Using photography to reveal hidden insights about how we really behave in the world has taken some new directions, from advertisers crowdsourcing selfies during the Super-Bowl, to Lev Manovich’s Selfie-City to the 1987 classic of visual ethnography by Douglas Harper
Big Data has taught us many things, not least the fact that desk-bound number crunching is still attractive. Yet businesses and marketers getting out in the field, using their eyes, and other people’s eyes via what’s called ‘mobile ethnography’ (selfies) offers up fresh perspectives on how we live. Alison Demos, Senior Partner and Director of Ethnographic Research at Oglivy & Mather, spoke on the value of ethnography at Princeton University’s AdvertiseThis’ REACH conference. Demos gave one example of women when asked about the characteristics of their ideal perfect shoe might often say ‘comfort’ and ‘low-priced’. Yet a quick look under the table will reveal shoes that are neither. And the rise of the smartphone has lead to growing use of mobile ethnography or self-ethnography. Jeffrey Henning writes in Research Access that, “Mobile ethnography can be something as intimate as asking women to photograph how they place pads on their panties, as Field Agent facilitated for P&G. In fact, Field Agent collected 8,000 such photographs. Traditional techniques, like in-person ethnography, would never have gotten that close. Mobile ethnography can be as prosaic as asking people to take photos of where they are when they are watching the Super Bowl, and what they are drinking.” As much as you might call this ‘self-ethnography’, it still feels more like an extension of Big Data than classic in-person ethnography, quantitative information rather than the storytelling of traditional visual ethnography, scaled down versions of something like Lev Manovich’s Selfie City project. These innovations in visual ethnography reminded me of the classic original Douglas Harper’s celebrated book Working Knowledge: Skill and Community in a Small Shop. Harper’s ethnographic story begins with a story about himself, arriving at a college in upstate New York in the early 80s to take up a new post, driving his eight year-old Saab station wagon. A colleague, noting the age of the car, observed that Harper would soon be introduced to ‘Willie’.
Needless to say a few weeks later Harper drove through 15 miles of back roads to Willie’s, to tell this grizzled fellow that he needed a windshield for his Saab that he was then going to sell.
Turns out that someone owed Willie such a Saab windshield and Willie would be picking it up this week, next week, well, sometime soon. Why are you getting rid of the Stationwagon? asks Willie. And Harper explains he’s just bought an old discontinued Saab Sonnet sportscar, thinking Willie would be unfamiliar. Turns out Willie has Saab Sonnet number 244 stored away in a barn locally, waiting to be fixed after it had been cut up into seven pieces by garbagemen who found it on a couple of garbage cans on a Boston street and thought it had been abandoned. And that’s how Harper and the reader are introduced to a man who is underestimated by the measures of modern life, who has none of the accoutrements or signifiers of authority that comes with white-collar work. Or when we see a signifier of white-collar professionalism it’s like Willie has invented a whole new craft.
Harper’s extraordinary photographic sociology takes into the world of Willie, truly ‘make and mend’, with a store of bits and pieces of cars, here and there, enabling cars to survive for maybe 15, 20 years. Willie, Harper explains, knows the cars’ secrets, “and celebrates their unorthodoxies as well as their engineering sense. His shop is surrounded by Saab bodies slowly giving up their parts, moving piece by piece toward a state of final uselessness.”
It’s an extended cycle of recycling and movement, as the machine parts break down, are reformed again, then attached to different cars, like metallic pollen making something new. Willie, back in the 80s is a dying breed of self-taught/handyman/craftsman, what anthropologist Levi-Strauss called a bricoleur, someone who creates something new from the bits and pieces of what’s around them, the bricoleur is a bit of a tinkerer or experimenter.
As Levi-Strauss writes in his classic The Savage Mind, “The ‘bricoleur’ is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and pro- cured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’” As it turns out, in 2014, we’re all discovering the improvisation of ‘bricolage’ as make-and-mend is an antidote to upgrade culture, and increasingly the default way of working in an era of rapid technological change.
But it’s Harper’s use of photography that’s so striking. The images aren’t illustrations – for sure they represent and illustrate Willie’s process, but Harper’s images layout for the reader the textures, the light, the tools, the spaces, showing us an interconnected environment in only the way that photography can. What’s more, the photos became an interface for Harper to get insight from Willie. Over a period of time Harper learned not to fill the silence (as Willie studied the images) with what he thought were helpful speculations, but learned to trust Willie’s absorption of the visual information, and the consequent descriptions of the work process. Harper calls his method ‘photo elicitation’, “the parts of the brain that process visual information are evolutionarily older than the parts that process verbal information. Thus images evoke deeper elements of human consciousness than do words; exchanges based on words alone utilize less of the brain’s capacity than do exchanges in which the brain is processing images as well as words. These may be some of the reasons the photo elicitation interview seems like not simply an interview process that elicits more information, but rather one that evokes a different kind of information.” Imagery instigates different patterns of thinking. (Check out the wonderful image in this paper by Harper, of a woman working at home, with her young son in the foreground also at work!). Willie’s skills are also very much about the creative way to negotiate relationships in his community.
In a marvellous way it’s a truly odd book. The images look instructional, like from a user’s manual. Or perhaps documentary. But actually they are an odd form of Still Life, images where human being, tool and object are fused together.
There is one brilliant section which captures the dynamic ecology of creativity, where Harper describes Willie’s knowledge of materials, engineering and climate, converge in his creation of a wood stove.
Harper’s photography is about practices: the shapes which body inhabits as the craftsman works; how instruments such as welding tool take hold of the body; and the fire, sparks and smoke that signal the craftsman’s transformation of matter. Which is what a photographer does, fixing light onto an image, manufacturing a moment of time. Crowdsourced ethnography is as revealing as the minds that extract the insight but Harper’s classic work is a reminder we need visual thinkers to tell new stories about our relationship to ourselves and our world. Buy Working Knowledge: Skill and Community in a Small Shop Douglas Harper’s page at The International Visual Sociology Association