THE MEANING OF MOVING 6 - VISUAL MOBILITIES RESEARCH

Last modified: 23.04.2013

I want to address the issue of photography as mobile method and reflect a bit on the ‘visual turn’ within social science and mobilities research (I will write about photos only even though much more could be said about video and camera surveillance). The reason why this occupies me now is partly that I had the opportunity to co-organize a lecture on the usage of photos in American cultural analysis with my colleague Lars Brorson Fich. Under the title ‘Photo and research’ we presented the work of Steven Shore, William Egglestone and Lee Friedlander, and their attempts to explore American society through various forms of travel and journey. We tried to connect these photographers to the current discussion in mobilities research about mobile methods and mobile ethnography. As I am no expert on these photographers my luck was that Lars is a very skilled photographer who has exhibited his works at a number of curated photographic exhibitions (as a matter of fact the presentation was organized under the local photographic society in Aalborg). From this experience I started to reflect upon the fact that I have been collecting images and taken picture for very long. Obviously I did this as a tourist (some would argue that this is an almost defining characteristics of being a tourist) but also to collect material for teaching and nice photos for power point presentations. Actually, my kids mocked me for years with remarks like ‘Oh, dad there’s a traffic sign … aren’t you going to take a picture?!’ Even some of my ‘friends’ started sending me pictures of road signs and similar as a badly hidden recognition of me being an urban photo nerd. So living in a visual culture like the contemporary and being an urban scholar and mobilities researcher almost calls for also being a photographer (of sorts). And I have, like I am sure you do, a large archive with all sorts of urban street photos to back-up my papers and presentations. However, I have never explored the photo medium as a more systematic mobile method. So what set me on to this was partly the presentation on the American photographers mentioned above. But of course I knew about what we may call the ‘visual turn’ in social science and I have read bits of Susan Sontag with her critique of images in a culture of visual hegemony (which today is echoed in the writings of the architect Juhani Pallasmaa) and Sarah Pink’s work on ‘visual anthropology’ – or even Erving Goffman’s book on ‘gender advertisement’ to mention but a few. Needless to say, there is a lot to the critique of visual hegemony and the dominance of one sense (the visual) over the rest. As argued quite substantially in my book ‘Staging Mobilties’ (see chapter 5) the mobile experience is an embodied performance – we are doing mobilities, with our body and all our senses. So I am not arguing that photos will give us the full picture (sorry!), but I think we could cultivate photography as a much more systematic dimension of mobilities research and as a mobile method.

After the reflections and discussions related to our American photographers presentation I started to think about what I already knew of literature and how this might connect. The key work I thought of was the book ‘Discourse in Place’ by Ron and Sue Scollon (Routledge 2003). In this book the authors present a new method and analytical discipline for ‘reading the material environment’ namely what they term ‘geosemiotics’. As the term suggests this means taking point of departure in the notion of semiotics as well as adding the point that any sign (from these letters to road signs) only mean what they mean due to their physical and material placement in the world (hence the prefix ‘geo’). Now, I have worked with geosemiotics and given courses in it (as well as had the authors of the book giving presentations in our urban design program) but only after starting to think about photography as a more systematic field method in mobilities research I started to see the bigger picture. So I think geosemiotics is a useful platform for thinking about why photos are such a rich and important tool in mobilities research. My ‘library’ on urban photography is very small and here I shall only refer to two books that I am exploring at the moment and that I think are fine pointers and starters. The first is the book ‘Visual Sociology’ by Douglas Harper (Routledge, 2012). Even though this is not an urban sociology (or even mobilities research) text, the illustrations and examples points this way for sure. I particularly like the section on ‘teaching visual sociology’ since you really need to reflect and know what you are doing if you want to teach a field. The book is a brilliant and sociologically well-informed kick-start to begin taking photos on a more reflective level. The second book I want to mention is in the more popular genre. In the book ‘The New Street Photographer’s Manifesto’ (Ilex Press, 2012) author Tanya Nagar explains the discipline of ‘street photography’. Actually I think this is what most of us urban scholars are doing and have been doing for long. But the key point about ‘street’ is that you capture the moment and the mobile situation on the fly. Moreover, Nagar’s point is that anyone with any form of equipment can do ‘street’. You may use a cell phone or a large digital camera, the real issue is your visual imagination and ability to ‘capture the moment’. But the best thing about the book is the ‘showcase’ section where very experienced and skilled street photographers present and explain their ‘best shots’. This section is for learning and inspiration for sure!!

In terms of a more academically informed and much deeper level of reflection than what I could offer here I would recommend you to consult the work of Jonas Larsen (the co-author of The Tourist Gaze 3.0 with John Urry) who has been working on developing the photographic dimension of mobilities research over many years now. Take a look at Jonas’ web site to find some of the many relevant publications here: http://forskning.ruc.dk/site/person/jonaslar

Personally I would like to develop more insight as well as practice into street/mobile photography and I am thinking about how to include this into the courses I am teaching in mobilities. But for now I guess there is only one thing to do; get my camera and go out there …

See you out on the street!