I recently attended the International Visual Methods Conference, 2015, hosted by University of Brighton – relevant to me as I’ve recently been exploring (Pink, 2013) and trying out some visual methods in my ethnographic study of hyperlocal media audiences. I maybe hadn’t anticipated the arts focus (rather than ‘media’ focus) of many of the papers, but there were certainly plenty of directions that proved useful.

Mapping workshopI started with a workshop exploring and practicing drawing / mapping methods for provoking
discussion on the theme of local community – nothing groundbreaking there, but it did make me realise these were ways of eliciting conversation amongst my participants, possibly in groups, much in the vein that Pink says the photographs that people take aren’t enough as data in themselves, but the conversations they have about why, how they took them, what they represent to them, what they feel as a result, are more significant. Such hands-on methods get people to demonstrate what’s important to them, what they see, what they think about where they live. In some ways this had similarity to some of the asset mapping exercises we’d done with participants on the Creative Citizens project, but with more individual, open-ended freedom. We also explored the kinds of questions to ask when doing such participatory mapping exercises, and to be clear about who needs to be included, according to the requirements of the project. And that must have been the first time I’ve ever seen a man with a hawk randomly appear in a workshop, and then leave (see below).

Another paper explored the photovoice method, practically applied in a Nepalese community in the creation of ‘postcards’. This made me think about the community I’m studying, and the way they talk through images from historical postcards in online Facebook groups. Was there a way to run a participatory project to explore meanings of current photography of the area, to consider what might be the historical postcards of the future? How would people frame the ‘important’ parts of the community for them? When I sometimes wonder to what extent participants will be motivated to help with my research, the idea of running a photographic or photo competition with an output appeals. The research then also becomes community project, where they might be photographing, curating, judging, designing, and all the while talking about their community. In my case I’m particularly interested in the way people use a particular hyperlocal platform to develop their own understandings of the area, so it might focus on images previously posted there.

Other presentations covered such diverse subjects as Colombian young people’s use of digital media, sentiment analysis in online images, visual segment analysis, Turkish political propaganda, the presentation of self on Facebook, ethnographic photography of Russian migrants’ homes, and at least four presentations demonstrating the power and significance of photography by showing the image of drown child refugee Aylan Kurdi. Sometimes these inspired, sometimes they made me realise there were various methods I could discount, as they often seemed observational without offering the opportunity to get under the skin of the photograph: why it was taken, by who, to what end.

One paper was particularly interesting, given some related work I’m involved in, looking at the ways young girls used various social media, and the images shared there. There was some criticism of the presenter approaching this from he perspective of the different platforms, but I certainly think it could be argued that certain tropes follow certain platforms i.e. Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, etc are used differently. This was followed the next morning by a panel of work from the Visual Social Media Lab, most notably a content analysis of 800 Twitter images, with full breakdowns of typologies. Interestingly, very few (they had to think hard when I asked) cases of citizen journalism or photos ‘for the greater good’ were recorded, and this gave pause for thought given the discourses of citizen journalism and Twitter as instigator of social change. More  than anything though, it seemed that as much as we struggle and blunder our way through ways of understanding rapidly evolving online activity, so do the users make the best use of the technologies on their own terms, in ways that are maybe not always elegant, but which are most efficient to them. e.g. people screengrabbing their phones to then share as images.

All in all a very useful conference with lots to take home. And the weirdest thing? I don’t think Pink came up once.

Pink, S. 2013. Doing visual ethnography, Sage.

Joe Lambert keynote Twitter content analysis presentation

Man with hawk

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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