Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Ethnographers worry that their mere presence on the scene may be influencing what people do and thus compromising the truth of their studies.  They try to minimize that impact, and most of their reports give detailed descriptions of their methods so that readers can assess whether the data might be corrupted.

Photojournalists also claim to be showing us the truth — “pictures don’t lie” — but they compunctions about influencing the people in their photos.  Here for example is a photo taken in Israel by Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori.  (This is a screen grab of a video, hence the subtitles.)

The defiant Palestinian youth, the flames of the roadblock — it’s all very dramatic.  But it is far from spontaneous.  Here’s the photo from another point of view:

Salvadori studied anthropology, and he is well aware that observers influence what they observe.  But editors want “good” photos, not good ethnography.  So observer influence is an asset, not a problem.

If you point a tiny camera at somebody, what is he going to do?  Most likely, he’s going to smile or do something.  Now imagine this enlarged with a group of photographers. That show up with helmets, gas masks, and at least two large cameras each, and they come there to take photos of what you do.  So you’re not going to sit there twiddling your thumbs.

No, the youths don’t twiddle their thumbs, not with the photogs on the scene.  Instead, they burn a flag.

Their relationship is symbiotic.  The photogs want dramatic images, the insurgent youths want publicity.  Of course, even with the Palestinians youths and the Israeli soldiers, when the action gets real, nobody is thinking about how they’ll look in a photo.

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(The full 8-minute video of Salvadori talking about photography in the combat zone was posted at PetaPixel back in October, though I didn’t hear about it until recently.)

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