One of our textbooks for the field school is called Visual anthropology: Photography as a research method, by John Collier, Jr., and Malcolm Collier. One of the book’s main arguments is that photography can offer essential visual detail for ethnographic research, far more detail than could be accurately recorded in description.
A photograph, ideally, does not lie. A photograph, ideally, is less biased than the written word. Words tend to have inherently charged meanings, and a lot of words are also inherently subjective. “Large,” for example. “Large” is an entirely relative statement. As a descriptor “large” essentially means nothing. The same object could be described as large or small by various people, or even the same person depending on their own mood, expectations, relative size and so on. Supposedly, a photograph is essentially more straightforward than a written depiction.
This is not, however, an ideal world, and photographs can and do lie. The way a camera lens views the world, as compared to the way the human eye views the world, is different. Cameras flatten a three-dimensioonal view into a two-dimensional depiction. Spatial perspective especially is often distorted when viewed in a photograph. Images in this photograph may be larger or smaller than they appear.
Photographs may, of course, also tell a factual lie. A photograph may be staged to present an image that is not an accurate depiction of reality. A photograph may be edited and altered. A photograph may be misinterpreted. A photograph may be assumed to depict a regular occurrence when it is, in fact, a singular occurrence. As I overheard one woman say, “If I’d known we were going to be photographed, I would’ve put makeup on!”
There can be small discrepancies, small edits, and there can be huge discrepancies, deliberate misinformation or bias, in all fieldwork. A human being is not a factual recorder; all fieldwork is subject to errors and bias, whether unintentional or deliberate. We record new information in context to our own personal feelings and experiences. A written statement can contain truth or lies, incomplete information, factual errors, misremembering and bias. So can a photograph. So can an oral history, an artwork, a floor plan.
Every tool an ethnographer has is ‘flawed’ in some way.
We do our best.