Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Digital Photography as a Medium: Benefits and Limitations in Fieldwork

As part of my research, I looked at how my experience was mediated by both the mediums I chose to record my experience as well as the actual way I viewed my time in Ghana.  By dividing parts of my personality into different lenses, which I called avatars, I was able to better see these limitations.  I will talk about Myra, my photographer avatar, and what I discovered with her in terms of an “essence” vs. authentic picture, but I think that since digital photography is so encompassing I want to break it down and look specifically at it as a medium through which I filtered my experience in Ghana.

Walter Benjamin is a great resource for understanding the digital photography as a medium.  It has altered the world of art and assisted in a push towards postmodernism by its lack of relationship with an original.  In his book Illuminations we get a clear feeling from him that photography is a medium that problematizes the notion of an “original” because it is created solely for reproducibility.  He states that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” and that the translation has no regard or relation to the original, thus having no relationship to it (Benjamin 220).

In the words of Clifford Geertz from The Interpretation of Cultures, all fieldwork is just our personal interpretations.  He bluntly states that “we do not understand the people” because we are not natives, and says that all “anthropological writings are themselves interpretations” and “second to third ones to boot” (15).  This idea that we cannot be native or express a native point of view because of our lack of context is critical for ethnography, travel literature, and any document that attempts to translate a foreign experience outside of the original context.


Rapport- Having a camera was a great way to build rapport in the community, especially among the kids.  Showing them their image on the back with that immediate feedback was priceless.

1,000 Words- Pictures capture a lot in a little.  Many small details that could easily be overlooked or neglected in other mediums like field notes and a diary are preserved in photographs.  Sometimes it can say what words fail to do (FN:31:8)

“Essence” vs. Authentic- By having photography as a medium in my project, I was able to look at some of the ethics of photography in a way I never anticipated.  The concept of a “good picture” is one to look more into (FN:19:16, FN:29:23, FN:31:1). 

Attendance- If I promised to bring my camera to my poetry focus groups, I would have more students show up (FN:35:6)

Cons (Or just limitations we should be thinking about with the medium of digital photography):

Anxiety-When you take a professional Nikon D700 camera into Ghana plan on worrying about theft, water damage, dirt, etc. (FN:45:19, FN:35:3, FN:30:1)

Mechanics- Even though I have a great camera, I only brought a 55mm fixed lens, which was really limiting in what I could photograph.  You must make creative choices like point of view, aperture, shutter speed, lighting, depth of field, on every picture you take.  Even on an automatic setting the camera is making those creative decisions for you.  By saying something, there is always something else that you are inevitably not saying (FN: 46:3, FN:47:11, FN:90:8, FN:46:3, FN:80:7, FN:85:3)

Editing-The abilities of Photoshop are amazing and terrifying.  Pictures are not necessarily real evidence of any particular place or event. 

Missing Out- When I am in photographer mode I am in the zone.  That is great for getting some good pictures, but it means that I missed out on observations, jots, and the experience had I not had a camera.  There was one lady at the Cocoa House who asked Rachel Morse if I was taking pictures so that we could go home and laugh at them.  That raised a lot of questions for me, but by taking pictures I completely missed the conversation (FN:18:13)

Me?- What does it mean if I am not in any of my pictures?  What does that say about authenticity (FN:13:20)?

Bulky- My camera is a brick, so I did not have it with me 24/7 (FN:86:13).

Acceptable-  There are some places, like at school, where it is simply not acceptable to take pictures.  It is actually illegal to take pictures of government buildings in Ghana.  I had to ask permission before I took pictures, and there were a few times when I was denied (FN:31:11, FN:63:5).

Battery- Electricity is not reliable in Ghana.  If I forgot to charge my battery, like I did the last night I was in Wiamose, I was not able to get the pictures I wanted.  That last night I did have a fun time playing sports with the kids because I did not have my camera, so it did offer a different, maybe even better, experience (FN:88:5).

Posed- The camera is a presence, and people tend to freeze up once I pull it out.

Conflicting Messages- As a photographer you have a lot of choice about what you want a picture to say.  Sometimes all too easy to sent a message of poverty (FN:82:1), so I had to work extra hard to try to make a different statement, knowing how people from my paradigm might interpret it.  Like other mediums, the photograph is intended for an audience.


So there are a lot of limitations when it comes to digital photography as a medium, as Geertz and Benjamin have informed us.  I am a photographer.  I love photography.  I am not trying to underplay the importance of the medium but I am trying to suggest that like travel writing and creative nonfiction in general, we be mindful of the authenticity of a photograph, just like we do an experience.


Photo credit to Garret LeSage on flickr

Benjamin, Walter.  Illuminations.  New York:  Schocken Books Inc., 1968.  Print.

Clifford, James.  Routes:  Travel and Translation in Late Twentieth Century.  London: Harvard University Press, 1997.  Print.

(More field note data on digital photography found in my field notes FN:18:13-17, FN:19:1, FN:19:6, FN:19:3, FN:24:6-9, FN:37:1, FN:37:14, FN:38:15, FN:38:6, FN:57:11)

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