Camera Ethnography

Camera Ethnography

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

Over the past 20 years, camera ethnography has evolved into an independent strand of media ethnography, that shows rather than tellsCamera ethnography shifts the emphasis of research from the discursive 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 manageable representation-critical methodology 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 simply believe that we can capture something with a camera and share it with each other. However, if we assume that the goal of research is to get beyond the state of what is known and seen so far, then we are dealing with epistemic things that are not yet visible at first and therefore cannot just be recorded with a camera. This conclusion refers to the laboratory studies of the sociology of scientific knowledge in the 1980s and 1990s and means a marked departure from strategies of camera work 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 aims at a dense showing (cf. Geertz’ dense description) of everyday worlds and lends itself particularly well to the study of nonverbal practices and their bodily and material aspects. Furthermore, camera ethnography is particularly suitable for an adoption of the format “übersichtliche Darstellung” (Wittgenstein) – in this context, filmic arrangements together with interventions (like good and thought-provoking questions) serve as an attempt to answer the question of how social practices can be lived, named, and understood here and now, and there and then. This offers audiences of camera-ethnographic research an opportunity to discover unexpected things about the diversity and possibility of social phenomena and practices.

Reception as research

Camera ethnographic productions are presented publicly, inviting audiences to contribute their own perspectives andways of looking and seeing. Embracing this, the events of reception might be conceptualized as public “laboratories of gazes” (Blicklabore). Reception means a co-creation of research: gazes interfere with and bring forth what is seen. But whose gazes are we talking about? What perspectives are at play when the camera ethnographers’ filmic results are observed further by diverse viewers? Wittgenstein’s enduring question “How else could it be?” can be supplemented by the question: “What views and perspectives are still imaginable?” Thus, individual reception can be transformed into collective reflection, shared knowledge and public debate.

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

Important references for the camera ethnography approach 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).

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

At the interfaces of field and research as well as at the interfaces of research results and their reception, differently situated practices interact productively. Ethnography can be understood as a heterogeneous cooperation; in situated processes of knowledge production, visibility, and ways of seeing can be shared and remain in flow. 

Workshops | Coaching

Workshops | Coaching

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

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

Some keyframes, which derived from a laboratory study in the 1990s together with Klaus Amann in a molecular biology laboratory, became references for the development of camera ethnography since then. They embody an initial experience in ethnography: Not being able to see at once what experts in the research fields (more or less) are able to see and can show.

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

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 as a research process design
  • Interaction and intra-action
  • Camera work and research relationships
  • Filming as an attempt to locate epistemic things
  • Cutting as an attempt at time
  • Montage as an order on trial
  • “Übersichtliche Darstellung“ (Wittgenstein) turned camera-ethnographically
  • 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 making 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 researching, and immersing oneself in the field of the not-yet, not-at-all or no longer linguistic: this is the journey that camera ethnography offers.

Bina Elisabeth Mohn

Berlin, Dr. phil.

Ethnography is a wide-ranging, 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 - unfolding 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 been concerned for many years with the question of how an ethnographic camera use can contribute to the emergence of epistemic things. This gave rise to the methodological approach of camera ethnography, which I developed both independently and within various research collectives since the 1990s.

After studying cultural anthropology, visual anthropology, and sociology of scientific knowledge, I did my PhD on the topic of the varieties of documenting after the crisis of ethnographic representation. In contexts including laboratory studies, projects with an object-sociological approach, ethnographic classroom research, theater and performance studies, ethnographic childhood research and studies on digital childhood, camera ethnography has been continuously tested and further developed.

Over the past 8 years I directed the camera ethnography team in the research project “Early Childhood and Smartphone” of the Collaborative Research Centre “Media of Cooperation” (University of Siegen, 2016-2023). Currently I work as a freelance camera ethnographer, author, consultant, and coach and offer project support and workshops on the methodology and practice of camera ethnography.


Blog |Contact