Several of the presentations in the morning panels I attended at the IVSA conference focused on the issues surrounding visibility of the researcher to the participants in their research or photographs and the ethics surrounding that. There were also discussions of the partiality of representation of subjects by the way the lens frames them. This image seemed to draw together both of these concerns through the partial representation (and anonymity) of the subjects of the photo and their relation to the shadows of myself and two other photographers.
Ok, I’ll admit, the title to this post is plagiarised from part of a talk by Les Back on ‘What is Digital Sociology?’ at the recent BSA Digital Sociology event of the same name. I am, however, pulling it into a wider context because I think it is also the answer to what is Visual Sociology? And what is public sociology? My three main areas of exploration at the moment.
At the recent IVSA conference, Michael Guggenheim stated that he felt the goal of Visual Sociology should be to eradicate the discipline and personally, I think this should be the goal of all three of these areas as in each case I think that they are all central to the discipline. I will address the visual and the digital first and then turn to the issue of Public Sociology.
Both Visual Sociology and Digital Sociology are seen as relatively young disciplines within the field of Sociology, moving the boundaries of traditional interview, survey or ethnographic based approaches and introducing new way of representation and analysis to the field. As such, it is right that they are considered as disciplines to enable academics with interest in innovate developments within new ways of imagining and understanding the social. What these disciplines should not become, however, is silos which are viewed as the only legitimate place for the visual or the digital respectively. As Noortje Marres eluded to in her talk, in the modern world the digital is the social. In a world of social networks are social worlds are intrinsically linked with our digital lives. I would also argue that it is the same for the visual, in a world of camera phones, digital photography and visual culture that pervades every moment of our lives, the visual is also a central element to the social. From this perspective, to truly understand any social issue, attention needs to be paid to the visual and the digital.
How Public Sociology fits into this discussion may at first seem questionable but I would argue they are all linked in many ways. Firstly because I feel that all Sociology should be accessible to much wider publics than it currently is but more than that, I think using digital and visual methods is one way to capture the sociological imaginations of those publics. As academics, we are used to reading large volumes of text but this is something that would not be considered by the publics that we are trying to reach. The visual, through moving and still images and the digital are ways in which research can be presented in a form that seems less onerous to access and therefore may engage wider publics. If all research engaged those publics, then wouldn’t the answer to ‘What is Sociology?’ Also be ‘it’s Sociology, stupid?’
I owe much of the argument in this post to the provocation by Michael Guggenheim at the IVSA conference at Goldsmiths on 9th July 2013 and to Les Back for his paper on Real-time research at the BSA ‘What is Digital Sociology?’ Event on 16th July 2013.
Goffman talks about presentation of self and the way individuals act in public and private. The Southbank is the prime example of a site of performance and I found that a series of images I captured highlighted the performative nature of human interaction. Some of these are clearly identifiable as performances, some are more hidden in the performance of the everyday practices of living within urban spaces.
As the walk continued along the South bank, we decided to move from the more familiar path onto the beach that is unveiled with the tide. Sitting on the glistening peddles was a badge adorned with the words ‘it’s my birthday’. When I looked up from the trinket that had captured my eye, I noticed a figure on the end of the jetty that was staring into space deep in thought. This made me think of the fleeting moments of celebration and occasions that such objects symbolise and the impact they have upon our thoughts and feelings regarding the passing of time and the ageing process.
This is the first in a series of posts sharing some of the images I took during the photo walk with Paul Halliday, organised as part of the IVSA 2013 conference, I happened upon a young man dressed all in black sporting tussled locks of blond hair who was tagging walls with graffiti. The poignance of the words ‘As easy as being born’ did not pass me by, having taken a journey from south London streets around New Cross into the south bank where many bars and restaurants are beyond the means of many of the residents of the capital yet their patrons take them for granted. For me, this image typified the groaning urban inequalities of London.
It seems an ideal time to pull together my thoughts on Visual Sociology and how it differs from documentary photography and photojournalism. Next week is the 2013 IVSA conference at Goldsmiths and I am excited to be attending one of the days. Happily, this also coincides with the publication of my first pieces of ‘visual sociology’. The visual has always interested me and my background in design, photography and graphics has built up a keen interest in where the boundaries of my sociological interests and artistic interests meet.
A question posed by one of the editors about my initial submission for the Call for papers when I first submitted my image ‘Occupy and resist’ got me considering then an image becomes Sociology and when it is not. Harper (2012) and Becker (2007) both have some interesting commentary on this and essentially agree on several points. There is a close relation between photojournalism, documentary photography and visual sociology but there are some features that can help identify the boundaries. Like any cultural object, Becker proposes that the context is key to to understanding the intended meaning of an image and I would like to propose a framework which, helps make the boundaries more distinct.
Photojournalism – Capturing an image. Freezing a moment in time that can be easily read by a viewer. Often accompanied by little in terms of written explanation.
Documentary Photography – Recording a subject, a world or a culture through systematic exploration. Usually accompanied by descriptive texts describing what was seen or experienced by the photographer.
Visual Sociology – Understanding and explaining the image. Visual Sociology takes the written explanation beyond the descriptive and into the analytical.
Inevitably, there are always exceptions to a rule and things are never this clear-cut but hopefully this summary can provide a framework within which to begin to explore the ideas further. It is not to say that an image must sit within one or the other ad infinitum. Becker examines Harper’s images of tramps within his chapter and goes into greater depth about how the images could be considered in all there categories but how essentially, the framework I have outlined in terms of their presentation and context determines which way they would be classified.
Becker, H.S. (2007) Telling About Society, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press
Harper, D. (2012) Visual Sociology, Abingdon, Routledge
- Visual Sociology (jonrainford.wordpress.com)