Visual Methods of Data Collection:
Photographs show what and how the researcher is seeing. Dona Schwartz notes that photographs are used to record data or generate data (as in photo elicitation). No photograph is inherently an ‘ethnographic’ material. The meanings of photographs are arbitrary and subjective. They depend upon who is looking at it and how do they read it. A camera can be used to maintain an inventory of all the places visited, people interviewed, their environments, records of space utilization whether inside a house or even a village etc. For example, if you give the camera to your participants and ask them to record a day in their life, then the whole process becomes collaborative and you gain a better understanding of how the participants situate themselves in their surroundings.
Photographs (shot by you or even the participants themselves) can be used during interviews to elicit responses. This is known as photo-elicitation. Photographs prompt memory and people find them useful while telling stories. Sometimes participants may show you pictures of people or things which don’t exist anymore but are significant memories. For example, pictures of ancestors or children who passed away at a young age etc. You must be sensitive while both taking pictures as well as using them during interviews. Read more about the use of photography as a method to gather as well as analyze data in the following books: Doing Visual Ethnography by Sarah Pink, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method by John Collier, Principles of Visual Anthropology edited by Paul Hockings.
Niharika Manchanda used photographic methods to study the Paranthewali Gali (lane), in Chandani Chowk, Delhi, India.
Use of video as a method of data collection is suitable when sequence of events or conversations or activities that are unfolding in the field is important. Human beings are characterized with selective perception. That is they don’t process all the information stimuli that is being thrown at them from all directions, at all times. Video helps us to capture the event or activity in its entirety so that you can re-visit it in the future for interpretations. Certain activities take place between long intervals- for example; the Maha Kumbh Mela that takes place once in every 12 years is best captured on video.
Before you decide to use either photography or video, you may need to gauge how a particular culture responds to visuals and to the prospect of being photographed or filmed. Before taking a picture, it is nice to ask for permission. The line between what is public and private is blurry and you may want to tread cautiously, so that those being photographed don’t get offended. In this context how you frame your photograph, where you place your camera says a lot about your point of view as a visual ethnographer. For example, while interviewing a person on film, if you go take a tight close-up (go too close to the person’s face) it may seem as if you are invading their personal space, on the other hand a tight close up would be recommended while showing how embroidery artists use extremely intricate stitches in their work. Whether the camera ‘looks up’ or looks down’ to the subject also says a lot about the power structures that exist in society as a whole and between the subject and the researcher in specific.
At times, use of certain methods can alienate you from the group of people you are learning about. For example, while trying to understand a community in a very remote and resource-poor setting, your state of the art camera may signify that you are better off than the participants and this may create power imbalance (See section on further reading to learn more). Similarly, if you are conducting your study amidst audience that is by and large semi-literate, your note-taking tendencies may be viewed with suspicion as those you are learning about may not be able to make sense of them. In such cases, sketching becomes a useful and an ‘open’ platform. Since visuals can be more or less universally understood, they help put everyone at ease. And letting participants collaborate in sketching is especially useful as sketches often reveal local perceptions that may not be otherwise revealed to a researcher.
Monica Nanaware employs sketching and photography as methods to study the Chawls in Mumbai. Sketches help understand the structure and distribution of elements, use of space in a typical Mumbai Chawl. Here sketching becomes an act of distilling, removing the excess and focusing attention on a particular aspect.
Piyush Verma uses sketches to record daily activities and surroundings at The Sasoon Docks in Mumbai.