Taking Photos as an Ethnographer, By Charlotte Millar

The place I want to photograph is filled with students. But the people there are unwelcoming. They are clearly busy with their work. I tried to take a photo of the bulletin board without distracting them, but when I looked at the picture I realized I had captured two girls. One was glaring directly into the camera. She seemed unhappy that I had disturbed her silent work and maybe felt I had violated their study space with my intrusive presence. My attempt to avoid causing a distraction clearly did not work. It is impossible in a space silent enough to hear my own footsteps not to be noticed.

In a space as competitive as Bahen it is clear that as an outsider, my lack of knowledge of the space and the study-culture of the space rendered me both a distraction and an irritation. The look captured by my camera demonstrates the level of irritation caused. There is no mistaking it for curiosity. 

On the northern side of Bahen, my distraction met with a different response. As I leaned over the railing of the third floor to capture a photo of the entrance of the building, I distracted the people behind me. I overheard their conversation which spoke of suicide. I knew immediately that my understanding of the dark history of Bahen was well known by the student body occupying the halls.

I thought these two interactions I was met with while photographing Bahen were strong tells of the environment of competitiveness and harsh side effects on mental health. First, my distraction caused irritation by limiting students from being able to study as efficiently as they would have been had I not stumbled into their study area. This was an accurate indicator of the program’s competitiveness, with students spending their entire time studying.

My second distraction sparked a conversation of suicides in the past. Perhaps it was because of the recent articles declaring the building unsafe and requiring preventative additions to be made. Maybe the students thought I was documenting the unsafe parts of the building. Or perhaps this ledge is so famous that suicide is the only thing that marks the Halls. Regardless, being in a space can illuminate as much about a student’s culture as speaking to someone.