an ethnographer and photographer walk into a bar – creative photography and research

This is a guest post from Shawn Sobers. Shawn is Associate Professor of Lens Media, and teaches in the Photography BA programme, and MA Research Practice at University of the West of England, Bristol. He is a filmmaker, photographer and researcher. His projects range from exploring youth media as a form of creative citizenship, through to using visual practices as ethnographic research tools, focusing on for example the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, and disability walking cultures. He uses participatory methodologies to facilitate public voice.  Shawn co-founded Firstborn Creatives production company in 1999, and has directed programmes for BBC 1, ITV West and Channel 4.

An ethnographer and photographer walk into a bar. The ethnographer observes the room, sits for a while making notes, talks to some of the customers, makes some more notes, observes the room and people some more, makes some more notes, orders a drink, sits on a table with one of their new acquaintances and chats as they drink (making more notes if they can, and maybe takes a photo). The photographer enters the bar, takes some photographs of what and who they see, then orders a drink and sits in the corner alone.

© Humphrey Spender

Obviously this is a gross over generalisation, and any offense is of course intended. I am both a visual ethnographer and creative arts photographer, so the above joke is as much about exaggerated sides of my own self as it is about generalised judgements on entire fields of activity.

I’m interested in how practitioners from different disciplines enter the same space, and engage with that space and its observable life differently, according to their background, training, and worldview.I’m interested in the tensions between the approaches of social scientists, and creative artists. My thoughts about this today were inspired by a recent patter post ‘research as/in everyday life’, which talked about ‘research as a way of being in the world’. ‘Embodied practices’ is something I also think about a great deal. I’d like to take the thread of how different disciplines respond to the same situation, and tug that a little further.

When I read the post, I was struck by a particular scene where Pat observes some musicians immediately putting their fingers in the ears when the p.a. system in a lecture hall started to feedback. When asking them about their reaction, (as the noise was annoying but not overly loud), the musicians tell Pat it’s because they were expecting a loud bang, (which, as musicians, they were sometimes used to hearing as part of their profession), so they were protecting their ears, as obviously they are valuable for their way of life. I thought about how the information about the musicians protecting their ears would have been lost if a photographer had only taken a photo of the scene, without following it up with conversation after the image was taken.

I retweeted the post on the @PhotoGroupUWE page that I administrate and, struggling to articulate myself in 140 characters first thing in the morning. I tried to make a comment about how, as photographers, our inclination would probably be to take a photograph of the scene, but only some photographers would go up and speak to the musicians afterwards to find out more.

This was not a comment on whether Pat took a photograph of the scene or not, but rather entirely the reverse. I was interested in how many of us – photographers – would have engaged in conversation. As a tutor on ‘photography as art’ degree programme, I can fully appreciate how wonderful such a shot might have looked, but also as a practitioner of ethnography, I know that deep interest comes from the information gathered in the background story and the follow up conversation. If I had to make the crude choice, with Sontag’s words ringing in my ears talking about the ubiquity of photography and how photographs ‘thicken the world’, I would have to say I choose the gold from the conversation. I would be content that a photograph was not taken and the scene ‘just’ observed, in order to unearth the real story beyond the scene. I’d embrace that knowledge, enter the musician’s world.

I teach on a general creative arts Photography BA programme, where the emphasis is on image making – some of the students are interested in the ethnographic, sociological, psychological (etc) application of photography, though an equal or greater number are interested in the aesthetics of commercial practice (such as fashion and advertising) and have no inclination to delve into the background story. As a tutor I have to suspend my personal approach and ethos in accordance with the proposals and intentions of the student, and that is fine and the way it should be. I have written elsewhere about my own interest in photographers following up image making with conversation, which is why I was so ready to daydream the addition of a photograph in the interaction with the musicians.

I also recently hosted the inaugural meeting the of the newly formed multidisciplinary Bristol Photography Research Group (to which the above Twitter account represents), where I was talking mainly to photographers who are relatively new to the world of academic research, how their photography (with a capital ‘P’) project ideas can enter the research arena (with a capital ‘R’), which will be slightly different to how they might usually approach their creative projects. It is not the intention of the group to turn photographers into social scientists or vice versa, so flexibility and nuances are key to allow individual practice with a group ethos. In our meeting we discussed some examples to help us think about photography positioned as research;

1.)            PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT AS RESEARCH – conducting a gallery or book context photography project (as they might normally do), though formulating an initial research question and writing the project up afterwards for a journal. Liz Hingley’s ‘Under Gods’ was cited as an example. Hingley produced a very successful touring photography exhibition and book based on diverse religions along one street in Birmingham UK, and subsequently wrote about it for Visual Studies journal. 

2.)            PHOTOGRAPHIC PROCESS EXPERIMENTATION – carry out a specific photographic experiment which tests particular ideas about an aspect of practice as in Canon’s video ‘THE LAB: DECOY – A portrait session with a twist’.

3).            PHOTOGRAPHY A RESEARCH METHOD – using photography as a tool to unearth narrative findings, drawing on social sciences models such as ethnography and photo-elicitation. (for example – Walking Interconnections).

4.)            COLLABORATIVE PHOTOGRAPHIC PRACTICE – Members working on a single site/topic of investigation all approaching it from multiple perspectives according to their own creative and research interest agenda, creating a 360 degree exploration of a single subject.

5.)            PHOTOGRAPHY DIALOGUES – Engaging through the research group’s ‘Photography Dialogues’ where we partner members with an expert from a different field to explore connected interests, (for example, a photographer meeting with an architect).

This list was not to limit possible ways of working, but rather was a starting point for consideration, in the context of a modestly funded group. All of these examples include the need for instances of conversation, and the premise for photographers to reach their heads around the lens, and talk.

The analogy of the photographer hiding behind the lens is well known, with practitioners at the same time being highly visible close to the centre of action, and being made invisible to the photographer by the cloak of the camera, their face pressed to the viewfinder. This is the protective cloak photojournalists live and (tragically) die beneath. The shield can be what has drawn many to the activity in the first places. Of course there are also many photographers who do engage their subjects and talk before and after the shutter has been released; in academic research this is difficult to avoid, whether that be engaging with the subjects themselves, focus groups, audiences of images, or others. Entering the research ‘game’ challenges photographers to work in different ways, most significantly perhaps because of the ‘after-care’ work needed after the photographic exhibition event has been staged, or the book has been published.

When photographers don’t have cameras at easy access, they often instinctively look around them for what would look good photographed, an image maker’s form of daydreaming. For research-active photographers, this form of daydreaming should perhaps evolve to the question What would the photograph say if it could talk?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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