What is documentary photography (and why am I so curious about it)

I feel as though I’m circling around my methodology for my dissertation. I have narrowed it to ethnography, of which I’m familiar from my background in anthropology. From there, I am looking at visual ethnography, because it allows me to use new (and kinda cool) tools to document and elicit.

Plagens, in his article on photography in Newsweek (2007), discusses the separation of photography and truth in popular media and art. What I find most interesting about this conversation is more in the popular use of photography, aka, selfie sticks. We’ve increased our social capital through our Instagram and Facebook accounts, and the selfie stick is the next jump in terms of the presentation of “true” self to the world. How true is that upturned pout in front of the historic landmark? It may not be showing the true self, but I think it makes a claim on reality.

With the increase in use of photographs by everyday people, I can also justify my research methods. Photographic tools, though they cannot present an objective truth, are tools of the masses, with even many people in low resource settings having basic cameras on their phones. This makes them accessible and approachable recording devices. It also makes the pictures taken desirable to those in them. In formal artistic settings or at the end of a selfie stick, photographs are not neutral. They show something that the photographer intended to communicate, which motivates me to equip co-researchers in the field with digital cameras to see what they see and to discuss what they experience while attending training intended to empower. Because, as Mata Rosas states more eloquently than I “the action of seeing is an action of thought.”

For my own research, I have been exploring visual ethnography through photography with the wariness that “Photographs produced as part of an ethnographic project will be given different meanings by the subjects of those images, local people in that context, the researcher, and other (sometimes critical) audiences.” (Pink, 2007, p. 70)

Pink, S. (2007). Photography in ethnographic research. In Doing visual ethnography (pp. 65–96).

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