I’ve just read the latest posting on my Open University colleague Clive Barnett’s blog. The blog is called Pop Theory and it’s great, basically. Read it!
What caught my attention this evening was Clive’s neat dissection of a widespread assumption in a bit of influential human geography theory: that visual methods are somehow better at capturing/evoking/indicating the affective/nonrepresentational/ineffable. This assumption has taken hold well beyond the small corner of human geography that Clive is focussing on, in fact. A lot of discussion of visual methods are based on the claim that if people being researched are given a camera and told to photograph what matters to them, the photographs produced will somehow avoid the pitfalls of the ‘representational’ that dog talk.
I’ve always thought this was a very dodgy assumption. It’s always seemed to me to be pretty obvious that photographs, of course, can be put to work to show the affective/ineffable; but they can also be put to work to make rigorous arguments, celebrate a birthday or describe cell structures. They don’t inherently show anything in any particular way. Conversely, talk and written text can be extraordinarily powerful in evoking the affective/ineffable, as well as making rigorous arguments, celebrating a birthday and describing cell structures.
Clive says, “the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to).” Images still need interpretation if they are to communicate something. This is true of all photos, for example: family photos have the family talk; art photos have their critical texts; pictures of the ineffable have affect theory, to make them show some things and not others.
I’d also like to elaborate on another of Clive’s points. Specifically, why, in order to avoid the representational, are cameras so popular in visual research methods? (Maps, for example, or scatter diagrams, never seem to feature in discussions of the affinity of ‘the’ visual with ‘the nonrepresentational’.) I wonder if it’s because making photographs is seen as both easy and popular. Indeed, I wonder if making photographs is seen as easy because it’s so popular. Which leads me on to one of the most irritating things about current discussions of visual methods: which is that they pay very little attention to the skills and savvy that research participants might bring to the method. Participants are asked to draw maps and take photographs and make films as if they had never opened an A to Z, seen a family snap or been to the movies. This uninterest in the visual skills of research participants might be understood, then as another example of what Clive describes as “the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days”.
Now, in fact a lot of visual research methods use photographs as ways of generating informants’ talk – talk about pretty much anything, in fact, which is rather different from the particular body of work that Clive is criticising. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which visual research methods are being defended as being able to get more and better data for analysis by researchers, while too little attention is being given to the ways in which research participants themselves might use visual images for all sorts of effects, including creating articulate knowledge as well as inefffable emotion. Perhaps a little more attention to the fact that social scientists are not the only ones creating diverse understandings of ‘the social’ might not go amiss.