There’s no denying that visual images are powerful tools for a design ethnographer to have at her disposal. Seeing the childlike joy on a grown man’s face as he opens a box containing his new toy, hearing fear in the quivering voice of a woman who just received a diagnosis of a chronic illness, watching an artist focus on each brushstroke – these moments bring our clients on the journey with us. They see what we saw, feel the emotions that we felt, hear what we heard. It’s easy to be drawn into the world of the visual, and over the course of my career I’ve had to become somewhat of a videographer and a photographer as well as an ethnographer. I’ve learned to shoot and edit and create a story that remains true to the voices of the people who allowed me to share their world for a few hours, a day, or a week.
But there’s a flip side to the camera. Clients and ethnographers alike can fall into the trap of conflating experience with the representation of that experience. The camera can create an emotional connection, but it is also selective. It’s a particular gaze, one that is narrow, limited, and defining. We can get caught up in capturing the perfect shot and find ourselves thinking far too early about how we’re going to convey the experience rather than simply…experiencing.
Ultimately, the ethnographer is still the research instrument. Technology has advanced and perhaps the thought of writing field notes “old school” makes us smile a little, shake our heads, and wonder how we ever got through those years. But the truth is that we would all benefit from putting the camera down once in a while. I recently had a project in which a highly unusual number of participants declined to be videotaped or photographed. Although that was important data in itself, it also opened up a new world to me – or more accurately, it reminded me of the world from which I had come. After years of relying on visual documentation as a way of both capturing “what really happened” and sharing that experience with others, the intellectual knowledge that the camera only captures the data I choose became embodied reality again. I remembered that all representations of “reality” are partial.
The camera’s gaze is my gaze, yes, but the viewfinder is a narrow perspective indeed.
Putting down the camera opened up my field of vision. I suddenly saw those details that I realized I’d started to miss. There was no awkward fumbling, getting that great action shot, or making sure the camera wasn’t moving during a really good quote. The fieldwork felt more natural. I realized I was feeling their emotions in a way that had started to fade over time. I had been feeling in inverse proportion to the increased resolution of my HD cameras. Now, I could just BE with the participant and experience their day with them, and in the end my analysis didn’t miss the big picture in favor of the perfect shot. I’ve missed that.
Near the end of the project, a friend – who will be traveling to Tanzania with me soon – expressed his concern about getting stuck behind the camera. This was my response:
Photos are great to trigger memories, but the memories are what will last. The vibe, smells, feelings, emotions from seeing the world – and NOT through a camera lens. That’s what you’ll treasure.
My most powerful memories are moments that are NOT captured on film – rounding a corner in the Andes in the pouring rain after hiking for four days and seeing two dogs look up at me with blood all over their faces. It took me a second to register that they were eating a dead horse that had slid off the trail just a few hours earlier. The exhaustion and hypothermia and emotion of that scene could NEVER be caught on film, and stopping to pull my camera out of my backpack would have ruined the moment. I just froze – and rather than run, the dogs returned to their meal. I watched for a few seconds, then put one foot in front of the other, continuing my journey up the mountain.
Or watching the pregnant elephant that we saw one day in Hwange return the next to introduce her brand new pink baby to the herd for the first time. The photos I took don’t do the scene justice – the baby doesn’t even look pink. But the memory hasn’t faded. To see the pink elephant you had to be there, in the moment, paying attention. By the time I got the settings on my camera adjusted properly, the baby was gone.
Or the 16 ft crocodile in Guatemala that was sunning itself as we paddled by two feet away, the feel of class V rapids tumbling over you when you’re sucked into a hole and can’t breathe, the random band that was playing at a roadside guesthouse in Zimbabwe in the middle of nowhere, or just the absolute peace of cracking open a Bollinger’s on an African sundowner as a herd of cape buffalo rumble past.
Just be sure you put the camera down and EXPERIENCE it all. I’ve found it helpful to leave the camera in the tent or room for a game drive or outing or two. It’s a totally different experience without it, and extremely valuable. It will also help you take better shots. You’ll become more selective and purposeful and you’ll really see the scene in context before you hit that button. I have zero technical skill, but the camera becomes an extension of my gaze – not a replacement for it – and that makes all the difference.
Remember, the camera is just one of many possible tools to tell a story. But the storyteller is always YOU.