the production, composition, audiencing – and circulation – of images

I’ve been spending the first few weeks of this year thinking about how to revise my book on Visual Methodologies for its fourth edition.  Among other things, I’ve been thinking about what difference digital technologies – as both topic and tool – are making to its arguments.  And I’ve decided on at least one significant change for the fourth edition: the three sites through which the book organises its discussion of visual methods are now four.  The site of ‘circulation’ has been added to the sites of the production of an image, the image itself, the site(s) of its audiencing.  ‘Circulation’ is intended to emphasise that all images, to some extent or another, travel.  Images are mobile, and how they travel matters to what effects they have.

This isn’t an insight created by the development in the past few years of massive, extended social networking sites that now carry vast numbers of images between all sorts of different screens.  In fact, the keyword that I’ve attached to it in the book is the idea of a “visual economy”, which comes from anthropologist Deborah Poole‘s book on the way images travelled between the Andes and Europe between the seventeenth and the early twentieth century.

However, I do think that there are some methodological issues involved in looking at – or even thinking about – those huge hoards of online images that require an emphasis on their circulation.  I think it’s important that we pay attention to the work that goes into enabling that circulation, for example, in the workplaces where the labour is done to make those platforms feel so easy to use: the coders and the checkers, the servers and the cables.  Also, images on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook aren’t stored in some ginormous virtual contact sheet, and not every image has an equal chance of appearing on a Google Images search result screen.  Instead, how those images get seen is shaped by algorithmic patterns.  Search results are shaped by your previous searches, by your location, by what other people are also searching; and what you see on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat also depends on your social network.  I think we need to figure out methods that can show us, somehow, the patterns and processes through which those image collections are structured, just as twenty years ago Foucauldian historians like John Tagg and Alan Sekula showed us how filing systems and labels organised earlier forms of photography archives.

This is a problem with Lev Manovich‘s cultural analytics, I think: it engages with the huge numbers but does so by adding them all up, and creating collages of the total.  This shows us some interesting things – what Tokyo looks like in 50,000 Instagram images is provocative in terms of thinking about what a photograph now is, I think – but it doesn’t engage with the uneven distributions that shape the circulation of social media images at all.

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter).

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter). from

I don’t know where methods might be emerging from that could do that, or what they might look like, though – so please post a comment below if you do!

visual methods news: a conference and online training

I’m very pleased to announce that the webpage for three online modules offering advanced training in Image Elicitation Methods, hosted by The Open University and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is now live.  Bookmark it because the teaching team – myself, Helen Lomax and Nick Mahony – will be updating it regularly with information about module content and  how to register.

The first module is on using image-elicitation methods when working with vulnerable participants, and will be offered in February 2015, with registration for that one opening in early January next year.  The second one is called ‘complicating the rhetoric of participation’, and puts the contemporary emphasis on participation in a wider, political and cultural context; that will run in April.  And in June, the third and final module looks at the future of image-elicitation methods in the context of digital visual culture.


And in more exciting, visual-methods-related news, details about the fourth International Visual Methods conference have just been announced.  It will be held at the University of Brighton on 16-18 September 2015, and the webpage is here.  The deadline for panel proposals is 16 January 2015, and for papers the deadline is 30 January 2015.

2014 ESRC research methods festival highlights visual research methods again

Interesting to note that the sixth ESRC Research Methods Festival, which runs between 8-10 July 2014 in Oxford, is once again featuring visual research methods in one of its plenary lectures.  Douglas Harper is Professor of Sociology at Duquesne University and is the current chair of the International Visual Sociology Association – and, of course, the author of several key texts on visual research methods.

on the trickiness of seeing places

I gave a talk at the final meeting of the Nordic Research Network in Digital Visuality last week, thanks to a kind invitation from Karin Becker.  It was a great workshop, full of interesting presentations.

I particularly enjoyed catching up with the work of Robert Willim, an Associate Professor of Ethnology at Lund University in Sweden.  Also a musician and a filmmaker; his Vimeo channel is here, and he discusses the link between his academic and art work here.

