Making Pictures, Making Progress…

Hello! It’s been a while, and here’s what I’ve been up to in the meantime:

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…I presented at my first conference!! Boy, what a hoot! Turns out I love public speaking (for those of you who know me this is probably not surprising-!) but it was also just great to hear a brilliant and inspiring bunch of folk from all over doing all kinds of things that are working to understand ideas of multiculture in many different forms, and from many different disciplines. It was weird and nostalgic and great to be back where I did my undergrad and started on this journey, and my dear old Dad would have been so proud of me!

The babe that is Les Back came to my talk which was really exciting, and his keynote was so inspiring – he is testament to the fact that you can be both a brilliant academic and also really humble. Presenting also enabled me to consider career paths which I may not have done before for fear of not being successful at them. Fear has been holding me back for too long and presenting at this conference was the boost I needed to continue and encourage me to be more proactive at exploring multiple possible career paths such as film-making, teaching or community work.

I also presented at a conference in Manchester, which although was less exciting for me than the one at Goldsmiths – my old stomping grounds – was all good practice and I got some good feedback from people who attended that talk too. It’s great to be able to be talking about what sensory methods have to offer to the social sciences, but also a big responsibility to do them justice; illuminate both their pitfalls and their benefits; and all in the space of 15 minutes-!

So after the conferences, and once things had settled down a little, I was able to start gathering bits together for my Progress Review next week. The progress review is basically a halfway point check up (yes, I’m now halfway through the PhD, can you believe it!) on how you are doing, how things are progressing and what needs to happen next.

I’ve done 8 interviews so far, each generating more really interesting stuff about the home-making practices of the migrant, refugee and asylum seeking (and brilliant) women I have been talking with. This post is going to talk a bit about the method I have used to do the interviews.

Photo-Elicitation Interviews 

The photo elicitation interview was brought into the world officially by photographer and researcher John Collier in the 1950s. The idea being that themes which are difficult to explore in survey format, or which cannot be expressed in words alone, are aided in the use of photography.

The photographs used can be taken either by the researcher of the things they observe, or be archive photographs, such as family photos or media clippings, or be photographs which participants have taken themselves for the purposes of the interview. The interview is then guided by the photographs which are being looked at and which the participant wishes to talk about. The interviewer may also have some questions they wish to ask about each image.

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Images taken from my Masters film

In explaining the difference between a standard in-depth interview and a photo elicitation interview, John Collier writes: “The pictures elicited longer and more comprehensive interviews but at the same time helped subjects overcome the fatigue and repetition of conventional interviews”  (in Harper 2002)

As a method then, what the photographs do is to create a medium through which participants and researchers can communicate, discuss and learn. In my research in particular I am aware of how my background means that my experience of home-making is very different to many of those I am talking with. This is what is called ‘researcher positionality’, where you consider how who you are affects the conversations you might have, or how it impacts on the experiences you may be speaking about. Although my research is really self-reflective in that I too have moved to Glasgow and am working to make it my home, my positioning in the world as a white, middle-class Western woman is different to the positioning of many of the women I am working with. Being in the asylum system for instance means that your experience of home is shaped by the fact that you are in the hands of what I personally believe is a racist organisation; the Home Office. Being a woman of colour means that you may feel you are battling to feel ‘at home’ in the face of racist policy such as Prevent, or dehumanising media representation as is spouted by right-wing media such as the Daily Mail. These disempowering representations and policies which affect groups and individuals like the women I am working with, means that the methods you should use in conducting research in this area are all the more important in considering the ways that representation is occurring.

I loudly echo Douglas Harper when he says:

“my enthusiasm for photo elicitation also comes from the collaboration it inspires. When two or more people discuss the meaning of photographs they try to figure out something together. This is, I believe, an ideal model for research.” 

Although it is vital to remember that no method can ever balance out the power relations which exist in the researcher – participant relationship (particularly when working with marginalised groups or individuals), it is a responsibility to consider how we might try our hardest to make sure that participants feel in control of the story they are telling about themselves.

As a visual anthropologist, I think about the ways in which representation both shapes and is shaped by the world and the social structures which are at play within it. Who controls the media? In whose favour is it to show migrants as a ‘swarm’? In short I suppose, is the question of: whose voices are the loudest?  By using photo-elicitation I want to put the voices of the women I am working with front and centre of the data that is being generated and the knowledge that is being produced. Ultimately the thesis will be my own theoretical analysis based on the interviews and participant observation I have done, and in this sense, the power of representation lies ultimately in my own hands, which is why when using ‘participatory methods’ in which we attempt to place our politics into the methods we use, we must be wary of what that means in real terms

Representation is tied up very tightly with politics, and right now, Islamophobia is driving the monstrous train of media representation, showing recent events in such a way that key elements are swept under the carpet (i.e. homophobia in the case of the Orlando shooting) to make room for the stick which is stoking the fire of xenophobia, fear and hatred. It is perhaps more important than ever that wherever possible and however possible we collectively work to turn up the volume of the voices which are being drowned out. I know my research is but a speck of sand on a beach of images, stories and research, but in choosing a way of working that enables people to tell the story of what home means to them, showing just how complex and layered this idea can be, particularly in the face of migration, forced or otherwise, I am making my contribution towards creating a world in which people can and do speak for themselves, and are not spoken for by those who know nothing of their lives.

After the progress review then, and when I’m back off my holiday, I will continue to carry out interviews until the end of September, when I will be going into the third and final year (!!?@*^&@£@) of my PhD. I feel increasingly confident in the work I am doing and in my style of working as a research, which is such an exciting thing to be growing and feeling, having started from a point of such crippling imposter-syndrome and lacking self-confidence, and having had a minor existential crisis at the start of the year. It’s of course a continuously bumpy ride, but I’m continuously riding it and learning so much along the way!

Any questions or comments or thoughts are, as always welcome. I’d love to have more conversations with folk about representation, photography, and research and the world genearlly 🙂

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