might be time to set it aside. Sometimes there are other things (or relationships) that matter far more than getting the shot (as Schonberg puts it). Thanks again. It got me thinking.

  3. And yet, John, you still managed to publish a comment on this piece. Seems to me you could find a ‘hook’ in almost anything!

    1. True. But my time in the advertising industry has made looking for hooks a reflexive part of my habitus. The empirical evidence seems straightforward. Nicely written, aesthetically and intellectually closed posts elicit fewer comments than those which address controversial topics in a judgmental tone. I could, of course, be mistaken since I am extrapolating from personal impressions instead of systematic research.

  4. Thanks for this post. Although you are discussing photography, your concerns about how photography might be generative in ethnographic practice and how we might approach the ethics of photography resonate with other modalities of ethnography. I’m thinking here in particular about my own reluctance always to use my microphones and the ways that I try to negotiate how I engage in sound recording with the people with whom I live and work here in Taiwan. With that in mind, I might ask to use this blog post for discussion with my students in a sound studies course during the coming semester…

    1. Deej, as someone whose connections with Taiwan run long and deep, from fieldwork 1969-71, to teaching two spring semesters at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, I would like to learn more about your work. Where should I be looking? Any links you can share?

  5. Addendum: also, I’ve often tried to explain to people that my work with sound often precedes writing; it is as if my work with sound reveals more of the texture of cultural conditions that I would like to explore in writing

  6. Update! I just clicked on “Deej” and discovered taiwansoundscapes.org, a fascinating site about a hugely interesting and, to the best of my knowledge, highly innovative work. Which brings me to another dreary moral, nicely captured in the title of my favorite book on Web design, Don’t Make Me Think. The academic habit of expecting others to search for your work instead of making it easy to find may be good in the classroom. It is a path to oblivion in a wider world where millions of voices clamor to be heard and attention is always in short supply. So let me repeat once again: http://www.taiwansoundscapes.org.

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