visual research methods in an expanded field: what next for visual research methods?

I gave a keynote address at the International Visual Methods conference in Brighton a couple of weeks ago. I’m not planning to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal (thereby hangs a tale, for another time), so I thought I’d post it here instead. It’s not a polished piece, it’s my notes for the lecture, with a few references, it doesn’t have its accompanying prezi, and it gets rather vague towards its end… but it’s an attempt to provoke some new thinking about visual research methods so may have some usefulness nonetheless.

Its abstract is below; click through at its end to read my notes for the address.

This lecture will review the current state of visual research methods, discussing both methods for interpreting found visual materials and methods that involve the creation of visual materials as data and as means of disseminating research findings. It will suggest that, while creative experimentation continues, several visual research methods have consolidated and are now relatively mainstream, particularly visual ethnographies, image-elicitation interviews and visual participatory research. It will argue that now, to move forward, visual research methods must engage more fully with the range of issues raised by the fact that so much of contemporary everyday visual culture is mediated by software and, often, delivered by digital hardware. What are the implications of selfies and memes, of YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, Flickr and Vine, for visual research methods? The lecture will suggest that image-heavy social media platforms raise three methodological questions for visual research methods: questions of scale, of attentiveness and of pattern. The lecture will explore these and suggest that if images are to continue to be taken as useful tools in understanding social life, this may well require a radical expansion of visual research methods.

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being provoked by an essay on ‘what is 21st century photography’

I commented in passing in my previous post on the freedom that a blogpost offers: to write more loosely and widely than you can in an academic paper.  And along comes an outstanding blog post – well, a blog essay really – that demonstrates that in spades.  The post is Daniel Rubenstein‘s ‘What is 21st Century Photography‘ and it’s on The Photographers’ Gallery website.  It’s racy, provocative, covers several centuries, is stuffed full of quotable aphorisms, and has a clear argument to make.

I think that argument is very interesting.  Its key claim is that:

in a post-Fordist society the locus of political agency and of cultural relevance has shifted from the object – as visually arresting as it might be – to the processes that (re)produce and distribute the object. Processes, however, by their own nature, are less visible and less representational than objects. For that reason, it seems to me that if photography mainly concerns itself with representations of objects in space, it is losing its relevance in a world in which speed, acceleration, distribution and self-replication acquire a significance that overshadows the visual appearance of spaces.

Which leads to probably my favourite line in the whole essay.  If a photograph is now something that is just occasionally assembled from a wave of data that continually shapes all kinds of visual forms – then, says Daniel: “it has little in common with prints in black frames – these coffins of photography”. ‘Coffins’.  Fab.

The post has lots of insights and pleasures then, though I wasn’t sure about the ‘invisible puppet masters’ who are our ‘real rulers’, and I did feel that its recuperation of photography in its very final line – “photography is not a stale sight for sore eyes, but the inquiry into what makes something an image. As such, photography is the most essential task of art in the current time” – was bit of a failure of nerve.  Maybe photography is just past it?

All this interesting provocation is in sharp distinction to what I was going to discuss on this post, which is Nicholas Mirzoeff’s new book on visual culture, modestly called How To See The World.  I was sent this by the publisher so I perhaps shouldn’t look a freebie too directly in the mouth… but.  The book is bit of a mess, I think.  It attempts the sweeping overview but there’s no clear analytical framework, let alone theory, to guide it, and there are also some quite irritating – well, to be frank, just plain wrong – generalisations.  One of which is that images now are all about time. (We know this because an artist made an artwork with lots of clocks in it, apparently.)  As for example Hito Steyerl, and many others, myself included, argue, it is absolutely necessary now to have a sense of the spatiality of (what is better understood as) visual data, as well as its temporality: its form as a swarm, population or wave; its immersivity; its materialisations; and its geometry as a network.  I think one of the difficulties in Mirzoeff’s book is actually that he remains fixed on images as the problematic rather than these sorts of spatialities that articulate their production and circulation and use, so that he flits from place to place, example to example, without thinking about they might (or might not) join up in some way.

But that’s my query to Daniel too: what are the geographies to his account?  Where does the data move, pause and decay?  How is it circulating, and with what effects in different places?  And how are places themselves being reconfigured in this process?

to be invisible or not to be invisible: that is the power. or is it?

I’ve been pondering the rhetoric of ‘invisibility’ that surrounds so much critical discussion of digital technologies, particularly those that intersect with our everyday lives: the software that ‘hides’ behind smartphone screens, for example, or the intangibility of the ‘cloud’ that stores our photos and our contacts, or the invisibility of digital infrastructure. As a both Shannon Mattern and Adam Rothstein have pointed out recently, it’s a rhetoric that’s also used to describe an awful lot of other kinds of infrastructure too at the moment.

Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrasructure Field Guide (2015)

Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrasructure Field Guide (2015)

A number of things niggle me about this.

First, the assumption in a lot of this talk about invisible things is that to be invisible is A Bad Thing. It seems to be assumed that only the powerful hide behind a cloak of secrecy, obscuring their nefarious ways (Rothstein is particularly explicit on this).

