Media as Research Tools

In next week's lesson, we'll continue our discussion of ethnography, but we'll be focusing on more abstract theoretical and ethical issues. For this week, I'd like for us to focus on specific applications in which media have been used as research tools. Review the following collections of "ethnographic" images, video, and audio pieces. If there are any other relevant projects -- particularly those that are well documented online -- that you know of, and that you would like for me to feature on this page, please email me. You're also free to apply the Colliers' advice to your own projects, and to discuss your own work in our online discussion.


  • Which fit the Colliers' definition of "ethnography"? Which are more "artistic," and which are more methodologically "rigorous"? What are the advantages and disadvantages -- and potential "synergies" between -- these two approaches: the artistic and the social scientific? (See Chapters 12, 13, 16, 17)
  • What role did the documenter play in capturing these media records? Observer? Participant-observer? Removed researcher? Recorder? Other?

Choose one of the projects and address the following questions. Obviously those of you who arrive to the discussion board early in the week will have the advantage of choosing the particular studies of focus, and setting the tone, for the week's conversation.

  • What steps do you imagine the researchers took to capture these media records? How might they have prepared for and conducted fieldwork, and then analyzed their "data"?
  • Imagine that you were the researcher. How would you have planned for and conducted your fieldwork, captured your media records and integrated them into other in-the-field methodologies, and then analyzed your data? Consider the steps laid out in the Colliers' chapters: orientation, mapping and surveying, the cultural inventory, interviewing with photographs. And depending on the nature of your project, how might you have handled the unique challenges, which the Colliers address, of capturing technology or "social circumstance" (Chapters 6 & 7)? Again, depending on your particular project, might you find yourself faced with the challenge of discerning "psychological overtones" (Chapter 9), or of maintaining positive rapport with your subjects (Chapter 10)? Then, how would you analyze your media records -- beginning with open observation, then inventorying and coding, then structured analysis (Chapters 14 - 18 -- especially pp. 178-9)? What conclusions might you come to? (Chapter 18)
  • How might the project be different if the researcher had used a different medium: video instead of photography, audio instead of video, written notes instead of photos, etc.?

Documenting Communities and Subcultures as an Observer or Participant-Observer

Martha Cooper: Hip Hop: "Probably best known for her photography in the 1984, seminal, graffiti writers’ Bible, Subway Art, Martha Cooper is an anthropological photojournalist whose work has had an immeasurably large impact on modern culture.

Her work focusing on the emerging new cultures emanating from the Bronx area of New York in the late 70s and early 80s helped spread a cultural revolution around the globe, not just with regards to graffiti, but the hip hop movement as a whole" [Steal-Life]

Martha Cooper NYC Citysnaps: collection of 20 years' worth of Cooper's photographs

Martha Cooper on Folklore Photography

Nan Goldin: "Internationally recognised as one of America's leading photographers, Nan Goldin's spontaneous and uncut images of her friends and herself capture the essence of the artistic underground of London, New York, Berlin and Paris. In this exhibition of over 300 images and several major new commissions, Goldin records with insight and honesty the glamour and pathos of urban subcultures. Divided into eleven themed sections ranging from drugs to drag-queens, her work uncovers the unrefined truth of human relations, life and death" [Stunned]. Goldin images on ArtNet. Centre Pompidou virtual exhibition of Goldin's work, presented thematically. [Image Credit: Ivy Wearing a Fall, Nan Goldin, 1973, Guggenheim Collection].

