Kelley Sams is a postdoctoral researcher at the Norbert Elias Center in Marseilles, France. She uses photography as a key ethnographic method to explore the circulation of medication and representations of health, with a focus on Global Africa. Her most recent study, being conducted as a part of the ANR project La Vie Politique des Marchandises/The Political Life of Commodities (VIPOMAR/POLICO), examines the circulation of health commodities and China-Africa relations.
Résumé de la proposition
Relationships between examiners-examined and the visibility of an invisible illness: visual ethnography of epidemiological research in Niger
This paper analyzes a corpus of photographs taken by the author documenting epidemiological trachoma research. These images provide a way to reflect upon the relationship between the examined (“patient”) and examiner (“researcher”) in medical research, as well as between the ethnographer and the “ethnographed” in anthropology. The photographs used for this analysis come from ethnographic fieldwork in rural Zinder, Niger on a program striving to eliminate trachoma from the country through the creation of shared representations of the disease.
Medical images influence how individuals understand disease and their own bodies. The ethnographic images from this research document medical researchers performing eye exams and photographing the eyes of individuals in order to make visible a disease that has no perceptible symptoms until its final stages leading to blindness. How do the images produced by the ethnographer contribute to or challenge the representations of the disease and of the research-subjects that are simultaneously being constructed through medical photographs?
The paper questions the role of the image in relation to the “subject of study” from two different perspectives: 1) How does the photographic image evoke notions of truth in the representing illness that is not perceptible without this tool? 2) What is the role of ethnographer/photographer in the co-production and positioning of images showing the relationship between the examined and the examiner? By specifically reflecting upon the visual methods of this fieldwork, I question the “added value” of the image and notions of truth evoked by the visual representation of the ethnographic subject as well as the visual representation of illness.
In addition, this paper brings forth a broader line of inquiry concerning the ethnographer’s influence and position in respect to the medical caregiver-patient (“examiner-examined”) relationship. I investigate the visual image in relationship to research confidentiality and ethics of informed consent as well as, more generally, how medicine constructs its subjects. Finally, I reflect upon aesthetics and emotion in visual ethnography, and how these are engaged to elicit audience responses in social science research, medicine, and public health.
Key words: visual methods, medicine, visibility, public health, photography.