Photos of Daily Life in Mozambique
The OU Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture
opening windows onto other cultures

"Ethno-Photography" (or "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 pre-historic cave drawings in Spain show us that creating images to record the things around us has been done since the dawn of humanity. Beginning with the arrival of the first mass market Kodak camera in 1888, inexpensive cameras have allowed everyone to easily to engage in "cultural photography" fact, everyone who uses their mobile phone to take pictures today is a cultural photographer.

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 objective and accurate 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. It requires a curiosity to see what is significant among all the things around us. It requires thoughtful selection.

The limitation of 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 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.

A photograph is just a selection from a bigger scene. Once this selection has become a photograph it is completely isolated from the overall context in which it originally existed. By isolating this selection we transform the subject matter. What was once a part of a larger scene has become an entire scene in itself, and it now exists altogether separately from all clues of interpretation that were present at the time the photograph was made. Now we only see what the photographer has decided to let us see.

Through this process of selection the photograph itself becomes something new and distinct. Now, instead of interpretation coming from the eyes of the live viewer, the photographer guides our interpretation through framing, lighting, focus, and other camera techniques.

The photograph, although it may only be a narrow part of a total scene, may nevertheless convey a story or message that is more significant than than the broad scene 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."

Henry David Thoreau was not a photographer, but he summed up the art of photography when he said: "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."

Cultural photography may happen consciously or unconsciously. For the intentional cultural photographer, the photos will have documentary and educational uses ...but having educational value need not make the photos less enjoyable to look at. Indeed, the National Geographic has been simultaneously entertaining and educating its readers with quality cultural photography for more than a century.

---Prof. Rodger Randle
The photos on this page are © Rodger Randle .

OU Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture

Prof. Rodger A. Randle, Center Director
The University of Oklahoma Tulsa
4502 East 41st Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma 74135

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