[Footnotes is excited to present a guest post by Rebecca Gearhart Mafazy. This post is a part of the Embodying Reciprocity series. Mafazy’s research over the past thirty years has focused on the peoples of the northern Kenya coast, and on the peoples who live in the Lamu archipelago in particular. In addition to studying Swahili expressive arts from a visual ethnographic perspective, Mafazy is interested in highlighting various kinds of injustice at work in coastal Kenya: healthcare disparity, the impact of poverty on the lives of women and children, and the omission of people’s own histories. Documenting the experiences and highlighting the contributions of otherwise overlooked and misunderstood communities in order to add new voices that challenge the dominant script are goals that have inspired their research and writing projects. Please cite accordingly.]
Truly collaborative ethnography involves a process whereby research participants are actively involved in their own representation. The collaborative nature of the methodology I describe here relies on participant input at each phase of the research, explicitly disrupting neocolonial ethnography that focuses on people who have little say in their representation. Rather than becoming the subjects of photographs created solely by the researcher, participants engage in the production of the images that represent them. The iterative research process requires the researcher to use photography as a medium for self-reflection, self-creation, and self-revelation, and then to teach the research participant to do the same. In particular, this photo essay highlights the collaborative research methods that twelve undergraduate students at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois employed in the spring of 2013, while working on a visual anthropology project titled “Becoming American,” which focused on the experiences of U.S. immigrants in various stages of becoming American citizens. Students worked closely with participants to produce ethnographic photo essays, posters, and films that were presented in a variety of campus venues. My aim in sharing this “me to we” pedagogy is to generate ideas among teachers who are curious about how they might integrate visual ethnography into their courses.
Visual Auto-ethnography, Embodiment & Reciprocity
My Visual Ethnographic Methods course begins with a critical review of how photographs have been used to harm (Breitbart et al., 1994; Fienup-Riordan, 2003; Rogers, 2010; Wakeham, 2008) to understand (Croft, 2018; Gearhart, 2013; Riis & Leviatin, 2011; Toub, 1998) and to heal (Blair, 2018; Bowels, 2017; McNeill, 2010; Strathman, 2015) so students can situate assignments theoretically within the history of documentary photography and film. I then introduce some of the foundational methods of visual anthropology developed by early ethnographers such as the Colliers (1986) (i.e., interviewing with photographs), and teach them how to use the latest technology (i.e., photo editing software) to enhance the power of their images. In order to comprehend the depth of self-inquiry requested of participants in this kind of ethnographic research, students first produce visual auto-ethnographies that feature six self portraits that represent important life events and other personal subject matter: relationships, hobbies, challenges, dreams. Students spend the first three weeks of class meditating on themselves, noting experiences they want to include in their essays, taking selfies with their smart phones, and editing the images to create visual metaphors that symbolize their experiences. For example, the first self portrait in figure 1 (top left) depicts a student, whose identity is strongly associated with her home state of Minnesota, performing her favorite summer and winter activities. The second self portrait in figure 1 (top right) is more metaphorical. As a senior, this student placed herself at a “crossroads,” where paths lead to a variety of potential futures. Other self portraits in figure 1 examine school workload, emotional variability, fantasy life, stress management, change over time, self examination, and career aspirations.
Figure 1: Self portraits created by students in Visual Ethnographic Methods, 2013. In class, students shared the personal stories behind their images as well as the technical tools they employed to edit them. During the initial meetings with the research participants, students reviewed their photo essays to explain the process of visual self-ideation, the production of visual metaphors, and how words and images correlate in a photo essay. In revealing the personal discoveries they made composing their self portraits, students built trust with the participants and fostered a sense of reciprocity that laid the groundwork for the collaborative image-production that followed.
The practice of translating thoughts and feelings about one’s life into a self portrait is an act of embodiment. The assignment requires the photographic manipulation of one’s physical body into images that portray a past, present, and future self. When students share their self portraits with each other in class, they not only come to know one another on a very intimate level, they gain further insight into a creative process that involves honest self-assessment and imaginative self-creation. In describing the multilayered meanings embodied in their self portraits – information that cannot be discerned just by looking at the images – students learn that the story behind an image must be told with words. This is how they come to appreciate the value of detailed image captions (see figure 3). Once they have explained their personal image-production process to their peers, they gain confidence in their ability to repeat the assignment in collaboration with the research participants (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Students continued the ethnographic research process by conducting interviews around the participants’ personal photo collections (top). After listening carefully to the life stories the photographs illustrate, students worked closely with participants to create images that would best represent memorable experiences in the lives of participants (middle). The collaborative nature of these methods generated confidence among researchers and participants in the research process, the findings, and the end products.
By showing participants their visual auto-ethnographies during the first meeting, student researchers begin to teach members of the community under study about visual self-representation. Asking participants to bring photographs and personal possessions that represent significant people, places, and events to the interview is the next step (see figure 2, top). By the third or fourth meeting, participants come with ideas for visual metaphors and work with students to brainstorm, create, and de-code the portraits for the ethnographic photo essay (see figure 2, middle). The collaborative synergy that develops between researcher and participant drives the research and analysis (see figure 2, bottom), and is further fortified when students and participants present the research together at conferences, workshops, and a film festival (see figures 4 and 5).
Image 7: Jenn represents the dual aspects of her personality and
her struggle to maintain her identity as both a Mexican and an
American. In the background of the image, there is a painting by
Frida Kahlo, one of the most celebrated Mexican artists. The
painting represents Jenn’s own struggle with her dual identity.
Figure 3: Examples of images and captions from students’ ethnographic photo essays produced in collaboration with community members at various stages of the immigration process. A woman from Venezuela with her American-raised son (top, left); a young woman as a girl emigrating from Poland (top, right), and a Mexican-born woman inspired by Frida Kahlo (bottom). Students worked with participants to write captions that provide insight into the stories the images tell.
Figure 4: Students converted their photo essays into posters for presentations at various campus venues: a student research conference (top), a luncheon (middle), and a human rights workshop (bottom). The research participants were invited to attend each of these events, providing an opportunity for them to tell their stories in person, and to be publicly celebrated for sharing memories of their inspiring immigration journeys.
Figure 5: The final project in the course is converting the photo essays to short (5 minute) ethnographic films. Here students are with some of the research participants at the end of term film festival.
Facebook, Youtube, Snapchat, and Tiktok have created a landscape in which visualizing the self is common practice in the world today. In such an environment, visual anthropology appeals to and makes sense to our students, many of whom are interested in applying their image-making skills in new ways. Students are also eager for opportunities to enhance their self-understanding, and come to appreciate visual auto-ethnography as an invitation to deep personal reflection. When students have time to internalize the lessons they have learned through self-study, and teach the methods to their research partners within a framework of mutual vulnerability, the reciprocity that characterizes true collaborative ethnography is apparent to everyone involved.
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