The camera as an ethnographic tool

Mads M. Rehder
April 19, 2017


In doing ethnographic research we all use tools with different qualities to capture and create our empirical material. Video recordings are increasingly used in ethnographic research.  In spite of this, little is written about what these recordings allow us to discover in the analytical process, or about the impact that working with visual material tends to have on our analysis and theoretical framework (Pink, 2006, 2009). In this blogpost, I reflect on the epistemological and analytical trajectories that can be initiated when working with a video camera as an ethnographic tool.

With a background in anthropology I understand fieldwork as a fundamental part of qualitative research. I practice filmed fieldwork, as the cultural sociologist Ida W. Winther describes it (Winther, 2013, p. 164). Inspired both by Winther’s work (Winther, 2012, 2013) and the work of visual anthropologist Sarah Pink (Pink, 2007) I have worked with the camera in different ways throughout my anthropological studies: In my master thesis researching YouTube-vloggers I was working as a cameraman for the participants as well as using my camera to capture what was happening behind the scene (Rehder, 2010, 2013), in a research project about siblings I was filming during the last part of our fieldwork in collaboration with Winther (Winther, Palludan, Gulløv, & Rehder, 2015; Winther, Rehder, Palludan, & Gulløv, 2015), in my Ph.D. on the experience of presence among separated siblings using social media I did a fully filmed fieldwork (Rehder, 2015, 2016a, 2016b) and finally on smaller projects during my postdoc I have worked with the camera as an ethnographic tool inspired by my earlier experiences of filmed fieldwork (Rehder, 2017a, 2017b, 2017c). Doing filmed fieldwork is both different from doing conventional fieldwork and from filming for an ethnographic film, because you are engaging with your participants while filming. With professional experience working as a cameraman on TV-shows and documentary films, I am used to operating the camera, while focusing on nothing else, while in anthropology the focus is more on building a rapport with the participants. I have therefore been interested in how attention is prioritized and split between filming and interacting with the participants when doing filmed fieldwork (Rehder, 2013, 2016b).

The first time I met with a participant in the Ph.D. I had an idea that I would make a documentary style movie as a part of the project.  The recordings done during my earlier fieldwork with the YouTube-vloggers was either instructed by them or filmed as elaborate visual fieldnotes for later analysis, and never made in to a film. Therefore, I wanted to make recordings that could be used in a documentary style film. As a consequence, the setup was staged as a documentary film interview with light, sound, camera on tripod and decorated background. The result was that the interaction with the participant during the interview seemed staged and very performance-oriented, and the dynamic of the relation and interaction didn’t really fit in to my aim of doing long-term fieldwork. From there on I started to carry the camera with me and do a rather sloppy job filming, while focusing instead on social interaction with the participants. This resulted in a poor visual quality, but great conversations and content, because I just carried the handheld camera with me filming without worrying much about framing, light or focus. This type of filmed fieldwork provided me with rich and sizeable visual accounts containing all of the dialogs, actions and interactions from the fieldwork. In doing my fieldwork the video camera therefore became a central tool.

When doing fieldwork the lenses in the camera and those in the eyes of your body are both at work. By building on the comparison between these lenses I will introduce some specificities related to filmed fieldwork.

A lens is an optical device that refracts and transmits light. A camera lens consists of multiple lenses through which the light is transformed and calibrated. This allows the light to be focused and displayed on a film or an image sensor. The human body has its own lenses. In the eye light is transmitted and refracted through a lens onto the retina.  From there it is turned into a signal perceived as visual impressions in different areas of the brain. When filming, the body is therefore producing its own images through its own lenses, just as the lenses mounted on the camera are transmitting distorted light onto an image sensor or a film. In making use of a camera the body is manipulating its external optical lenses by panning, tilting, framing and focusing them. Effectively the body behind the lenses is therefore shaping the way these lenses are able to capture the actions and interactions in front of them. Through this process, the lenses are both active in shaping the bodily experiences and the impression left in the camera as footage that can later be viewed and edited.

The Russian cinematographer Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) experimented with the potential of the camera and its lenses in the 1920’s. Vertov was dedicated to the development of experimental cinema and was focused on how the human eye was incapable of further development. Instead the “ciné-eye” or the “mechanical-eye”, as he often would call the camera, had all the potential he could wish for (Vertov, 1985). In a newsreel series “Kino-Pravda” he and a group of other cinematographers were experimenting with the camera and editing in order to show everyday life after the Russian revolution in 1917, a work he continued in his famous film “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929). They called the discipline “kinopravda” meaning cinéma-vérité or film-truth and it had a big impact on the visual anthropology we know today (Grimshaw, 2001; Henley, 2009; MacDougall, 2006; Rouch & Yakir, 1978; Vertov, 1984) Vertov made a famous comparison between different visual devices that help humans perceive, access and record the world around them.

Our eye sees very poorly and very little – and so men conceived of the microscope in order to see invisible phenomena; and they discovered the telescope in order to see and explore distant, unknown worlds. The movie camera was invented in order to penetrate deeper into the visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena, so that we do not forget what happens and what the future must take into account. (Vertov, 1985, p. 67)

The telescope and microscope are central tools to scientists of both astronomical research and biological research. Both consist of lenses that refract and transmit light and allow scientists to observe the phenomenon of their study in ways other than just using the lenses of their human eyes. Vertov was a politically motivated activist and saw visual expression and the use of the camera as an opportunity to show truths and carry these across both space and time. While the lenses of the ethnographic camera might not bring concealed universes into a field of perception, the camera is a device that potentially allows both the fieldworker and the persons viewing the footage afterwards to explore the actions and interactions that took place during the fieldwork. In an ethnographic context, the images captured by the lenses of the camera create an opportunity for the fieldworker to go back and revisit the interactions that took place in front of the lenses at the specific time of the recording.

In phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on perception he explores the experience of memories as time being re-opened. Merleau-Ponty was in his later work interested in the connection between film and phenomenology, and described film as a temporal phenomenon (M. Merleau-Ponty, 1964). Merleau-Ponty’s idea of embodiment suggests that our perceptual organs can be extended through external objects. As Sergio Delgado points out in linking the work of Vertov and Merleau-Ponty, the camera can be seen as an extension of the eye as a perceptual organ (Delgado, 2009). “Our organs are no longer instruments; on the contrary, our instruments are detachable organs” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 178). The ethnographic camera can therefore be seen as a perceptual technology extending the body’s field of perception while recording what the body perceives. So when the fieldworker looks through the recorded images I argue that the multisensorial experiences which have been embedded in the body during fieldwork are triggered. This links to Merleau-Ponty’s idea of re-opening time. This means that the fieldworker in the editing-suite is re-opening time when comparing and relating the visual expression created by the lenses of the camera with the impression transmitted through the lenses of the eyes. The idea of editing as a method rose from conversations with Annette Markham when I was editing the empirical material prior to writing the analytical chapters. In these returning conversations, we explored the analytical process that took place while editing the visual material, especially connected to a certain moment in my fieldwork:

During my Ph.D. about separated young siblings, and their ways of experiencing presence, I was spending time with a brother and her sister Maya. I wasn’t aware that Maya in our conversations was returning to her experience of sharing walls when living together. The moment I realized it was in the basement of their mother’s house, here she mentioned the sharing of a wall, which was the first time I really noticed. She was explaining how her brother had his bed on the other side of the same wall as her. Because of that she was very annoyed that he had his girlfriend sleeping over. She could hear everything they were doing and ended up spending many nights upstairs in the living room couch. After we had this conversation sharing a wall caught my interest. When I got home I began editing the recordings and went back in the material recorded during my filmed fieldwork. There I was able to find, not only her continual references to sharing a wall in previous conversations, but also other sibling’s reflections on sharing a wall with their siblings. This mode of re-opening the fieldwork experiences recorded on film allowed me to build a fundamental argument in my work on the experience of presence between siblings.

I describe this editing process as a phenomenologically inspired method of analysis since the analysis is supported by shifting the researcher’s attention away from categories and theoretical concepts and instead turning the attention towards what I term nodal points. The nodal point is the optical centre of a lens where the light is focused and gets mirrored from one side of the lens to the other. It is in this nodal point that the image is condensed and concentrated into a tiny spot of light. Therefore, the condensed and concentrated quality of the nodal point is ideal as an analogy for highlighting the complex process of finding the crucial points of interest when editing the visual material.

Theoretically this method of analysis is grounded in the phenomenology of body, and the premise that perception is always coloured by bodily memory (Carman, 1999; Merleau-Ponty, 2012). The process of working through the visual material is therefore based on the rhythms and dynamics experienced by the body during the fieldwork. The body can be seen as a metronome orchestrating the rhythm of the analysis as the French phenomenologist Henry Lefebvre suggests (Lefebvre, 2004). The fieldworker re-opens the experiences from the fieldwork and connects them to the images through nodal points. This process can both challenge the fieldworker’s memories of the fieldwork-present by showing new aspects of the actions and interactions, but might also allow an investigation of blurry memories from the fieldwork by going through the images and discovering new and surprising nuances that had previously been overlooked as I did with in Maya’s case following the shared wall.

When having done a filmed fieldwork the analytical process can be done primarily in the editing of the footage. Through this kind of visual analysis, impressions captured on video and experiences stored in the bodily memory are slowly edited and combined to produce a video containing the analysis. This means that the light which has passed through the lenses of the body and the lenses of the camera through a slow and exploratory analysis are interpreted and cognitively and physically processed to produce a coherent expression. The visual material produced with the camera has unique qualities because it has the potential to show the fieldworker’s perspective from the fieldwork, and therefore transmit, to an audience, an edited and subjective bricolage of the light captured in the field. Afterwards, the written analysis is structured and shaped by this visual material. The overall consequence of using the camera in my case is that the visual focus created by the ethnographic tool has shaped the method of analysis, which caused the visual approach to be embedded both in the empirical descriptions, the analytical arguments, and finally, in the phenomenological framework. What tools are you using, and what are the connections between your empirical material, analytical methods and theoretical frame(s)?



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Delgado, S. (2009). Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” and the Phenomenology of Perception. Film Criticism, 34(1), 1-16.

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– en antologi baseret på erfaringer og indblik fra forskning, udviklingsarbejde og undervisning. Århus: Roskilde Universitetsforlag.

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Rehder, M. M. (Writer). (2017c). MoRM – The experience of everyday life not archived or posted on social media, Future Making. Aarhus: Aarhus Universitet.

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Winther, I. W., Palludan, C., Gulløv, E., & Rehder, M. M. (2015). Siblings – Practical and Sensitive Relations

Winther, I. W., Rehder, M. M., Palludan, C., & Gulløv, E. (Writers). (2015). (Ex)changeable Siblingship – Experienced and Practiced by Children and young people in Denmark. In I. Winther & M. Rehder (Producer). Copenhagen: Akademisk forlag.

This is part of a series of articles by members of the Skagen Institute interrogating how we might think differently about our methods to better grapple with the complexity of 21st Century contexts.

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