Ryan McGinley: Ryan McGinley "makes large-scale color photographs of his friends and lovers, a group that forms part of New York’s Lower East Side youth culture....
McGinley...began visiting Manhattan while in high school in New Jersey to spend time with a group of skateboarders. Photographer Larry Clark was documenting these skate kids at the time and the two became friends. After enrolling at Parsons School of Design in graphic design, McGinley took up the camera and began photographing his crowd and his lifestyle. In 1999, he produced a fifty-page book of these photographs titled The Kids Are Alright. This desktop publishing venture yielded 100 copies, which McGinley sent to the subjects of his pictures, to photographers he admired, and to art and culture magazines he read. Today, his images are frequently featured in magazines that came to know his work through his early book. // Sylvia Wolf, of the Whitney’s Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography remarks, “Each new generation discovers sex, drugs, and danger as though theirs is the first to experience adventure or rebellion. Unlike many past photographs of teen culture, McGinley’s images lack irony, boredom and angst. There is a disarming delight McGinley and his subjects appear to take in their lifestyle. With images that are charged with spontaneity, candor, and exuberance, McGinley adds new energy to the genre.” // McGinley works in the tradition of photographers who focus the camera on their own generation. Nan Goldin, for instance, began chronicling her circle of friends in the early 1980s, and Wolfgang Tillmans has spent more than a decade photographing European youth. McGinley uses photography to break down barriers between public and private spheres of activity, making the sensational appear banal and drawing attention to the everyday. His subjects are willing collaborators. Drawn from skateboard, music, graffiti and gay cultures, they perform for the camera and expose themselves with a frank self-awareness that is distinctly contemporary. The camera is both a part of their lives and an accomplice in the construction of the world they wish to create for themselves. The results form a portrait of a generation that is savvy about visual culture and acutely aware of how identity can be communicated through photography" [Whitney Museum] [Image Creidt: Dan and Eric, 2001, Artnet].

Jay Ruby: "Maintaining Diversity": an ethnographic study of Oak Park, IL -- site still under construction

Documenting New York

CityLore (Martha Cooper): "Celebrations": "What do New Yorkers celebrate? We celebrate our ethnic heritage (we represent well over 150 countries), our artistry, sexual orientation, community gardens and green space, the sea and its maidens, poetry, religion, saints, sinners, the new year, foodways, and yes, even hair (Wigstock).... Since 1986, City Lore has worked in partnership with award-winning ethnographic photographer Martha Cooper to document the vibrant expressions of New York's communities.

Celebration City: A Sampling of New York City's Cultural Festivals and Parades captures 75 events that take place all year long in neighborhoods throughout the city, where ethnicity, faith, artistry, humor, and fun are on display. In this guide you'll see that ties to the past are reaffirmed."

CityLore: "Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning": "In the days and weeks following September 11th, New Yorkers were numbed by the gloomy silence that fell upon Lower Manhattan. Its streets lay eerily quiet and deserted, as if the avalanche of ashes from the Towers were a black and paralyzing snowfall.

Yet, beginning on the very day of the tragedy, when the distraught and bereaved began scrawling messages in the ash, and a student from NYU laid out a sheet of butcher block paper in Union Square, New Yorkers broke the silence with stories, poems, rituals and commemorative art. In the weeks and months that followed, brightly-colored, candlelit improvised shrines and memorials cropped up in every corner of the City, speaking back to the darkness, offering solace.

A few days after the tragedy, the staff of City Lore was finally able to get back into our East Village office. Already, we had email messages asking us to document the spontaneous memorials and collect stories, and already our Director of Photography, Martha Cooper, was photographing in the streets. We decided to document the memorials and to plan for an exhibit that would chronicle and share this unfolding tribute to the City's indomitable spirit.... Missing is a tribute to this great city where, despite all its potential for anonymity and alienation, people seemed able to create places where humanity could re-stake its claim."

Documenting The Other

Jeffrey Jay Foxx: "Jeffrey Jay Foxx, an ethnographic photographer of international repute, has journeyed around the world for educational publishers and development organizations such as the United Nations and the InterAmerican Foundation. He has traveled extensively throughout Mexico, Central America, and the American Southwest, on his own, and for such publications as LIFE and the National Geographic Society.

Foxx’s work reflects his profound respect for the dignity and artistic achievements of indigenous peoples. The book LIVING MAYA won the prestigious Anisfield-Wolf Award in Race Relations." [Image Credit: Maya Solola Market, Jeffrey Foxx, 2004].

Steven Gold: "Arab Americans in Detroit" [unfortunately, this link is no longer active, but you can find other visual anthropology projects -- including several photoessays here]: "The greater Detroit area is home to perhaps the largest Arab settlement in the United States. Estimated at over 200,000 persons, the community traces its origins to Lebanese sojourners who arrived in the 19th Century. With the expansion of the automobile and steel industries during the 1910s, new arrivals came to work in the region's many factories.... Disparate ideologies are reflected in the community's wide range of adaptive strategies and the manner in which members preserve traditional cultural forms and adopt Western outlooks. This diversity is evident in the variety of political, cultural, educational, religious and economic institutions, activities and festivals that members have established.

