A collaborative photo project in visual anthropology: thoughts on process and outcome

On a recent road trip through eastern Oregon, my partner Isaac took photos of two very lovely people we met along the way. The photos were “practice” for a collaborative project we’ve been talking about doing for a while now that would involve Isaac’s photography, my anthropology, and our mutual interest in exploring and documenting various aspects of humanity (identity, space/place, material culture, social interaction, etc.)

Our idea is to do a project in visual anthropology that would entail photographing the people we meet on our trips and supplementing the photos with a story or some information that illuminates their personalities, contexts, experiences, and perspectives. Here are the two “practice” photos with accompanying text:

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 1.56.54 PMLynn owns A Bit of Europe, an antique store in John Day, Oregon. Originally from northern England, she has owned her shop for 20 years. While organizing a pile of old linens, Lynn reminisced about the seven-course dinner parties she used to throw back in England, “when people would stay up till 2:00 am and finish the night with a pot of coffee and some brandy.” She laments that when she hosts dinners in the U.S., “people here just want to come over at 5:00, have a hamburger, and leave.” On being an antiques dealer, Lynn says: “You don’t have to be a thief to make a living. I like to be fair.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 1.58.21 PMWe met Corey (a.k.a. Big Bird) at RJ’s Drive-In Restaurant in Burns, Oregon. Corey is from Tacoma, Washington, and moved to Burns three years ago. Today was his first day off in 12 days from his job working the night shift at the local Safeway, and he planned to spend it hunting. Corey is a proponent of the right to carry arms in public. “Out here, you need guns. You go out of town and there’s badgers, wild pigs, coyotes, bobcats. Badgers are mean, but their legs are short, so they can’t jump.”

Thinking about Process and Outcome

I consider the two photos above “practice” because we are still hammering out the details of our collaboration, which would be along the lines of the popular Humans of New York project (or Humans of Portland, etc.), but with the application of an anthropological lens to both the process and outcome (not to mention Isaac’s distinct photographic style.) For example, what we learn about a person in conversation would provide a basis for the accompanying story/text, and a point of reference for viewers to interpret the portrait. Additionally, the “Humans of…” projects I mentioned before seem more focused on quantity than quality/depth. We are more interested in depth and meaning than amassing a large collection of photos, and would be more selective in terms of the images and stories we share.

At this point, we aren’t quite sure what our thematic focus or thesis will be, but a clearer idea will probably start to develop as we go along. For example, we might link the portraits with themes such as the landscape, economics, local industry, community, food, etc. For now, we’ll keep experimenting with the concept and formulating our approach.

There are a lot of other details to consider regarding process and logistics, like timing and finding people who don’t mind having their photos taken (which probably depends on the other two variables.) We like the concept of pairing portraits with text, but we have some thinking to do around our strategy for capturing this information. When is the right time to ask someone for a photo? How do we build rapport for the opportunity to even ask? How do we formulate our request (i.e., using the word “portrait” versus “photo”.) How do we balance genuine interest in meeting new people with our possible intention to take a photo (without leading with it?) One thing that’s for sure is that our approach will differ from person to person; we can decide in the moment what makes the most sense and also draw from a set of best practices.

The resulting photograph is just one side of the equation; the other side is the text, or story. Going back to our practice photos, after we said our thank-yous and goodbyes, I scrambled to jot down every detail I could possibly recall from our conversations, with Isaac adding to and clarifying my recollections. I felt mixed about doing this and am not totally satisfied with the outcome, which is more like an outsider’s summary than an insider’s story. I’m struggling to come up with a good, consistent way of capturing information in conversation without whipping out a notepad and pen, or turning on a recorder. Doing this can make people uncomfortable or turned off, and shut the “rapport door”, which can take a lot of effort to open up. At the same time, I want to accurately represent the subjectivities of others rather than rely solely on my memory of what they say. I want most or all of the text to be in their words, not mine. I don’t want it to be a patchwork of bits and pieces of things I managed to jot down afterward, like the blocks of text above. It will be hard to try and accomplish both accuracy and rapport with people I don’t know and without having a long-term engagement or presence in a place. How do I strike a satisfying balance?

As we move forward with experimenting with this concept, Isaac and I are open to suggestions and ideas from readers on both the process and outcome. Please feel free to leave any comments below.

Also, in the tradition of anthropological ethics, there would be total informed consent to publish/share the photos and text/quotes online and elsewhere.


  1. I really like this idea a lot. Consider looking at the works of folks like Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee from the FSA days in the 1930s. There is a book called Pie Town Woman by Joan Myers which is an interesting meshing Russell Lee photography from the 30s, the contemporary setting, and the people then and now. Eudora Welty’s photographs also seem relevant. (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/womens-history/eudora-welty-as-photographer-117044298/?no-ist). There are a few books around where both Lange and Welty talk about their approach to photography that deals with some of the very questions that you raise.

    This sounds very exciting. Please keep me up to date on how this develops.

  2. Another resource to check out for inspiration is Studs Terkel’s book “Working” — and his life’s work in general. Some interesting context in the old NY Times review of the book — http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/09/26/specials/terkel-working.html

    Quote from the article: “It is not clear how Terkel gets so close to these people. Indeed, he makes it obscurer than it need be by editing his own presence out of most of the interviews he has transcribed, so that his people’s stories generally read as monologues instead of the human encounters they quite clearly are. Still, it is clear that he is giving off something that encourages people to associate freely, to mention “second thoughts” that they would normally keep under wraps, to expose their often precarious and frightening inner lives, to take emotional risks.”

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