I first came across his video series Elsewhereness when he presented a new part at the Visual Methods conference at The Open University in 2011.  He describes Elsewhereness on his website like this:

The works are made solely from audio and videomaterial found on the web, material that emanate from a specific place. The audiovisual pieces are manipulated and composed into a surreal journey through an estranged landscape. The films are based on the culturally bound and stereotypical preconceptions of the artists.

They were a nice play on the idea that site-specific artwork has to be based on a first-hand, intimate – and therefore somehow more authentic – encounter with a place.  He discusses them in the book Anthropology and Art Practice, which came out last year from Bloomsbury.

At the NRNDV workshop, he screened three more recent pieces, all of which again explore the complexity of perception, particularly visual perception.  My favourite was called Fieldnotes, a really beautiful encounter with the otherness of a shrouded, billowing building which also suggest the difficulty of grasping what is being seen.  The effect of the video is considerably enhanced by the music, which to my (non-musical) ear sounds as if it is also trying to avoid any neat tune-making structure.

(I also liked the joke of calling another video Straight Jetty, as opposed, of course, to Spiral Jetty.)

Unlike so many films and videos that are made by academic researchers, these short pieces don’t aim to show, reveal or describe.  Instead, they meditate on the difficulty of doing those things, complicating the aural and visual fields, evoking and provoking.  Lovely.

the methods of Visible Mending

I’ve just been browsing through the book Visible Mending: Everyday Repairs in the South West by Steven Bond, Caitlin DeSilvey and James Ryan.  It was published by Uniformbooks earlier this year and is the result of a research project exploring workplaces in the south west of England where people repair things.


The book is beautifully designed and produced and full of Steven Bond’s fantastic photographs, which linger on the objects and spaces and light of the workplaces the research team visited.  As Caitlin and James say in their essay that concludes the book, the photographs really do focus attention on the richly textured materialities of these places, and suggest the intimate relations between them and the people who work there, even though very few of the photographs picture people.

That concluding essay is also ponders nicely on the use of photographs in the research project: how they were taken and what was done with them.  I particularly like the reflection on the materiality of the photographs in the exhibitions that Steven, Caitlin and James curated.  They note that the photos seemed to sort themselves into thematic groups, and the researchers went with that clustering, and also decided to print the photos on small metal sheets that could be picked up from the tiny shelves on which they rested in the gallery and held and explored (how does a photo get printed on to aluminium?); the essay also explores the different forms of text that accompany the photographs, in the book, in the guide to the exhibitions and on the project’s blog.  There’s a strong sense of the academic craft in all this, of methods as labour and work.  Lovely.

On the relation between ‘visual research methods’ and contemporary visual culture

For the first time in what feels like a long while, I have a new paper out.  It’s called “On the relation between ‘visual research methods’ and contemporary visual culture”, and it’s available on The Sociological Review‘s Early View page here.  This is the abstract:

One of the most striking developments across the social sciences in the past decade has been the growth of research methods using visual materials.  It is often suggested that this growth is somehow related to the increasing importance of visual images in contemporary social and cultural practice.  However, the form of the relationship between ‘visual research methods’ and ‘contemporary visual culture’ has not yet been interrogated.  This paper conducts such an interrogation, exploring the relation between ‘visual research methods’ – as they are constituted in quite particular ways by a growing number of handbooks, reviews, conference and journals – and contemporary visual culture – as characterised by discussions of ‘convergence culture’.  The paper adopts a performative approach to ‘visual research methods’.  It suggests that when they are used, ‘visual research methods’ create neither a ‘social’ articulated through culturally-mediated images, nor a ‘research participant’ competency in using such images.  Instead, the  paper argues that the intersection of visual culture and ‘visual research methods’ should be located in their shared way of using images, since in both, images tend to be deployed much more as communicational tools than as representational texts.  The paper concludes by placing this argument in the context of recent discussions about the production of sociological knowledge in the wider social field.

I submitted the first version of this paper to the Review in June 2011.  Yep, two years and four months ago.  The delay was caused by the slowest refereeing process I have ever experienced.  You know who you are.