Camera Ethnography

Clip from “Stundenweise Schulzeit” by Bina E. Mohn (DVD “Lernkörper”, Mohn/Amann 2006)

Over the last decades, camera ethnography has evolved into an independent strand of media ethnography that shows rather than tellsCamera ethnography shifts the emphasis of research from the linguistic to the performative and introduces a mode of perceiving and knowing that unfolds as much between as within images, sounds, words, and audiences’ gazes. At the same time, it offers a practicable methodology that is inherently critical of representationalism and is conceptualized as a continuous reflexive process of working on visibility and seeing.

Filming as an epistemic practice

In our everyday use of media, we take it for granted that we can capture anything with a camera and share it. However, if we assume that the goal of research is to go beyond our current state of knowledge and to see what we have not yet seen, then we are dealing with epistemic things that are not yet immediately visible and hence cannot simply be recorded with a camera. This conclusion draws upon laboratory studies of the sociology of scientific knowledge in the 1980s and 1990s and takes a marked departure from strategies of camera usage that assume visibility exists a priori. The premise of non-visibility has been a fundamental guiding principle in the development of camera ethnography as a methodological approach that aims to bring forth rather than to represent.

Spaces of possibility

Camera ethnography works towards the thick showing (cf. Geertz’ thick description) of everyday worlds and lends itself particularly well to the study of nonverbal practices and their bodily and material dimensions. Furthermore, camera ethnography is particularly suitable for implementation of Wittgenstein’s “übersichtliche Darstellung” research format: filmic arrangements together with thought provoking interventions serve as an attempt to explore how social practices can be lived, named, and understood – not just here and now, but also there and then. This offers audiences of camera ethnographic research an opportunity to make unexpected discoveries about the diversity and potentiality of social phenomena and practices.

Reception as research

Camera ethnographic productions are presented publicly, inviting audiences to contribute their own perspectives and ways of looking and seeing. Emphasizing this, reception events can be conceptualized as public Blicklabore (laboratories of gazes). Reception means a co-creation of research: gazes interfere with and bring forth what is seen. But whose gazes? What perspectives are at play when the camera ethnographers’ filmic results are observed by diverse viewers? Wittgenstein’s enduring question of how else it could be can be extended to ask: “What further views and perspectives might be imaginable?” Thus, reception events are not simply situations for individual, simultaneous viewing but occasions for collective reflection, shared knowledge, and public debate.

Clip from “Stundenweise Schulzeit” by Bina E. Mohn (DVD “Lernkörper”, Mohn/Amann 2006)

Important influences that have inspired the development of camera ethnography include Bruno Latour (on science-in-the-making), Karin Knorr-Cetina (on epistemic cultures), Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (on experimental systems), Clifford Geertz (on thick description), Ludwig Wittgenstein (on language games and “übersichtliche Darstellung”), and Karen Barad (on agential realism and intra-action).

Handbook (2023): Kamera-Ethnographie. Ethnographische Forschung im Modus des Zeigens. Programmatik und Praxis

Where field and research intersect, as well as at the interface of research results and their reception, differently situated practices interact productively. Ethnography can be understood as heterogeneous cooperation; in situated processes of knowledge production, visibility and ways of seeing can be shared and are in perpetual flux.

Workshops | Coaching

Clip from “Sehstörung“, by Bina E. Mohn and Klaus Amann 1993.

Seeing something ‘as something’ and sometimes ‘as something else’ as well

Certain video scenes that were created during a study conducted in the 1990s with Klaus Amann in a molecular biology laboratory have since become key references in the development of camera ethnography. They embody an initial experience in ethnography: Not yet being able to see what experts in the research fields are (more or less) able to see and show.

I offer media ethnographic coaching, introductory workshops on camera ethnography, and research process guidance – in Berlin (Center for Camera Ethnography) or at the participants’ chosen location.

[email protected]

Components of a Camera Ethnography workshop
  • Premise of the not (yet) visible
  • Phases and situations of ethnographic research
  • Media, their affordances and limits
  • Practices, their choreographies and figures
  • Situated methodology in practice
  • Reflexive ethnography throughout the research process 
  • Interaction and intra-action
  • Camera work and research relationships
  • Filming as an attempt to locate epistemic things
  • Cutting as experimentation with temporality
  • Montage as experimental arranging
  • “Übersichtliche Darstellung” (Wittgenstein) with a camera ethnographic twist
  • Reception as research and the concept of the Blicklabor
  • Cooperative research designs and publication strategies
  • Prämisse des (noch) nicht Sichtbaren
  • Phasen und Situationen ethnographischen Forschens
  • Medien, ihre Affordanzen und Grenzen
  • Praktiken, ihre Choreografien und Figuren
  • Situierte Methodologie in der Praxis
  • Reflexive Ethnographie als Forschungsprozessgestaltung
  • Interaktion und Intra-aktion 
  • Filmen und Forschungsbeziehungen
  • Filmen als Ortungsversuch epistemischer Dinge
  • Zerlegen als Zeitversuch
  • Montieren als Ordnung auf Probe
  • „Übersichtliche Darstellung“ (Wittgenstein) kamera-ethnographisch gewendet
  • Forschende Rezeption und das Konzept des Blicklabors
  • Kooperative Forschungsdesigns und Publikationsstrategien
Viewing an autoradiography in the lab (1993) juxtaposed with taking a selfie at the kitchen table (2016). Clips and arrangement: Bina E. Mohn

Constantly moving back and forth between images, sounds and words, encounters, experience and experimentation, resonance, difference and reflexivity while conducting research; immersing oneself in the field of the not yet, not at all, or no longer linguistic: this is the journey that camera ethnography invites you to embark upon.

Bina Elisabeth Mohn

Berlin, Dr. phil.

Ethnography is a wide-ranging, all-encompassing approach to research. For me, being an ethnographer is a fascinating way of being in the world and contributing to its diversity and its becoming in a perceptive, interactive, and performative way that involves encountering and learning from each other; creating and exchanging perspectives; experiencing and experimenting; listening, looking, feeling and reflecting; exploring differences, inventing connections, and creating something new; learning to see something ‘as something’ and sometimes ‘as something else’ as well; opening up spaces of possibility; being a changing part of changing worlds.
About Bina

As a cultural anthropologist I have spent many years exploring how an ethnographic approach to using the camera can contribute to the emergence of epistemic things. This gave rise to the methodology that I call camera ethnography, which I have developed both independently and within various research collectives since the 1990s.

After studying cultural anthropology, visual anthropology, and the sociology of scientific knowledge, I wrote my PhD: an examination of the varieties of doing documentation in light of the crisis of ethnographic representation. In a range of contexts including laboratory studies, object-oriented sociological projects, ethnographic classroom research, theatre and performance studies, ethnographic childhood research and studies on digital childhood, camera ethnography has been continuously tested and further developed. 

From 2016 to 2023, I directed the camera ethnography team in the research project ‘Early Childhood and Smartphone’ within the Collaborative Research Center ‘Media of Cooperation’ (University of Siegen). Now, as a freelance camera ethnographer, author, consultant, and coach I offer my services to support research teams and projects, and I give introductory and advanced-level workshops on the methodology and practice of camera ethnography.