Harper, D. B  (2003)  'Framing photographic ethnography. A case-study' in Ethnography, 4 (2):  241 - 66

The study looks at photography rather than film and ethnography rather than cultural studies or semiotics. Photographs were an early part of ethnography, associated with 19th century British colonialism. Photographs show that despite an attempt to be objective, colonial ideology is also present. Early European sociology might well have used photographs as well, but did not do so  [Harper imagines Engels taking photographs of Manchester slums]. Instead, American sociology introduced pictures instead -- of rural and urban life or of working and living conditions. The Chicago School in particular took pictures of actors  'in their typical social environments' (242). However, photographs still tended to be used naively , to confirm textual accounts. The rise of quantitative sociology displaced all fieldwork, including ethnographic photographs.

Early anthropologists used photography -- Malinowski, and even Levi-Strauss  [his photographs were apparently published in 1995]. Bateson and Mead were the first to use photographs to generate theory, showing a series of actions in rituals, for example, and recording material culture and things such as agricultural techniques. Visual anthropology appeared in a textbook in 1967, when pre-industrial societies were still seen as subjects for the  'authority of the anthropological voice' (243).

Becker saw the need for a visual sociology using documentary photography. Photographs could be used together with sociological theory, and be subjected to the usual  'concerns for validity, reliability and sampling' (244). Interest was aroused by a documentary photographs of the 1960s -- studies of US culture, suburbia, portraits of the rich, the lifestyles of hippies, the anti-war movement, life in prisons, the life of migrants and the American poor  [with some very useful references on page 244].

There has been a recent interest in  'research which addresses the polysemic quality of the image' (244), and photographs are used to open dialogues about meanings rather than to reveal the underlying truth. One technique here is  'photo elicitation' (245). Bourdieu used photographs in his Distinction  [as stimulants to elicit responses about tastes]  [there several other examples cited on 245].

Harper's own work covers the history of dairy farming in the USA, when farming shifted from informal corporate rural forms to agricultural industrialisation. Harper discovered an archive of photographs taken shortly after World War 2, sponsored by Standard Oil charting the impact of petroleum. This archive recorded important aspects of agricultural life including 'seasonal routines of planting and harvesting'.

On offering his analysis to his respondents, Harper discovered that his own photographs reflected his own critical views. Thus

  • photographs of people with pleasant expressions taken with wide-angle lenses appear to suggest well-adjusted and stable people at ease in their own backgrounds and environments. Actually, respondents varied in terms of their agreement with the critique of industrialisation, and although these views are recorded, they are not represented in the portraits. The naturalistic locations convey a sense of solidity, whereas the actual farms were often  'economically and socially vulnerable' (246).
  • Aerial photographs of farm layouts indicates the uneven process of industrialisation. However, these photographs do not accurately record changes -- from a working farm to  'a restored manor' (247), for example.

The issue is how to use photographs to show varied perspectives. One possibility is to show debates taking place, but there are some farmers who simply saw an industrialised future as inevitable. Another problem is to photograph  'structural factors' (248). Photos can show change, but structural forces may  'be best represented by visual metaphors, collages and other visual constructions' (249).  [I am reminded of the dilemmas of radical film-makers here, such as Eisenstein using collage and particular compositions to show class conflict and dialectic progress].

The Standard Oil photographs clearly offer a distinct interpretation of events, and this has been affected by their sponsorship -- SO wanted to prove their public image, to appear  'as a vital and patriotic component of American society' (249). Although they did show every day life, they also offered  'ideological messages' (249). They endorsed technology, which was associated with the future, images of mass production, the gradual appearance of tractors and other machinery instead of horses, and marvellous new products such as DDT. They do not show any problems of adjustment, nor any threats to the way of life produced by technology.  'capitalist exchange... [is represented by]... buyers and sellers of cattle meeting to evaluate, buy and sell, presumably to the advantage of all' (250).

The visual conventions also affect the ideological implications. The bulky cameras of the time were used with tripods to photograph  'landscapes and portraits... and they have a painterly aesthetic', offering more-or-less a 'stereotype of rural life' (251). It was not easy to photograph continuous processes, or to experiment, at least until the arrival of rolls of film. The camera adopted naturalistic points of view, usually focusing on this single subject in the centre of the frame. This compares to modern photographs which reveal wide perspectives and complex or confusing interactions, and even  'alienation and discomfort with one's surroundings' (253)  [with some examples on 252 and 253].

Some photographs are clearly arranged, necessarily so to permit adequate lighting, implying  'settings of bright lights and clarity' (254). Of course, such techniques were essential to record anything at all.

Becker once pointed out that photographing individuals using the standard reflex camera tended to  'make the individual seem larger than life' [since the camera was held at waist height so that the photographer could look into the viewfinder].

Such conventions  'have been identified with modernism, which is itself frequently equated with sociological naivety' (254): visual and analytic simplifications go together.

Traditional gender roles are also apparent. Women are included, and the SO project included two female photographers. Women's perspectives therefore do appear -- women's work and activities, women as the primary subject. However there are 'no images of women's full role in the productive activities of the farm'  (256), nor are there any images of domestic labour.

It is important to recognise these flaws, but also to use them critically. The ethnography is compromised, but it should not be rejected totally. Hopper took a pragmatic stance. The photographs were 'useful in elicitation interviews which was' (257). At least it was easy to read the ideological components. The photographs were also  'rhetorically effective' (258), conveying a familiar sense of reality, and that  'exceptional intimacy because it invites analysis, imagination and memory' (258).

Harper's own modern photographs also attempts a documentary look, and he is aware that they also represent specific political positions. For example, sometimes they offer visual comparison, so that  'an object placed next to another gains its meaning by reference to the second'  (259), and this is clearly  'value laden'. Harpur does this to  'question the present and future', however, for example by questioning the ecological impact of industrial farming. Harper also uses framing techniques, such as photographing cows from the perspective of a farm labourer to illustrate how the animal, or parts of it, becomes an object rather than a whole creature. Harper also adds meanings with captions. While the SO photograph captions were intended to provide information about dates and activities, Harper uses captions to extend the meanings, sometimes based on empirical data or social theory.

Overall, ethnographers should use photography deliberately to make ethnographic arguments,  'with some understanding of how photographs construct meaning' (263).

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