Photos are powerful. They tell stories that words often cannot, whether by revealing the image or by clarifying an idea. This image of Karaga in central Bangalore, taken by Dr. Smriti Srinivas, is a powerful depiction of encroaching concrete and modern buildings.

small shrine in foreground with park and stadium in background

But at the same time, the photo does not tell you the whole story. What more does the Karaga say, once it is paired with the following?

The venue of the Karaga’s appearance is a large lake in central Bangalore called the Sampangi. Bangalore, originally home to hundreds of water-bodies (both natural and man-made), has lost most of them to concrete. Sampangi lake is now a small pool overshadowed by the Kanteerava indoor stadium.

On their own, photography and words are each vital to conveying information and telling a story. But together, they balance each other’s strengths, creating a work of art that is both beautiful and informative. It’s when photos are paired with words that the photo-essay is created. Photo-essays are a series of images paired with text descriptions, often in a book or slideshow format but sometimes scrolled through horizontally. Photo-essays are common in journalism and photography, as they allow the photographer to both paint a picture and tell a story, combining the power of words and images to invite the viewer to reflect and feel.

Researchers have also explored ways to use photography and words together. One way for photographs to be used in research is through photo solicitation. According to Doug Harper (2002), using photos allows informants to remember with greater clarity as researchers solicit expanded knowledge and remembrances. While not automatically leading to intense self-reflection by the informant (Harper calls it “breaking the frame,” or critically reflecting on self-identity and image), it does trigger memory recall and solicit a greater dialogue between interviewee and researcher. This in turn can lead to “breaking the frame” (Harper 2002: 20) as informants push cultural boundaries by reflecting on the images they see—often of their own communities and lives.

Recently, researchers have also found a great affinity for the photo-essay. A cornerstone of visual anthropology, the photo-essay (also called the visual essay by sociologists, Pauwels 2012) allows researchers a space to present firsthand data collected from the field paired with that data’s analysis and potential meanings—the photo and the writing. The Colliers take multiple chapters to discuss the how of visual ethnographies. In the seminal Visual Anthropology: Photography as Research Method (1986), the father and son describe how photography can be used not only to reveal biases and research questions, but also as a method to see what may have been missed by eyes alone. The structure provided by rigorous analysis combines with an eye for impressions, detail, and emotions to create, reflect on, and reveal.

While photos on their own have been used for research practically since the first movable camera was invented, anthropologists have been creating photo-essays in books. Mead and Bateson’s 1946 photographic ethnography of Bali society provides a seminal example of how text and gorgeous, full-page spreads can create a compelling story. Indigenous photography also provides a method and analysis of photographs by putting cameras in the hands of the subjects, rather than leaving it with the researcher (Sprague 1978). In more recent years (and in more easily-accessible, fully-online form), academic journals and websites have sought photo-essays as well as the traditional academic texts. Journals from Cultural Anthropology to Anthropology of Work and Sociology of Sport all seek photo-essays, encouraging the uses of multimedia work in academia and beyond.

In Urban Religions, several of our members have contributed photo-essays to this website. Smriti Srinivas’s work was showcased at the beginning of this post, following sacred spaces throughout Bangalore (link). Srinivas’s photo-essay, “Placing Urban Sacrality: Views from Bangalore,” offers a look into what the everyday sacred looks like to a worshipper in Bangalore. Her mix of color and black-and-white photography offers a look into the public lives of the Sathya Sai Baba followers, including a photo of the guru himself and a photo of a photo. The brief textual descriptions create a background to the image, providing context and elaborating on the “text” provided by the photos. While short, Srinivas’s photo-essay is a good example of how to deftly combine images taken in the field with textual descriptions to create a story of a place. More information can be found under Srinivas’s section of Publications (click here for a profile piece).

As research continues to expand into new fields of analysis, it is likely we will see more and more photography, film, and other forms of media be incorporated into research. The internet has already expanded on how we consume academic literature, expanding into blogs and online journals as well as the printed books and literature.

Interested in more photo-essays? Check out these links:

Cultural Anthropology has only just begun to publish photo-essays as of Issue 27, but the ones they have so far are fantastic. I particularly like Hoffman’s “Corpus: Mining the Border,” which also includes inaugural essays on photo-essays and CulAnth‘s reasoning behind including them.

If you’re looking for a non-anthropological photo-essay, the most recent publication of Streetnotes (Winter 2014) is fully dedicated to the photo-essay—up to the issue’s title! Check out “Manhattan’s ‘Dirty Urban Landscapes'” by Alessandro Busà, or Jorge de La Barre’s mesmerizing “From Central to the World: A Day in the Life in Transit.” Luc Pauwels’s “Street Discourse: A Visual Essay on Urban Signification”  in Culture Unbound (2009) is also a personal favorite.

Works Referenced

Collier, J. Visual anthropology: photography as a research method. (University of New Mexico Press, 1986).
Harper, D. Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies 17, 13–26 (2002).
Pauwels, L. Conceptualising the ‘Visual Essay’ as a way of generating and imparting sociological insight: Issues, formats, and realisations. Sociological Research Online 17(1) (2012).
Sprague, S. How I see the Yoruba see themselves. Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communications 5(1), 9–29 (1978).

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