Photography as ethnography
Karen Nakamura's site, photoethnography.com , provides an interesting glimpse into an area of social science research that is almost entirely untapped. Photojournalists have been documenting our times for well over a hundred years, and ethnographers have a long and respected tradition of fieldwork searching to map the insiders' knowledge of a given culture.
Even though Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson all pushed for greater use of photography in anthropology, the visual image has been greatly disdained. Ethnographic film is considered by many anthropologists to be appropriate for high-school use, early undergraduates, and maybe to show on PBS, but certainly not what serious scholars engage in. And still photography is considered the lowest of the low. When was the last time you saw a gorgeously photographed ethnography by an academic anthropologist?* We have entirely relinquished the market to documentary photographers and journalists.
* My favorite photoethnography is Corinne Kratz's (2002) The ones that are wanted : communication and the politics of representation in a photographic exhibition, but this has not made a dent in the field.
I have been pushing for greater acknowledgement of the power of the image in mainstream anthropology. We anthropologists need to get off our anti-National Geographic bias and recognize that if we (mainstream academic anthropologists) continue to marginalize visual anthropology, then we will lose control of it entirely. We need to make visual anthropology a core element of undergraduate and graduate anthropology curriculums -- so that the people who go on to become National Geographic photographers or videographers for PBS will do so with some recognition of appropriate fieldwork methods and techniques. Because right now, all we are doing is alienating them.