Secondly, the rhetoric of invisibility of power implies that the adequate critical response is to make things visible. This creates a politics of revelation, if you like, in which describing something is also to rip away its secrecy and expose the working of the powerful. Algorithms, servers, databases, elites, tax havens, financial trading… all of these must be rendered visible, somehow, brought into the light, and thereby understood, and if that is done then power relations will also be seen for what they are.

Third, the rhetoric of invisibility thus implies that there is only one alternative, which is visibility. It seems to invite a binary positioning in which something is either hidden or seeable. This implies that description is an adequate critical strategy: describe something carefully, bring it out from the shadows, make it visible, will also make it understandable.

Ok, at this point I have to say that this is the sort of writing that the blog post was invented for – I can say these things without needing to reference any specific examples! – and I can also wonder what part the legacy of Latour is playing in all this, with his enthusiasm for description as a research method, again without having to build the citation trail. Still, having started the (most likely) over-generalising, let’s continue.

Because as Shannon’s essay also hints, there are a number of difficulties with this sort of rhetoric.

First, there are different kinds of visibility and invisibility, it seems to me. Sure, there’s the literal/material/physical hiding-behind-some-kind-of-screen kind of invisibility: the unnamed buildings in which high-finance trades, or the military surveills (or refugees hide – see my final point below). But there are also other kinds: material things not visible to the human eye, like wireless signals (has a history been written of the emergence of the the wireless icon, anyone?). And there are also things that are abstractions: commodity value, for example (for an interesting discussion of that kind of invisibility, see Stephen Cunningham’s essay in the Journal of Visual Culture in 2013). This means that making something ‘visible’ is not straightforward. There must be different strategies for it, depending on the kind of invisibility that’s being challenged.

Second, as Shannon and Adam point out, a lot of these things are not in fact ‘invisible’, because an awful lot of (cultural) work is being done to represent them: popular books like Andrew Blum’s Tubes, that describe the internet’s physical infrastructure; the current obsession with algorithms; projects like James Bridle’s recent project Seamless Transitions that used digital visualisation to picture the secret places where UK immigration cases are decided; Timo Arnall’s film Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi; Adrian Mackenzie’s essays on financial trading in the London Review of Books. It seems to me, though, that the criticality being offered of these various projects are not being discussed very much at all, in part because of that prevailing assumption that simply exposing something is enough. But how is something exposed? How is it made visible? What are the effects of different kinds of making visible? And this is not only a question of aesthetic form, it is also a question of how images are seen, displayed, encountered, understood and even – as Shannon remarks – acted upon.

Third, it would of course be possible to argue that equating power with secrecy is a massive red herring because real power lies in full view as the prevailing commonsense. Indeed, ‘power’ can also be exercised in the act of making things visible. Re-reading the first chapter of my book Visual Methodologies earlier this year was an interesting experience in relation to this point: first written in the late 1990s, it has quite a strong line about the importance of seeing to Western and imperialising claims to knowledge (readers of a certain age will remember ‘the god trick’, cited by Rothstein only in order to claim that the artists’ projects he discusses are not guilty of it – or, more accurately, that they say they are not). But obscured buildings and infrastructures are not invisible to the people who work in them; do their views count as Art? And a recent example of the way that making something visible can also be a claim to power was evident in the debates that followed the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, of course.

Finally, even if it is the case that the dynamics of power are hidden, it’s not only the powerful that require invisibility on occasion, as all the debates about online privacy suggest. Ok, so privacy is not quite the same as secrecy. But nonetheless, I seem to recall a powerful argument made by Peggy Phelan at the height of the AIDS crisis about the right not to be visible, the right to not to be seen. How does that relate to the current suspicion about invisibility?

All that is just to say, really, that the visual field is complicated: certainly more complicated than a simple division between that which is visible and good and that which is invisible and bad.

a sneak preview of the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies

I’ve been working on the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies on and off since January, squeezing it in the gaps between way too many other projects. As a result, it’s rather hard to have an overview of the beast (also because I seem to find it impossible to delete any more than a few sentences and a handful of references from each new edition). But I’m now facing the final run-through of the whole thing, when of course it will be lovingly burnished into a seamless whole, cough cough.

So I thought it might be interesting to note down a few of the things that I have learnt so far in preparing this new edition.  More may follow as I reread things I’ve forgotten that I’ve written.  (Yes, yes, I know, I need a holiday.)

1) one big change (for me at least) is that I’ve added a fourth site to the framework that structures the book. Editions one, two and three were based on the idea that there are three sites at which the meaning/affects of images are made: the site of the production of the image, the image itself, and its audiencing. The fourth edition adds the site – or, better, routes – of an image’s circulation to that list. This was so discussion could focus on how different methods might approach the online platforms that now host and distribute so many images, and through which so much of social life is mediated and performed.

2) adding the site of circulation to the book also gives a framework for introducing debates about ‘convergence culture’ and whether it deals with questions of power adequately or not. It seems to me that one way that ‘power’ in a largely digital visual culture can be thought through is by asking about the ‘power geometries’ that structure its circulations: what sorts of patterns are there in those circulations and how to they structure certain forms of agency while mitigating against others? The Guardian’s recent report on the languages of the Internet is a great example of mapping those circulations to show their situatedness and partiality.

