Sketching Ethnography

When I teach a fieldwork class or work with students doing fieldwork, I like to take some time, when the moment of fieldwork photography comes up, to talk about shot composition. It’s not something most students are prepared to discuss, in part, because composition in photography seems to many to be the realm of the fine art or professional photographer. It doesn’t help that many people think of composition in purely two-dimensional terms and thus have some sense that they can fix a problematic image in processing.

But that’s confusing cropping with composition. And while cropping can do wonders sometimes it cannot get into a frame something that was needlessly left out and now can never be put back in — there are too many pieces of reality even for Photoshop masters.

A recent [iStockphoto]( article on [“The Sketch”]( got me thinking about better ways to communicate some of these ideas. I am particularly fond of the illustration the author offers.

His task is to compose an image that captures the idea of waiting, and while we can envy him his opportunity to work with a model and location that are pliant to his needs, we should also envy him his forethought. It’s my experience that too many folklorists, and and anthropologists and journalists, simply start snapping shots in the middle of an event without any real thought of what is happening and how best to represent it. Only then can you decide what are probably the best vantage points from which to take a photograph.

No doubt seasoned veterans like Henry Glassie, an amazing photographer in his own right, do much of this work quite subconsciously, but it’s not because he hasn’t thought about it quite consciously for years and years. I know because I have spent time talking to Glassie about his photographs and I have had him with me in the field and had him advise him on better angles, better frames, better lighting.

To move this discussion along, I plan to offer up a few photographs of my own that I have either composed in this way or I have not and wish I did. I hope others will join me in a critique of this part of the ethnographic process. I don’t think we lose anything by raising to the level of conscious practice and articulate discussion certain dimensions of our craft. If anything, we enjoy amazing content and it’s time we thought about the forms in which we present it or represent it more clearly. We now have more choices, in terms of communication, than any of us thought imaginable even ten short years ago.

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