The Art of Observation: Issues and Potential of Using Photo-Methods in Critical Ethnography with Adolescents

The Art of Observation: Issues and Potential of Using Photo-Methods in Critical Ethnography with Adolescents

Michael L. Boucher Jr. (Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJAVET.2017040101
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The use of photographs in ethnographic education research is an emerging method that promises to enable scholars to collect deeper, more meaningful data from individuals who may otherwise be silenced. When used to empower participants, photo methodologies can remove what Foucault (1980) described as the analytical “gaze,” allowing for discussions of difficult or taboo subjects like race, sex, gender, and dis/ability (p. 155). This article discusses the development of photo methods in ethnographic education research, contributes practical suggestions as to their use, and provides successful examples where photos have empowered study participants. To do both science and justice in cooperation with one's participants, empowering communities and individuals and collecting trustworthy data are equal goals. Using photos in the reviewed studies achieved positive results for participants and revealed new understandings of communities, culture, and individuals.
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Introduction: Ethnography, Culture, And People

To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them. (Elliott Erwitt- 1928- Documentary and advertising filmmaker)

What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything. (Aaron Siskind- 1903-1991 Photographer)

In photography, there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality. (Alfred Stieglitz- 1864-1946 Photographer)

Whether by a researcher who is an insider (emic) or an outsider (etic), historically and fundamentally, ethnographies are an exploration of culture (Geertz, 1973). While it has not always been the case, today there is an expectation that the people involved in an ethnographic study are participants in a co-equal relationship exploring culture, not objects under examination as in more experimental methods (Lather, 1986). Culture is centered when researchers write a “thick description” that includes the setting where the observations are performed and situates the individual in a cultural framework (Geertz, 1973 p. 6). To conduct ethnographic work that does justice to the people involved, a researcher should be mindful to engage the whole person of the participant and not just assume that cultural characteristics are adequate to define her or him. Scholars explain that ethnography is a tool for “understanding the Other” (Patton, 2002 p. 84) or as “a dialogue with the Other” (Madison, 2012 p. 8). While place and the larger culture is central to the creation of an ethnography, ultimately, our research is about people; complicated, irrational, uncontrollable, conflicted, illogical, inconsistent, and unreliable people. Cultures are made up of these individuals who are sometimes indicative of the culture where they are immersed, and sometimes not (Quantz & O’Connor, 1988). Exposing that contradiction between the larger culture and the inner life of an individual defines the difference between ethnographies that develop revealing and instructive understandings that challenge a priori notions about the participants, and a merely descriptive enterprise that reifies current worldviews. This article will outline some of the benefits, issues, and possibilities of using photos in ethnographic education research. To accomplish this, I will outline some of the history of the method as well as include three examples to illustrate the potential of the emergent method when used to empower participants.

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