Tag Archives: photograph

Scholarly Interventions

I’m so lucky to have such brilliant advisers! I submitted a draft of the literature review section of my prospectus to get some preliminary ideas, and she provided this feedback:

My overall question is whether you want to make the method (visual ethnography) your primary scholarly intervention, or whether it is just one of your interventions. I guess I am thinking ahead to a potential book project, in which case the main topic would likely be Lyme and the method (visual rhetoric and visual ethnography) the tool you use to help us understand Lyme disease better as a rhetorical phenomenon, specifically with relation to the issue of diagnosis and definition of the condition itself. How are diagnoses shaped rhetorically, especially in our current context, where health is increasingly digitized, public, popular–not just narrowly medical or scientific. In other words, diagnoses and definitions of conditions like Lyme are shaped by these various networks, not just by what scientists write in a medical journal. More specifically, images and other kinds of visual rhetoric play a key role, and these circulate through that network in different ways. Thus the question becomes how a visual analysis (using traditional rhetoric but also elements of visual ethnography) can help to elucidate that network.


The second question (and one to think about as you go forward) is whether you’d want to confine the ethnography part to auto-ethnography (and maybe also analysis of other “auto-ethnographic” images people post to blogs or forums), or if you want to do a full-scale study with IRB, recruitment, etc. I think both would be possible but the latter would be a bigger undertaking and might also require more time. Something to ask the committee!

I had a very difficult time putting together the partial prospectus draft because I thought that I could only make one major intervention and I wasn’t sure what I wanted that to be. Thankfully, it sounds like I can make multiple interventions! (Though perhaps this is one of those cases where it is better to do one thing well than half-ass three or four things?) I am trying to think about the prospectus and dissertation as a prospectus and dissertation,–i.e. NOT a book–because I think that the stress of of writing a “book” vs. a “dissertation” will become overwhelming. We’ll see how it goes?

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Visual Ethnography and Health

I came upon “Visual Ethnography: Tools for Mapping the AIDS Epidemic,” a 1990 article by Eric Margolis (who is quite famous for his visual ethnography work). This article is helping me “join the conversation” about visual ethnography as a method for studying health issues. Interestingly, Margolis was ahead of his time. In the wake of the recent digital humanities tide (manta: “put a map on it!”), Margolis situates mapping illness as an important way to figure out where health issues exist and the best means to treat them. He also describes image making rhetorically. He argues, “Skepticism that statistics do not tell the whole truth actually makes it possible for us to interpret quantitative data. In a similar vein, being aware that visual images distort and misrepresent reality can help us to define an appropriate role for the use of nonverbal images in qualitative studies” (371). Later, he adds that visuals can “mislead differently” than language (and I assume he’s talking about print texts?) (374). Margolis helpfully traces the history of the incorporation of photographs into sociology and ethnography; he also distinguishes this from photojournalism. (Note: one of this first and most famous uses of photograph in anthropology dates back to Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s study of Bali). Regarding issues of health, Margolis argues that photographs “convey a human scales that is missing in volumes of words and statistics” and that they “have the potential to not just illustrate but illuminate; social processes, events, relationships, and meanings can be discovered in photographs and graphic images” (374). As a case study, he analyzes the work of a San Francisco-based health outreach group, which aims to stop the spread of AIDS by tracking it ethnographically and then working in those areas to prevent transmission (375). What’s not so great about this work is that Margolis seems to unreflexively incorporate image of individuals who are part of multiple marginalized groups without any regard for the individuals themselves. For instance, there is a picture of “prostitutes” receiving condoms from a health worker and a “transvestite” sitting on a car. Margolis does not talk about how these images were solicited, if people gave permission to be photographed, what the people in the photographs thought of the photographs, etc.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other texts to fill in the gaps. A 2015 review article about participant photography as a research method in nursing studies by Balmer, Griffiths, and Dunn lays out how researches might plan, create and interpret photographic data, ethical and legal considers, and impact on research. Other recent texts, such as Melvin Delgado’s Urban Youth and Photovice: Visual Ethnography in Action (2015) as well as

Some texts, including Urban Youth and Photovoice and Switza et al., “Visualizing harm reduction: Methodological and ethical considerations” (2015), focus on photovoice. I’m not sure how different photovoice vs. photo elicitation vs. photo production stories vs. visual ethnography are the same or if they are actually separate methods. I’m grateful that Switza et al. has a lengthy literature review about photo methods in health research and points me to Collier (1957) and Harper (2002) to learn about photo elicitation and Wang (1999) and Wang and Burris (1997)  and Wang et al. (2004) to learn about photovoice. A few studies (such as Morrison and Thomas 2015 and Bukhave and Huniche 2015) focus on work and occupation, which usefully intersects with my health humanities research. Others highlight literacy (Wargo 2015).  Apparently these methods fall under “arts-based research,” which is interesting to me because I originally approached my investigation from a narrative-based research perspective.

