Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Different Kind of Research: Visual Ethnography

One of my classes this semester in Dublin is "Visualizing Americanization." In the class, we have studied visual ethnography as a research method and as a tool for future projects, like the senior thesis. Because it is visual, it is a kind of research that gleans meaning from an archive of images and the process of creating that archive. An ethnography is defined by one leading practitioner, Sarah Pink, as "a process of creating and representing knowledge based on your experience."

Proponents of visual ethnography argue that cultures worldwide are increasingly more visual than verbal, and so it is not always necessary to translate an archive of photos into textual or "objective" knowledge, as was once the usual project. Rather, verbal knowledge (and other types of knowledge) work alongside visual representations, which are never truly objective, and which we create either through illustration or photography or through our verbal description of people, settings, and events.

In the first half of the semester, we researched well-known visual ethnographies (such as a popular photo spread in Oprah Magazine and the "Family of Man" photography exhibit from the Cold War era). In this second half of the semester, Alex and I are each using a blog to create and build our own visual ethnographies about how we perceive life in Dublin. It is an interesting project because we are newcomers to this city, and yet it has been a really powerful way to view a new place by focusing on a particular attribute and creating a photographic archive which we will later analyze and present in the last week of the semester (unbelievably, only two weeks away!)

The ongoing nature of the project is also liberating because it allows our conclusions to change on a much more frequent basis; if we see something one week that contradicts what we saw the week before, we are encouraged to post and analyze these contradictions, rather than attempt to meld them into one coherent conclusion. Alex's blog (Growing Up Dublin) is a collection of photographs that capture what it is like to be a child in the urban setting of Dublin, based around different themes such as using the city as a playground. Mine (Dublin In Motion) is focused on Dublin's urban transportation system, especially as it factors into Dublin's identity as an increasingly global city.

While American Studies' interdisciplinary nature allows for studies of topics like photography, and its vital role in our perception of the nation and the world, this course has taught me much more about the relationship of visual material to other kinds of knowledge. Images as a language of their own is a new concept for me. I have learned to look more critically at things like how a photo is captioned, or the fluidity of categories like artistic photography, travel photography, and personal archives. Some of my favorite examples from the course can be found on Mediastorm, which focuses on multimedia storytelling and what they call "cinematic narratives for distribution across a variety of platforms."

1 comment:

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

Great post, Kaylyn! I hope it will provoke you or others in the Senior Seminar to incorporate this sort of methodology into their senior theses!