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The Ethno-photographer. Part I.

Publié le 13 février, 2011 | Pas de commentaires

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This series of two articles discusses the practice and use of photography as part of anthropological research report on poverty in Senegal (Dakar) and Ethiopia (Dire Dawa). The analysis focuses on the scientific value of the information provided by photos as an ethnographic document. The research field of the anthropologist constitutes a complex environment. Moreover, when the topic of research requires the observation of socially marginalized populations living in difficult contexts of accessibility, physical as well as social, the study of poverty based on the anthropological approach constitutes a highly sensitive kind of research. In order to deal with the obstacles that are typical of such research, it is necessary to develop an adequate methodology that allows the observation of people’s living conditions. The methodology developed here presents the role of an Ethno-photographer, who provides access to scientific observation.

 Framed Goat
Travlr, Framed Goat, 2009
Certains droits réservés.

Justification of the approach

Anthropology analyzes the manifestations of social life. Observing details, the anthropological approach allows the comprehension of conscious, unconscious and symbolic events that constitute social life. The fundamental object of anthropological studies, as Marcel Mauss[i] pointed out in 1950, is human life.

As an interpretation of cultural phenomena, anthropology at the same time seizes collective phenomena and individual expressions, both of which are the manifestations of social life. Consequently, the specificity of an anthropological research lies in its capacity to describe observations of different cultures without any a priori opinion. Ethnography, as one method of investigation under the umbrella of Anthropology, refers to the collection, classification and transcription of information collected during the research. It reports the observation of events and constitutes the memory of testimony. Assuming ethnography to be the transcription of raw data, one should consider the fact that any ethnography is part of the observation process and thus constitutes a primarily cultural interpretation of the observer. Indeed, does the eye that sees and the ear that listens represent “culture”. An objective interpretation does not exist because it relies on the cultural background of the interpreter; however thought and ordered, all interpretation is socially built and thus unable to perceive without preconceived notions.

In Exercices d’ethnologie, Robert Jaulin[ii] highlights these problems by showing that the observation faculty is linked to the cultural interpretation process. This characteristic of human reason clearly reflects the limit of our observation when used to report social phenomena. This seems to be in opposition to any scientific approach. Consequently, any ethnographic method must consider this restrictive aspect. In fact, the mere presence of the researcher near the population he wants to study does not guarantee the success of the ethnographic study. The scientific value of the analysis depends on the precision of the observations reported, taking into account the subjectivity of the observer as well as other ethnographic discourses. Any anthropological observation should aspire to self-criticism and embrace doubt. The first research challenge is not physical but rather intellectual, since it requires a sincere determination to, as much as this is possible, neutralize a priori perspectives. Anthropological research forces the anthropologist to complete a process of self-reflection in order to diminish exoticism and ethnocentrism. He must transform the experience of personal life and research into scientific work.

The ethnographic methodology presented in this article is based on the practice of photography. This method does not lack difficulties, some of which are directly related to the scientific value of the information collected through visual support such as the photo itself. By constituting an extension of the human eye, the photographic picture is a direct result of a cultural process. Thus, it is legitimate to assume that photography, by focusing on specific parts of the observed scene, can contribute to the imposition of subjective perspectives that might not reflect reality. This danger, applicable to all the ways of anthropological data-gathering, reminds us that a photograph provides a subjective portrayal of reality because it represents the visual and psychological interpretation of the observer (photographer). The need “to frame” a particular event constitutes a first division of the reality observed, based on the choice of the observer. Nevertheless, a careful selection of the subjects photographed, the use of particular photographic techniques, and the scientific analysis of the material, allows us to overcome the limitations of photography as an ethnographic tool. Thus, photography can serve as a data acquisition method that allows a collection of information with scientific value that may exceed that collected by other tools, particularly writing.

With this in mind, let us consider the practice of photography in the context of a scientific approach that views society in its entirety. This approach claims that society is not made up of a linear continuation of individuals but that it forms an indivisible totality. This totality includes behaviours, structures and values, which characterise the society that Ethnography proposes to reveal via photographs. Before presenting the suggested methodology, let us first present the characteristics of research conducted with marginalized populations of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and Dire Dawa, a town in Ethiopia.

Poor districts of Dakar and Dire Dawa: an example of a harsh environment for anthropological research

 Dire Dawa, Ethiopia
A. Davey, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

At first impression, Dakar seems to be an unpleasant city. Its size and intense traffic create a busy atmosphere. In addition, the harassing and daily requests of the bana bana[iii] and street hawkers of any kind provide a constant source of agitation. Moreover, the study of the perception of poverty requires tying strong relations with populations that are difficult to reach due to their economic and social conditions. These elements make the observation fragile. Poor populations occupy certain districts described as unhealthy and dangerous, where high crime rate is prevalent and where the majority of residents live under very poor conditions. For a few years, a renewal of violence in certain poor districts during religious holiday periods, such as the tabaski[iv], has made it difficult to carry out ethnographic research in these places.

For these and other reasons, conducting anthropological research in the poor districts of the capital is difficult, particularly since Senegal is an “ethnologized” country, i.e., the population is frequently the subject of various studies financed by local authorities, international organizations and institutions; this represents an additional difficulty with the investigation of families, insofar as the population has certain “experience” with research. Thus, people may be fast to reply a question in a biased way, or worse, adopt an attitude that is intended to satisfy the interrogations of the researcher. In addition, the rise of mass tourism since the 1980s has strongly influenced the lifestyle of the population and contributed to establishing certain ideas regarding the western way of life. This may have contributed to the construction of an a priori notion associated with the researcher. These characteristics of the Senegalese capital are additional challenges for conducting anthropological research in situ.