I’m excited to see what comes of this…but for now I have to go eat dinner because I am getting cranky.

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Looking at Lyme

Once my eyes focused on these long snake-like organisms, I recognized what I had seen a million times before: spirochetes.

–Willy Burgdorfer, 2001

Before I submit the SSRC DPDF on Thursday, I need to do enough background research to figure out how/why Lyme Disease visuals are important to study. Ultimately, I need to figure out what the history of these images are and how and why they have been so widely circulated in order to frame my application. However, this is turning out to be more difficult than I’ve anticipated. I’ve been playing around on the internet (i.e. researching) for last hour and a half, and here’s where my web travels have taken me:

  • Google Ngram. It appears that the phrase, “Lyme Disease,” was first used in 1962, but I couldn’t figure out how to make Ngram provide a list of publications from oldest to most recent. (Or they just couldn’t list the publications from the 1960s?) The earliest things that came up were from the 1980s.
  • Google Images. A bunch of categories come up for in a Lyme Disease search: rash, dogs, symptoms, bacteria, tick, and awareness. Looking at pictures of ticks on people’s skin (particularly fingertips) was making me nauseous. How my mother earned a master’s degree in entomology is beyond me. I’m not normally grossed out by bugs (re: entomologist mother), but for some reason, the images of ticks were turning my stomach. Interestingly, this reaction is challenging my earlier claim that typical Lyme Disease pictures are rhetorically ineffective. If an image is making me nauseous, it means that it’s doing something. I’m just not sure what yet.
  • Twitter. I love using Twitter to see what people are posting about Lyme (and everything else in the universe), and I was pleased to find a few new popular articles about Lyme via the #lymedisease hashtag. I also investigated the #lymediseasechallenge hashtag and campaign, which elicited many photos (though not as many as you’d think) of people biting into limes and making puckering faces. A lot of the Lyme Disease advocacy/support groups had posted infographics (without visual data, though, so they were really just informational graphics) with a few facts about Lyme and other things that connect to Lyme. It was interesting to see how Lyme is connected to other spirochete-based diseases like syphilis and that advocacy groups compared the numbers of people diagnosed with Lyme Disease to that of HIV/AIDS, colon cancer, breast cancer, and more. My favorite, of course, were the graphics about how one might prevent Lyme Disease: wearing long sleeved shirts when out in grassy areas, checking for ticks, etc. These remind me of the ineffective campaigns about preventing rape via making at-risk groups responsible for preventing rape. Vomit. It is peculiar that Lyme advocates have taken up a similar campaign–could this be considered a kind of topos?
  • Google Scholar. Again, I was trying to pull up the earliest articles (in date order) using the phrase “Lyme Disease” and “Lyme borreliosis,” as well as a few other variations with and without quotation marks, but the publications only seemed to date back to the 1980s. I eventually realized that it would be helpful to figure out who discovered Lyme Disease and to see what this person/team published on it…and if they included any visuals! This led me to the obituary of medical entomologist Willy Burgdorfer in The Lancet (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60011-3/fulltext?rss%3Dyes). With his team from the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, he looked at ticks from Long Island that were suspected to have Rocky Mountain Fever. Apparently, his main contribution is that he figured out that Lyme Disease was cause by spirochetes (bacteria in a spiral shape), which helped scientists and doctors figure out how to test for it, treat it, and, for a time, vaccinate people against it. Note: This visual discovery has circulated through popular culture, and some people like me even have Lyme spirochete toys – http://www.amazon.com/GIANTmicrobes-Disease-Borrelia-Burgdorferi-Microbe/dp/B000NO9HK2. (Thank you, Emi!)

