Genealogy of Auto-Photography

Auto-photography is an ethnographic research method that has its historical roots in nineteenth-century anthropology. In many ways, ethnography and photographic methodologies were born together. Photos were often taken in the field and then presented to academic and popular audiences to show the 'savage' culture faraway in lands (or the 'natives' on colonized lands like in North America and Australia) and to illustrate how these strange people were alien and undeveloped in comparison to a Western audience. Today, such photography is largely seen as deeply problematic with colonial, racist, sexist, and Eurocentrist motivations. The anthropologist who photographed his native subjects sought to show the 'strangeness' of the other sociocultural group and accomplished this through poses of those studied that emphasized spectacle and racial–geographic difference. These visual presentations were markedly different from written depictions of alien cultures, although both served primarily to describe and represent societies and cultures different than the ethnographer's own. Photographs were intended by anthropologists to document cultural practices and racialized and sexualized bodies, although ironically, the vast majority of photographs from early anthropologists were staged and posed according to anthropologists' viewpoints and their Eurocentrist stereotypes of the 'savages'. Photographs were less realist reflections of life and people than highly rehearsed and constructed scenes stemming from the ethnographer's interests.

Over time, the camera has become synonymous with fieldwork in ethnographic research, and it became a staple field tool. It remains so today, even though the photographs fieldworkers take have been treated as actual data only recently in anthropology, sociology, and geography. Educating students on gathering and analyzing visual data is still rare in the social sciences, despite the ubiquity of the camera and photography in fieldwork research. Instead, photographs are seen as evidence supporting the central textual analysis, and their importance as visual data are not often mined except by a few experts of visual methodologies.

Auto-photography specifically arose as a concept in the 1960s and early 1970s when ethnographers began to question how their own subject positions fundamentally shaped the representations of those whom they studied. This new reflexivity suggested that the scholar's own gender, race, and location were central factors in the types of research methods, fieldwork practices, and analysis that he or she conducted. One of the first uses of auto-photography took these issues to heart, although the authors suggest that such questions are often unanswerable in full. The bulk of this project was actually film work, not still photography. The two scholars were named Sol Worth (a film and communications researcher) and John Adair (an anthropologist), and in 1966 they gave 16mm cameras to Navajo Native Americans in the state of Arizona in the United States. They taught the Navajo participants to use the cameras and edit film, and the resulting work became a benchmark in the participatory activities of research subjects in ethnography. Worth and Adair analyzed the films of their participants by characterizing them as 'Navajo' ways of seeing and experiencing the world. This emphasis placed the Navajo filmmakers' race and ethnicity as the central social categories influencing their work in creating film. While Worth and Adair's project broke boundaries of established research methodologies, its emphasis on ethnicity and racial difference above all other social identities maintained the anthropological practice of highlighting racial and ethnic difference between researcher and researched. Their ideas, however, became a fundamental moment in the development of auto-photography and its methodological emphasis on 'ways of seeing', the visual, and knowledge production. It also showed that research participants with no experience of using film technology could rapidly become competent with cameras, editing equipment, and technique.

In the 1970s and 1980s, instamatic cameras, also known by their brand name, 'Polaroids', allowed researchers to have their research subjects take photos and have instant results. These instant photos stimulated immediate discussion with research subjects, and much work revolved around questions about social identity. However, the camera equipment itself was costly, and researchers were not often able to give many participants the cameras to go off alone to photograph. Usually the researchers themselves accompanied subjects on photography excursions. Auto-photography as a field method became more widely used and practical when disposable, one time-use cameras were marketed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The connection between the use of the method and the changing, more affordable, and easy to use technology is an important one. While use of auto-photography existed prior to the relatively inexpensive, 'disposable' camera, in the 1990s the wide availability of one time-use cameras allowed this research technique to be more widely realizable. The disposable camera allowed researchers to give a camera to participants, rather than loan out expensive cameras at great financial risk or accompany research subjects on short photographic endeavors. Disposable cameras meant that researchers could have participants take photos over longer time periods and on their own without direct intervention of the researcher. In tandem, publishing photos in academic journals was also more likely. As the 1990s progressed, the spread of desktop computing, the development of the World Wide Web, Internet publishing, digital photography, and digital imaging exploded the use of visual methodologies.

In human geography, auto-photography arose through this technological possibility. Probably the first geographers to advocate the use of auto-photography were Stuart Aitken and Joan Wingate. Their study of children's geographies asked how youth understand their environments, and how auto-photography could aid in helping these adult researchers comprehend children's different views of their neighborhoods. Their work inaugurated a methodological approach to children's geographies that emphasized children's local and everyday lives, the impact of social differences like race, ethnicity, and income on children's mobility and experiences of their environments, and the ways that children's places are made through social relationships (e.g., play spaces like a friend's house). One conclusion the authors derived through the auto-photography project was that children with cerebral palsy who experienced restricted mobility photographed family more often than children whose mobility was not as hampered. The children with cerebral palsy also took more 'action' shots of other children playing, and the authors concluded that watching other children at play was an important way for the disabled children to participate. Their photos and follow up interviews indicated that they often considered themselves a part of children's playing even if they were only spectators.

Most studies to date in human geography have utilized auto-photography with children, perhaps because of its hands on, interactive nature. With time, as visual methodologies become more theorized and prevalent in the discipline, visual field methods will be more widely taught to students and thus be more popular and understood. For instance, more recently, human geographers have drawn on the benefits of the auto-photographic method for studying urban geography, social identity, and spatial mobility.