Above and below: A Romanian Roma family hangs out in my local park in Manchester, 2011. I’ve spent the last few years trying to look for ways to create a photo project around this community.

i. The image

In early documentary photography, the image was seen to represent objectivity and truth (Tagg, 1988: 12), or pure denotation ‘devoid of all cultural determination’ (Sekula, 1982:87). Today, photography is generally regarded as a language, full of signs yet steeped in ambiguity. A photograph provides a physical record of a moment which took place, yet is ‘irreducibly subjective’ (Grady, 2004: 19). As Graham Clarke writes: “Far from being a ‘mirror’, the photograph is one of the most complex and most problematic forms of representation…to read a photograph is to enter into a series of relationships which are ‘hidden’, so to speak, by the illusory power of the image before our eyes…” (Clarke, 1997: 28). By framing a moment, the photographer transforms our untidy world into “a parade of tableaux, a succession of ‘decisive moments’” (Burgin, 1982: 146). Douglas Harper argues that since the very act of observing is interpretive, photographers’ decisions are far from neutral (Harper 2003: 183). Numerous factors may influence the way a photo is read: technical choices and aesthetic decisions regarding editing and sequencing, to name but a few. Two other crucial elements influence meaning: namely how viewers interpret the work and the contexts in which it is seen (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 49). The result of these competing variables is that the photograph may actually ‘refract’ rather than ‘reflect’ the social world it seeks to document (Holliday, 2004: 62).

ii. Visual ethnography

A project like mine can be described as ethnographic, since it involves in-depth research on a particular group or culture. Ethnography usually combines interviews with participant observation, where fieldworkers immerse themselves in the society they are studying (Hendy, 1999: 3). True ethnographic knowledge comes when researchers learn to ignore their own ‘cultural lens’ and see from the perspective of the other (Harper, 1994: 408) – something that takes time and empathy.
Participant observation is not unlike how some photographers operate, and in fact their images may not be dissimilar to those of a visual ethnographer. To look for differences would be a mistake, warns Howard Becker, who says meaning is largely generated by viewers (Becker, 1998: 84). A photograph can be ethnographic or not, depending on its reading.

iii. The new ethnography

“Objectivity is not a state attainable by inevitably subjective humans. Neutrality is in itself a political stance, favouring as it does the status quo. Why have we permitted the wool of this mythology of objectivity/neutrality to be pulled over our eyes?” (Coleman, 1998: 47).

Science demands objectivity, but ethnography cannot. Since all knowledge is coloured by human experience, some believe subjectivity should be embraced as a central tenet of ethnographic representation. Harper says this ‘new ethnography’ celebrates much of what is rejected by the traditionalists, particularly the sociology establishment – including the use of photography, with all its ambiguities. “The first person, the understanding that all presentation is subjective, engaged and passionate…our understanding of photography as constructed, embodying, in fact, the essence of our point of view leads us to see photography as a natural part of a new ethnography,” he writes (Harper 1994: 409). Increasingly, ethnographic accounts also include information about the author and how their identity may have affected the work, as well as discussing power dynamics, feelings of loneliness or other challenges (Giddens, 2009: 51). Sarah Pink argues that ethnography is a methodology, “a process of creating and representing knowledge that is based on ethnographers’ own experiences,” (Pink, 2007: 22) while cautioning that fieldworkers should remain conscious of ‘inter-subjectivities’ – the different perspectives of researcher, subject and audience.


Becker, H. “Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography and Photojournalism: It’s (Almost) All a Matter of Context”. In: Prosser, J. ed., (1998) Image-based Research, London: Falmer Press, 84-96

Burgin, V. “Looking at Photographs.” In Burgin, V. ed., (1982) Thinking Photography, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 142-153

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Coleman, AD. (1998) Depth of Field, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press

Giddens, A. (2009) Sociology, Cambridge: Polity Press

Grady, J. “Working with Visible Evidence.” In: Knowles, K. and Sweetman, P. eds., (2004) Picturing the Social Landscape: Visual Methods and the Sociological Imagination, London: Routeledge, 18-31

Harper, D. “On the Authority of the Image: Visual Methods at the Crossroads”. In: Denzin, K. and Lincoln, Y. eds., (1994) Handbook of Qualitative Research, London: Sage Publications, 403-412

Harper, D. “Reimagining Visual Methods: Galileo to Neuromancer”. In: Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. eds., (2003) Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, London: Sage Publications, 176-198

Hendy, J. (1999) An Introduction to Social Anthropology, Hampshire: Palgrave

Holliday, R. “Reflecting the Self.” In Knowles, K. and Sweetman, P. eds., (2004) Picturing the Social Landscape: Visual Methods and the Sociological Imagination, London: Routeledge, 49-64

Pink, S. (2007) Doing Visual Ethnography, London: Sage Publications

Sekula, A. “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning.” In Burgin, V. ed., (1982) Thinking Photography, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 84-109

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking, New York: Oxford University Press

Tagg, J. (1988) The Burden of Representation, London: Macmillan Education