All of this led me to the journal, Science, where Burgdorfer’s team first published about their Lyme Disease discovery. “Lyme Disease” is first mentioned in the journal, which was then called Science News, in Vol. 113, No. 23 (Jun. 10, 1978), p. 375. The 318 word report discusses the discovery of the first-ever “insect-carried arthritis,” which the researchers call “Lyme Arthritis” after its discovery in Lyme, CT. Interestingly, the reports claims that this condition is most common in children, which is still true according to the CDC, and that most affected individuals life in wooded areas in the north east U.S. The report also claims that scientists suspect that it is a tick-borne illness because the accompanying rash is similar to rashes related to tick-borne disease in Europe. No visual accompany the report.

The groundbreaking Burgdorfer article (written by Willy Burgdorfer, Alan G. Barbour, Stanley F. Hayes, Jorge L. Benach, Edgar Grunwaldt and Jeffrey P. Davis) was published in Vol. 216, No. 4552 (Jun. 18, 1982), pp. 1317-1319 in Science New Series. I’ve included screenshots of the images for your viewing pleasure:


VIsual 1: Spirochetes in Tick Vectors


Visual 2: Spirochetes in an electron micrograph. Not sure what that is, so I guess I should look it up.

We’ll see where all of this goes?

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Entering New Territory: Picturing Lyme Disease

So here’s the thing: things are changing. A simple Q&A format clarifies everything and nothing:

Q: What’s the most fun part about research?

A: Things are constantly evolving and you never know where you’re going to end up next!

Q: What’s the most frustrating/scary/difficult part of research?

A: Things are constantly evolving and you never know where you’re going to end up next!

We might say that research is a process that is both recursive and reflexive…which reveals new things as it goes along. When you think you’ve already picked a good topic, found good sites/archives for research, and developed your main claims,this can be rather annoying. I’m currently working my way through this phase; it’s kind of like the denial, bargaining, and other stages of grief. I am frustrated because I know both that my original idea–to study the rhetoric of Lyme Disease–was good, but that my new plan–to study the visual rhetoric of Lyme Disease–is significantly  more compelling.

Thanks to my brilliant #TeamRhetoric Writing Group colleagues, especially Jason and Jen, it has become clear that I should shift my project about the rhetoric of Lyme Disease to focus on visual rhetoric/images specifically. Why this change? I’ve learned a lot about the rhetoric of Lyme Disease in recent history, and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have been particularly unimpressed with the images of Lyme that regularly circulate in popular culture. Photos of ticks and drawings of EM rashes? Maps of where Lyme is located geographically? B-O-R-I-N-G. Not compelling (i.e. seemingly not adding to any particular arguments and appearing to merely take up space at the tops of Washington Post articles). So underwhelming that I started taking photographs of my knees to document my own embodied experiences with Lyme for the fun of it. (See the right side of this blog for a link to some of my selfies). AND YET these underwhelming images are likely a subtle key to the contentious arguments about Lyme Disease–as it exists and as it is imagined.

Evolving questions include:

  • What does Lyme Disease look like?
  • Who circulates images of Lyme Disease?
  • What does the circulation network look like?
    • How do Lyme Disease health-seekers/patients envision their connection to Lyme? How do they document their experiences of Lyme, if at all?
    • How do clinicians who treat Lyme Disease and researchers who do experiments to learn more about Lyme Disease *see* it–in the lab, in the treatment center, in the exam room?
  • How do these images circulate?
  • What is the history of images of Lyme Disease?

and of course…how do Lyme Disease visuals function rhetorically? How might images/visuals be effective argumentative tools for presenting new ideas/shifting the focusing/reevaluating the stakes of Lyme Disease?

At the moment, I’m thinking through a few major concerns:

  • Is it possible to do a visual project from/with great attention to a disability studies perspective?
  • I don’t know nearly enough about visual rhetoric.
  • How can I ensure that this will be an explicitly feminist and explicitly intersectional project?

But what I do know is this:

  • Qualitative researchers in the health sciences have reported that visual research methods can reveal new and exciting things about health and medical behaviors and practices, particularly about gender.
  • Scholars in the rhetoric of  health and  medicine haven’t often taken up visuals as a) research methods, or b) objects of analysis. A recent special issue of Communication Design Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Special Interest Group for Design of Communication, focused on rhetorics of health and medicine and prompted me to think about designs as visuals….(?)
    • “The essays included here explicitly and implicitly point to different ways that ideas, texts, methods, practices, and technologies work in a variety of healthcare contexts, and more importantly, how that information is designed. The essays also bridge theory to practice.” (Frost and Meloncon 9)
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