Like other ethnic communities throughout the U.S., Michigan's Arab Americans are confronting new sets of issues regarding their communal identity. Growing in numbers, sophistication and power, they have the potential to become major actors on the local, national and international scene. Despite their dissimilar origins, they are brought together by pan-Arabism as well as their shared opposition to U.S. Middle East Policy and anti-Arab racism. Yet because their community comprises diverse groups, the extent to which they will act jointly remains to be seen." [Image Credit: Gold, Attendees, Dearborn Arab-American Festival, 1999].

Sensivision: Global Documentaries: "We are a group of Austrian and European Cultural Anthropologists that has an interest in using Visual Anthropology and state-of-the-art digital media. This means not only using DVcams, laptop-field editing and DVD production but also defining and discussing the aesthetics and hermeneutics of the DV possebilities. On the far side we want to create a virtual space for social anthropological filmakers and improve media and globalisation debates. sensiVision wants to offer a pictorial language based on social anthropological ideas rather than follow the hype of Hollywood polemics." [Image Credit: Ce'Cile, Jenny Witek und David Hradetzky]

Audio Documentation

EarSay: "EarSay is an artist driven non-profit arts organization dedicated to uncovering and portraying stories of the uncelebrated. Our projects bridge the divide between documentary and expressive forms in books, exhibitions, on stage, in sound & electronic media. We are committed to fostering understanding across cultures, generations, gender and class through artistic productions and education."

Crossing the Boulevard: "strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America -- a kaleidoscopic view of new immigrants and refugees living in Queens, New York — the most ethnically diverse locality in the United States is a project of EarSay.

Crossing the BLVD by documentary artists Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan is a cross-media project that documents and portrays the largely invisible lives, images, sounds and stories of new immigrants and refugees who live in the borough of Queens, New York — the most ethnically diverse locality in the United States. Home to the New York airports, Queens, is no longer made up of neatly partitioned ethnic enclaves. Today the choreography of Queens, a place where residents speak 138 different languages, is one of chaotic co-existence. This group portrait of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial community is a magnifying glass for the future of America.

Crossing the BLVD documents migratory life, normally hidden within the seemingly mundane, sometimes hideous urban landscape of Queens. Through a book, an audio CD, a public radio series, an exhibit, and this website, the project presents a community of juxtapositions, including a wide array of new immigrants: from those who came here with networks of support and sponsorship, to those who arrived like shrapnel flung from distant wars often fueled by American foreign policy, to those who attained refugee/asylum status, to those who remain "undocumented aliens," displaced by the horns of a bullish global economy. Above all, Crossing the BLVD is a celebration of resilient, prismatic character - in search of home."

StreetVendor Project: Vendor Voices: "There are more than 10,000 street vendors in New York City -- hot dog vendors, flower vendors, book vendors, shoe shiners, street artists, and many others. They are small businesspeople struggling to make ends meet. Most are recent immigrants and people of color. They work long hours under harsh conditions, asking for nothing more than a chance to sell their goods and services on the public sidewalk.

Yet, in recent years, vendors have been victims of New York’s aggressive “quality of life” crackdown. They have been denied access to vending licenses. They have been swept from the streets by powerful business groups. They have been unjustly harassed, and their property has been illegally seized.

The Street Vendor Project works to correct the social and economic injustice faced by these hardworking entrepreneurs. Reaching out to vendors on the street, we hold clinics to educate vendors about their legal rights. Working to support a local vendors’ rights movement, we organize vendors to participate in the political process that determines their fate. Finally, we engage in systemic advocacy to help policy makers and the public understand the important role street vendors play in the life of our city."

Other Resources:  

Visual Sociology, Documentary Work & Public Imagery Conference @ UC Davis, 2004: conference themes included "Public Images in the Mass Media," "Public Images in Local Culture," "Public Images in Social Inquiry"

Visualizing Ethnography: discusses techniques and epistemological concerns unique to film, video, photography, and hypermedia

Revealing Pictures & Reflexive Frames: “This is a place where photographs are explored, discussed, and contested. Our primary concern is producing and sharing images as well as reflecting on the ramifications of photographic representation in the world today.”