The Visual Ethnographic Narrative

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)

Text of The Visual Ethnographic Narrative

This article was downloaded by: On: 24 February 2011 Access details: Access Details: Free Access Publisher Routledge Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 3741 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

Visual Anthropology

Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:

The visual ethnographic narrative

Douglas Harpera a Associate Professor of Sociology, State University of New York, Potsdam, New York Online publication date: 17 May 2010

To cite this Article Harper, Douglas(1987) 'The visual ethnographic narrative', Visual Anthropology, 1: 1, 1 19 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/08949468.1987.9966457 URL:

PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLEFull terms and conditions of use: This article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematic reproduction, re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contents will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae and drug doses should be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings, demand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.

Visual Anthropology, Vol. 1, pp. 1-19 Photocopying permitted by license only


1987 Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH Printed in the United States of America

The Visual Ethnographic Narrative1Douglas Harper This paper is a brief overview of narrative, reflexive, phenomenological and scientific approaches to visual ethnography, and an examination, in more depth, of the visual ethnographic narrative. To illustrate the visual narrative I draw on photographs made as part of an ethnography of tramp life in America. The narrative in this paper is incomplete and suggests the basic form for a comprehensive visual ethnography or film.

Although social scientists have used photographs since the beginning of anthropology2 and sociology3, little attention has been paid to the kinds of knowledge these photographs produce. In this paper I outline a typology of approaches to visual ethnography and I examine one element of this typology, which I have called the visual ethnographic narrative. Approaches to visual ethnography should not be thought of as specific paradigms with dearly defined attributes and boundaries. I argue for a pluralism of approaches that overlap and, at times, draw their characteristics from their context. While placing ideas into specific locations on an intellectual map is common enough in social science, I am tentative about such a task because I realize the dimensions along which visual ethnography is defined are complex and often context-specific. Levine's view (1986:272) that there is "no single diacritical marker for science," that ". . . adherence to a single criterion of the genetically scientific is to commit oneself to a polemical position that invalidates the legitimate claims of other kinds of knowledge" and Marcus and Fischer's (1985:8) similar suggestion that contemporary anthropological theory (and scholarly theory in general) is characterized by "the loosening of the hold over fragmented scholarly communities of either specific totalizing visions or a general paradigmatic style of organizing research" lend credence to the view of a visual social science with complimentary and interdependent approaches and features. I have labelled the visual ethnographic types as scientific, narrative, reflexive, and phenomenological. It is important to realize, however, that theDOUGLAS HARPER, Associate Professor of Sociology, State University of New York at Potsdam, Potsdam, New York 13676-2294, has published ethnographies on tramp life and rural work, and has codirected a film on a rural sawyer. He is Editor of the Visual Sociology Review, a publication of the International Visual Sociology Association, and edits a book series "Visual Studies" at Temple University Press. He is currently working on a monograph entitled Forms of Visual Knowing and a book on agriculture in the St. Lawrence Valley.

Downloaded At: 21:43 24 February 2011



same visual information may be placed into nearly any of these categories, depending on how it is interpreted and organized. Thus, while I explore the visual ethnographic narrative in this essay, I will also suggest how the same photographs, with different treatment, could function in other categories of the typology. This is not different from other social scientific data. Observations (the event through which data is constructed) of a particular social interaction may lead to any number of representations: a graph, a narrative, a formula, or an account.


To do visual social science is to adress two concerns. The first involves what we photograph, and the second concerns how we organize the photographs to represent the photographed object. These issues must be faced with the understanding that photographs are both constructed by human action (an interpretation of the world) and of the world (an objective record of a specific moment). These qualities of subjectivity and objectivity mix in different ways in various approaches to social science photography.4 For example, those who use the camera to record visual information that will then be classified, organized, counted, and compared, stress the "objective" capability of the camera. In this case "objectivity" means that the photographic information is considered reliable and valid. In the sociological sense, this means that a second photographer could return to the photographed phenomenon and largely duplicate the photographs of the first, and, secondly, that the photograph possesses basic correspondence to the photographed object. Photographers working from such a perspective have done inventories of vernacular architecture (Rusted 1985), spatial arrangements of houses, buildings, fields, streets, irrigation systems (Beresford, 1954; Beresford and St. Joseph, 1958; Collier and Van Vogt, 1965), and studies of cultural behavior (Danforth and Tsiaras 1982, Mead and Bateson, 1942). I am currently working on a community study of a farm neighborhood in which I am using aerial photographs to construct and compare farm histories. In this case I think of the camera primarily as a recording device, although another photographer, to duplicate my images, would have to know the time of year my photos were taken, the lighting conditions, altitude, lens length, film type and development procedures, and other technological considerations that influence the final image. The attempt to achieve reliability would be affected, of course, by the passage of time between the two photographic events. Still, while this sounds complicated, it is no less complicated than what is faced by a survey researcher who attempts to measure the same attitudes over a period of time or in a different population. This use of the camera, which utilizes its fullest potential to

Downloaded At: 21:43 24 February 2011

The Visual Ethnographic Narrative 3 make a visual record consistent with the viewer's visual perception of the object, can be labeled the "scientific" mode. Another photographer may question the process through which meaning is created even in the standard cataloguing function of photography. In the examples cited above, the photographic image contains information that is not thought to be ambiguous. Margaret Mead makes a photograph of an individual in a frozen posture possessing a look of beatitude and calls it a "trance." I make photographs of buildings and call one a "bain," another a "silo," and a third a "house." Presumably the words we use to describe what we see in the photographs have been pretty much agreed upon. Virtually anyone from the same general cultural background would accept the definitions/But if we look more closely we may find that the photographs, even of simple and easily recognized phenomena, have different meanings for different viewers. The person photographed in a trance may view the reality of the image quite differently than will the photographer or another viewer. If the subject comments upon and interprets the image, we have a way to understand how the cultural activity is viewed from within the cultural setting. This transport across the barriers of culture has been done in the film Jero on Jew (1980) and the accompanying book (Asch, Asch, and Connor 1986). While the farmer whose buildings I have photographed will agree with my simple definitions of house, barn and silo, the subject's analysis will provide details of the history of the setting and the values associated with the decisions to build, tear down, expand or contract a farm operation. The interview process used to uncover the subject's meaning has been called "photo elicitation."5 Several social scientists have used the method in cross-cultural research. Sprague, for example (1978) used both his and cultural members' photos to study how Yoruba of western Nigeria see themselves and their cultural values. Ximena Bunster B. (1978) used the photo elicitation interview in her study of the self-perception of proletarian mothers in Peru. Barndt (1980), in one of the only book-length studies which relies heavily on the photo-elicitation technique, used photos to study a community of rural migrants in Lima, Peru, and to imp