"Photo-Ethnography" (or "Cultural Photography" or "Visual Anthropology") is the art of taking photos for the purpose of telling about a people or a culture. The photographs may be as simple as portraits of faces, or as common as street scenes, or as complex as the capturing of scenes that illustrate social relationships.
Nothing about these kinds of images is new, of course. The cave paintings in Spain show us that this was done at the dawn of humanity. What is new and different today is the proliferation of inexpensive cameras that allow everyone easily to engage in "cultural photography" ...and, indeed, everyone who uses their mobile phone to take pictures is a cultural photographer.
Making worthwhile cultural photographs is often not as simple as simply clicking the shutter, however. It requires a curiosity to see what is significant in the world around us, and the discipline to photographically document it. It requires thoughtful selection of what is to be photographed.
Photography offers both limitations and opportunities when we attempt to use it as a tool for documentation. While photography would seem to be the most "realistic" way of capturing the world around us, this is not necessarily true. As the noted photographer Richard Avedon once observed, "All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth."
Making cultural photographs is not as simple as simply clicking the shutter of the camera, however. It requires a curiosity to see what is significant in the world around us, and the discipline to photographically document it. It requires thoughtful selection.
Photography offers both limitations and opportunities when we attempt to use it as a tool for documentation. While photography would seem to be the most "realistic" way of capturing of the world around us, this is not necessarily true.
The problem with photography is simple. We cannot photograph what we "see". The mind plays tricks on us. Our eyes look at the world in a wide angle, but our consciousness focuses at any given moment on just a small part of what we are seeing. Even as we focus our concentration on a small part of the big scene of which we are a part, we still retain the "sense" of the totality of the location, time, and context in which we find ourselves. Our subconscious uses all of this data to analyze that small part of the scene on which our conscious mind has focused.
Our "interpretation" of what we are seeing, based on the context in which we are seeing it, becomes a major part of what we see. A photograph is just a selection from that overall scene. Once this selection has become a photograph it is completely isolated from the overall context in which it originally existed.
Isolating this selection in our photograph, we transform this part of the scene that was photographed. What was simply part of a larger scene now becomes a whole scene in itself. And it now exists altogether separately from any clues of interpretation except for clues that the photographer provides in the photo.
This process of selection is the true art of photography. The photograph itself becomes something new and distinct from what it was in its original context. Now, instead of interpretation coming from the eyes of the live viewer, clues to interpretation are now provided by the photographer through the use of framing, lighting, focus, and other camera techniques. The photograph, although only a selected part of a total scene, may nevertheless convey an story or message that is bigger than than the photograph itself. Dorothea Lange, whose photos told the story of the Great Depression in ways that no book of statistics could have done, once made this observations: "While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see."
Cultural photography may happen consciously or unconsciously. For the intentional cultural photographer, the photos will have documentary and educational value ...but having educational value need not make the photos less enjoyable. Indeed, the National Geographic has been simultaneously entertaining and educating its readers for more than a hundred years with quality cultural photography.