From the Archives: That Which We Do Not Scrutinize: Digital Photography as Research

My friend Mark posted a great article last night from the NY Times called “My Selfie, Myself.” Little did he know with that post he unearthed the Margaret Mead I had been suppressing. The article reminded me of a grant proposal I wrote early in my PhD career (almost exactly 8 years ago) for a small in-house Spencer research grant. I dug up that proposal (below.)

I’m missing my original passion for ethnography & cultural anthropology – maybe it’s time to step back and see how I can integrate the passions I set aside into new or existing inquiries…

That Which We Do Not Scrutinize: Digital Photography as Research
Submitted for a Spencer Small Research Grant November 2005, Awarded December 2005

In this study I wish to explore how aspects of culture in educational settings can be visually interpreted and expressed and how these images can be understood as artifacts of culture.

During a recent interview on NPR, biographer Edmund Morris was discussing the discovery of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” manuscript (Figure 1):

He liked to manhandle music into its shape…from everything I hear it’s [the manuscript] very tactile, it has holes warn in the paper where he has erased passages, splattered with ink and gouged and dog-eared; one whole section of music literally plastered on the page with sealing wax.  It stands as, I’m sure, we’re going to see it next month at Sotheby’s, as an artifact showing how physical the labor of composition was for Beethoven, and how he needed to fight music onto the page.  (Conan, 2005)

We are rarely aware of our own routine ways of seeing the world.  The technology of photography has become transparent. Photographs appear on our televisions, computers, phones, and iPods. A photograph not simply a record of an event, but is only one of an infinite number of possible representations. (Chandler, 2002)  Douglas Harper’s study Working Knowledge demonstrated how photographs can be used to observe work practices and engage participants in dialogue.  (Harper, 1987)  This use of photographs to provoke a response became known as photo-elicitation.  (Harper 1984) Other seminal anthropological works have demonstrated the power of intertwining text and images.  (Bateson & Mead, 1942; Riis, 1957)

I have a B.A. in audio and video production and a M.A. in digital media, art and technology.  My world is heavily laden with images.  For most of us, the world around us is constructed of text and images. Contrast this with the sphere of scholarly research; rarely do photographs or images make their way into mainstream journal articles.  Events, participants, and observations are turned into words. Given my background, this practice seems artificial.  With relatively low-cost and low-threshold technologies at hand, why not integrate images into the practice of scholarly research? Gould argues that “While we may pour over our words and examine them closely for hidden messages and meanings, we often view our pictures as frills and afterthoughts, simple illustrations of a natural reality or crutches for those who need a visual guide.  We are most revealed in what we do not scrutinize.” (Gould, 1993; Mishra, 2004)

A description of the research process

I see using photography as an integral analytic and creative tool in my research endeavors.  In spring 2006 I will be teaching a Master’s course, Learning Technology Through Design.  I would like to use take this opportunity to explore the use of photography as a means of data collection and analysis by investigating the affordances and constraints of capturing digital images in the classroom environment.  I would like to survey the multiple methodologies outlined by Collier and Collier (Collier & Collier, 1986) as a pilot for my dissertation which will report on the design, development and teaching of an undergraduate technology course for pre-service teachers.  .

To capture the images I have chosen to use a Digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera.   When you look through the viewfinder of an SLR camera, you are looking though the lens at the actual image.  With a less expensive “point and shoot” digital camera you don’t see the real image formed by the camera lens, just rough idea of what is in view; because of this, you never really know if the picture is in focus.  SLR cameras allow the photographer to choose her own point of focus.  Digital SLR cameras have a start up time of a fraction of a second and allow for multiple images to be captured at high speeds (over 3 frames per second.) Point and shoot cameras have very slow start up and shutter response times.  A Digital SLR camera also allows for the interchanging of lenses expanding the focal range and aperture (amount of light allowed through the lens.)  A zoom-lens allows the photographer to stay at a distance from the subject while capturing intimate, ‘up-close’ portraits.  This added control allows for high quality images to be captured in any setting.

The purchase of a digital SLR is a capital cost and once purchased requires no further expense (e.g. film storage and development.)  The costs for this project are not covered by a research project or other source.

Equipment Budget

Canon Digital Rebel XT 8MP Digital SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 Lens 900.00

Canon EF 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 II USM Zoom Lens 55-200 mm  200.00

Total – 1100.00

Works Cited

Bateson, G., & Mead, M. (1942). Balinese character, a photographic analysis. [New York,: The New York academy of sciences].

Beethoven, L. v. (1826). Grosse Fuge, New York, NY: Sothebys.

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics : the basics. London ; New York: Routledge.

Collier, J., & Collier, M. (1986). Visual anthropology : photography as a research method (Rev. and expanded ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Conan, Neal (2005, October 26) Interview: Edmund Morris discusses Beethoven,
‘Universal Composer’ [radio broadcast] Talk of the Nation (NPR.) Retrieved October 26, 2005 from NPR

Gould, S. J. (1993). Dinosaur deconstruction. Discover, 14(10), 108-113.

Harper, D. A. (1987). Working knowledge : skill and community in a small shop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mishra, P. (2004). The Role of Abstraction in Scientific Illustration: Implications for Pedagogy. In C. Handa (Ed.), Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World : A Critical

Sourcebook (pp. 177-194): Bedford/St. Martins.

Riis, J. A. (1957). How the other half lives : studies among the tenements of New York (1st American Century series ed.). New York: Hill and Wang.


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