Workshop in Photoethnographies


“My pictures are not escapes from reality,” writes documentary photographer Bruce Davidson, “but a contemplation of reality, so that I can experience life in a deeper way.” In this course, we will similarly engage in sustained contemplations of particular social and cultural realities so as to understand better the lives of others. We will engage in this work through combinations of image and text in an effort to think through the methods and possibilities inherent in a photoethnographic approach to anthropological research, in which certain ways of life are portrayed primarily through photographic means. To gain an informed sense of the methods, challenges, and benefits of just such an approach, students in this course will try their hands at photoethnographic research and composition. Each student will be asked to undertake an ethnographic research project in order to investigate the features of a specific social world—such as a homeless shelter, a religious festival, or a neighborhood in Brooklyn—in which photographs play a leading role in the portrayal of that world. She or he will then craft a fully realized photoethnography that conveys something of the features and dynamics of that world in lively, accurate, and comprehensive terms. Along the way, and with the help of photobooks and anthropological writings that are either exceptional or experimental in nature, we will collectively think through some of the most important features of photoethnographic projects such as photographing and conversing with others, the use of fieldnotes and related materials, the interlacing of theory and data, the play of words and images in a photoethnography, and the ethnical and political responsibilities that come with any attempt to understand and portray the lives of others, especially through photographic means. Texts to be considered include those authored by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, Walker Evans and James Agee, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Ed van der Elskin, Nan Goldin, Susan Lipper, Marc Asnin, and Philipe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg.  Previous course work in anthropology or photography or permission of the instructor is required.