3) the book also now has two chapters, not one, about methods that deal with large numbers of images. The first remains content analysis, which now also includes a discussion of Lev Manovich’s cultural analytics. The second is a chapter on digital  research methods, based on Richard Rogers’s definition in his book Digital Methods. Again, this seemed a necessary response to contemporary digital visual culture – how long can we go on looking at handfuls of images when everyday is mediated by thousands?

4) having said that, digital research methods don’t seem to work as tools for analysing the images carried by social networks – yet. It also seems very difficult to track the patterns of images’ digital circulations.

5) the whole data visualisation thing – so popular in newspapers and on coffee tables – doesn’t really seem to have hit the social sciences yet, either as an interesting thing to study or as a way of presenting data. (Though there are some exceptions to this, including lots of exciting mapping projects by geographers – yay GIS. I never ever thought I would be saying that, having been trained as an undergraduate to see GIS as the epitome of postivist, empiricist tech designed at the behest of the US military, but there you go.)

6) visual research methods people continue to swither between claiming photographs are useful because they carry loads of accurate information, and that they are useful because they evoke nameless affects beyond words. I can’t help thinking that there’s bit of a contradiction here, that somebody somewhere should really think through, particularly in the light of Johanna Drucker’s polemic against visually seductive data visualisations… on the other hand, as I argued in my Sociological Review essay, perhaps this indecision doesn’t really matter – images do all sorts of things in contemporary visual culture, including the small corner of it constituted by visual research methods, so I probably really shouldn’t expect consistency.

7) I am still not sure about keeping the chapter on psychoanalysis in the book. While many social researchers remain interested in psychoanalysis (see the recent collection Psychoanalytic Geographies, for example), it no longer has anywhere near the sway that it had in film studies scholarship twenty years ago, I think. So it seems to have lost some relevance as a method of analysis. On the other hand, it’s the only chapter in the book that systematically pursues feminist insights, and a version of Mulvey’s male gaze actually seems central to the recent resurgence in popular feminism. Plus, why follow fashion. Any thoughts, dear readers?

How to be an academic on social media


There’s an interesting discussion here on blogging, between Sam Kinsley and Jeremy Crampton. I’d add to Sam’s list of reasons to blog, the ability to respond quickly to current events. And I fully agree with Jeremy that twitter is where things seemed to be shared most effectively.  Clive Barnett has also responded, on his blog, here.

Originally posted on Open Geography:

Sam Kinsley has been compiling (academic) geography bloggers, and in a recent post asked why it is that blogs don’t take advantage of social media more often:

It was a surprise to me how quite a few of those blogs, with some honourable exceptions, are tightly focussed conduits for personal research and are not participating in wider online/offline conversations. One of the big claims made for blogging in the noughties was, of course, that ‘social’ media precisely enable broader conversations. While the majority of those active geography bloggers I found use for their blogs they do not seem to use the ‘social’  functions such as ‘reblog’ and other conversation tools on the platform.

My immediate reaction to this is as follows. First, I do occasionally use the reblog function. This works very well within the WordPress ecosystem, but have you noticed how infrequently this option comes up on blogs or news stories…

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Mad Max and its feminist fans

Of the many reasons to be grateful for the journalist Laurie Penny, her review of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road now ranks pretty high for me.  Thankyou Laurie – and Jessica Valenti – for tipping the guilty pleasure of the film much more towards the pleasure than the guilt, by writing fantastic reviews that suggest it’s a really feminist movie.  There’s also a great Tumblr site giving Max new lines, all feminist-y too.


The bit I would add to support this reading of the film is when Max sees the five scantily-clad women escaping the mad patriarch washing themselves in the desert haze – I know, I know, but bear with me – whereupon he kind of blinks, like this is a totally stupid hallucination (like his others), entirely irrelevant to the task at hand, which is dealing with the woman who’s engineered their escape.  He doesn’t ogle, doesn’t look, doesn’t even think such a vision can be real.  Woo hoo.  (Unfortunately, not all viewers may share my interpretation of this scene; my 17 year old son among them, who pointed to it as evidence that the film was indeed sexist.)

Ultimately, though, the burning Mad Max question is: how does a professor get to be listed in a Mad Max film credits?!  I swear I saw two profs thanked as the credits rolled.  Who are they, what did do they do to get thanked, and (depending on the answers), can I do it too please?

interesting project website on selfies

Thanks to my colleague Rose Capdevila, I’ve just spent a while browsing a site called making selfies/making self, which is both a research project about selfies and about a research project on selfies.  If you see what I mean.


Created by Katie Warfield, it’s an interesting mix. There’s some information about the research project, an online quiz enabling participation in the research, a gallery of images that might be related to selfies (according to the internet, as Katie describes it), links to talks Katie’s done, and links to other networks, including the Selfie Research Network and a Zotero library on selfies.  Katie also curates a related Tumblr feed.  Seems to me to be a really neat example of how to do a research project online, which is both open – sharing resources, inviting comments and contributions – but also offering a scholar’s particular take on an issue.