Tourists specifically, and westerners in general, are often judged as being uninterested in the culture of the country and insensitive to the living conditions of the local population. Although this interpretation reflects a certain reality of the majority of tourists, it strongly harms the anthropologist. Consequently, anthropologists are indirect victims of mass tourism and popular beliefs. They too are harassed, like any other foreigner, by street hawkers and curious people, who try to profit on the westerners. In addition, some people may try to sell their contribution to the study and provide false information attempting to satisfy the anthropologist. There is no doubt that, despite all his or her efforts, the anthropologist is still seen as a foreigner in the eyes of the local community.

Dire Dawa, located in Ethiopia, also poses many difficulties when it comes to carrying out research on poverty. First, political tension in this area close to Ogaden, a region bordering with Somalia, is intense and constant. Ethiopian military troops are deployed in order to ensure the control of its border with Somalia and to limit incursions of armed groups into the area. This area is characterized by residual tension and sporadic confrontations with various armed groups. This element poses an additional difficulty in conducting anthropological research in Dire Dawa. Indeed, authorities are cautious and suspicious with foreigners and even more so with people who are devoted to research on a sensitive topic such as poverty and displacement of populations at the regional level. Researching poverty forces the researcher to answer questions regarding the reasons for his presence in the area and regarding the goals of his or her work. Also, the risk of bomb attack should not be overlooked. In June 2002, Dire Dawa was subjected to bomb attacks by the Oromo Liberation Forces, an upheaval that, however, did not claim any casualties. More recently, in May 2008, a few weeks after my field work was completed, a murder attack struck the capital Addis-Ababa.

The flow of refugees coming from Ogaden and Somalia creates problems for the Ethiopian authorities. This flow is an important cause of Dire Dawa’s population increase. The majority of newcomers settle in peripheral districts, developing the urban space in a disorderly fashion. In addition, increased density of the population is accompanied by an increased instability of living conditions and a lack of security in the poor districts and suburbs. Problems relating to refugees remain taboo for local administrations; the latter are reluctant to recognize the refugees’ needs and are unwilling to address the unstable social and economic living conditions of these populations.

Although these research difficulties are attenuated over time, the anthropologist is constantly observed by the local population, becoming the study subject of his own subjects. This is characteristic of any ethnographic research field and it forces the anthropologist to create a specific methodology, which takes into account the characteristics of the research environment as well as his own personality. As for me, I chose to appear as a photographer. This choice had two goals. First, it was used in order to limit personal interrogations and, second, to provide a legitimate reason for my presence in the area while creating a role for myself within the community. Indeed, presenting oneself as an anthropologist is often difficult to explain: the work and research goals are never easy to comprehend. Choosing to appear as a photographer helps avoiding ambiguities related to my presence in the area and allows me to be an actor while enabling me to preserve a certain freedom for conducting my field work. For me, this role constructed my research-field character—simultaneously a photographer and an anthropologist—a role that I named Ethno-photographer.

Creating the Ethno-photographer: the focal point of the anthropological approach.

 le gare
G.A. Hussein, le gare, 2005
Certains droits réservés.

Anthropological research based on the practice of photography presupposes an initial phase in which one must create the first contact with the population studied. This requires establishing oneself as a photographer whose purpose is to document the social life of the district. Using an easily identifiable character, like a photographer, seems to have proven reliable by other anthropologists such as Laurence Wylie[v] who in September 1950 settled in Peyrane,[vi] Vaucluse, and used photography to approach the local population.

Field work requires the building of a network of relationships. This is a necessary condition, ensuring access to information. Using that tool, the anthropologist must become an active observer, establishing dialogue in order to reach the information he is looking for. Though it may not be problem-free, the choice to appear as a photographer creates a local role, which allows participating in the community’s activities. The behaviour and choices that follow from this approach are easily understandable to the target population and my social and cultural status is clear: for them I am a photographer, and for myself I am an anthropologist and a photographer at the same time, an Ethno-photographer.

Establishing relationships based on trust seems to be a prerequisite for the practice of photography in particular, and when conducting anthropological research in general. Among Senegal’s poor appearance is a decisive criterion in creating social relations, also determining the qualitative aspect of the relation. Appearance refers both to the physical and dress appearance and to gestural and linguistic expression. The element of appearance has a dominant role in the process of identification and construction of relationships between individuals. The anthropologist should, as much as possible, be free to choose his or her relations, since he or she meets some individuals who may be interesting subjects for his research as well as others who are less so. The anthropologist must also provide a certain amount of information about him- or herself. The extent to which a participant will open up to the researcher and the quality of the information he or she will provide depends on establishing a trusting relationship between the two.

The anthropologist and the interviewee do not speak the same language and in the case of my research, the interviewee is not from the same social and cultural environment. As for linguistic differences, difficulties of interpretation are important to pay attention to. In spite of using the French language, the meaning of words is not identical, sometimes not even similar. Cultural referents usually differ within the same society, let alone from one society to another and from one social class to another. Partly in order to limit the risks of an erroneous interpretation of information, photography is used in combination with audio recording of the conversations and, whenever possible, note taking. These aids, far from being contradictory, are in fact complementary. The photograph itself allows for a description of a symbolic idea contained in the discourse and the physical world, while the recorded conversation and notes enrich the context of the picture and its subject matter.

End of Part One

The second part of this article will discuss the photographic technique and the scientific content in photos in the context of anthropological research.


[i] Mauss, 1950 : 285

[ii] Jaulin, 1999 : 43

[iii] Street sellers

[iv] The al aide kabire (tabaski) is celebrated two months and approximately ten days after the Ramadan. It is one of the most significant religious events in West Africa.

[v] Wylie, 1968 : 18

[vi] Such as the author mentions it, the name “Peyrane” does not correspond to the real name of the village, this one having been voluntarily dissimulated in the work of the author.

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