The Power of Ethnographic Photography

Ethnographic photography is an important practice in design research because it enables researchers to capture and convey rich visual information about the cultural and social contexts in which people live and interact. It involves the use of photography as a tool for documenting and understanding the behaviours, practices, and artefacts of a particular group or community.

Ethnographic photography and its role in design research

As demonstrated in our publication Viewfinders, at stby we value the role of photography in documenting people’s lives, and believe it is a powerful tool to help tell their stories. We recently visited ‘Beyond the Streets’ in London; an exhibition on graffiti and street art, which featured the work of prolific street art photographer and graffiti documentarian Martha Cooper. She is a renowned photojournalist who has adopted an ethnographic approach to explore and preserve the short-lived nature of street art and hip-hop culture during the 1970s. Her lens has captured the essence of these vibrant movements for decades, as she has devoted her career to observing and recording the dynamic interplay between street art, graffiti, and the evolving hip-hop scene. Through her keen eye and immersive approach to photography, Cooper has documented the urban landscape, its artists, and the subcultures that breathe life into it. It was incredibly inspiring to see her work in person, and it gave us the opportunity to reflect on how we can learn from her process.

Engagement and immersion

‘Subway Art’ is a groundbreaking book by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, that documents the work of graffiti writers who illegally painted subway cars in New York City. There is a great depiction of how Cooper’s method begins with a deep engagement and immersion within the communities she photographs. Instead of being an observer, she actively interacts with the artists, gaining their trust and understanding their perspectives. By forming personal connections, she gains insight into the motivations, inspirations, and struggles of street artists and hip-hop pioneers. 

The time and effort she dedicates to connecting to and understanding the people beyond the photograph is evident. She has documented not only the art and the process, but captured how people felt at the time. Her approach allows the audience to truly empathise with these people and their daily lives. Her photographs serve as a testament to the power of ethnographic photography in preserving and illuminating the richness of human expression in urban environments.

Cooper has witnessed the organic growth of these art forms, she understands that street art and hip hop are not isolated, but interconnected cultural expressions that flourish in gritty urban landscapes. By immersing herself in these environments, she becomes an integral part of the story, capturing the scenes from within.

Preserving history and documenting evolution

Street art is short-lived by nature, and Cooper’s photography serves as a historical record, preserving moments that might otherwise be lost to time. By meticulously capturing these fleeting pieces, Cooper contributes to the permanent narrative of this movement’s history. 

Moreover, Cooper’s photographs showcase the evolution of both street art and hip-hop culture over time. From the early days of graffiti in New York City in the 1970s to the global movement it has become today, Cooper has been present to capture the shifts in styles, techniques, and social contexts. Her images not only freeze moments in time but also illustrate the broader cultural transformations that have shaped these movements.

Promoting understanding and awareness

Cooper’s photography provides a platform for understanding and appreciation. By offering a window into the lives and experiences of street artists and hip-hop practitioners, she challenges societal assumptions and biases. Her images humanise these subcultures, showcasing the individuals’ talent, creativity, and resilience behind the art.

Cooper’s work also encourages dialogue between different communities. Her photographs enable people from diverse backgrounds to engage with street art and hip-hop culture, fostering an appreciation for the cultural and social significance of these art forms. Through her lens, she bridges gaps and promotes mutual understanding, breaking down barriers between mainstream society and the underground subcultures she documents.

What can we learn?

Martha Cooper’s work has left an everlasting mark on the documentation of street art and hip-hop culture, by immersing herself in the communities she photographs and capturing the essence of these movements. She has created a visual legacy that spans decades. Her work not only preserves the history and evolution of street art but also promotes understanding, awareness, and appreciation for the artists and their vibrant subcultures. Cooper’s approach to documenting street art and hip-hop culture demonstrates the power of immersion when it comes to storytelling and building an understanding of people’s lives. 

So what can we learn from this, and how can this help improve our skills as design researchers? Empathy is a core design research principle, the ability to connect and have a deep understanding of people’s motivations and behaviour is invaluable. Martha Cooper has clearly demonstrated how powerful immersion is when it comes to building a relationship with people in order to tell their stories. Her photography invites her audience on a journey into these artists’ lives, in order to help deepen their understanding and awareness and break down cultural and societal barriers. We can learn from the dedication she gives to building a relationship with her ‘participants’, as it has allowed them to open up to her to the extent that she is no longer considered an outsider, but accepted as part of this community she observes. This has led her to build an understanding of these people’s lives and tell their stories like no other.

Martha Cooper has clearly demonstrated how powerful immersion is when it comes to building a relationship with people in order to tell their stories

Ed Louch