Social Science blog

29 October 2012

Visual Urbanisms: Perspectives on Contemporary Research

Bradley L. Garrett, of the University of Oxford, writes about his experiences of using visual methods in social research. The visual material he has created raises questions for the Library with regards to the material we collect and in terms of how to work with researchers who use our existing photographic and moving image collections.

Visual research methods have a wide remit, including creation and analysis of maps, graphics, still and moving images. Photography and video in particular are becoming increasingly important tools, allowing researchers to capture events and tell powerful stories visually (and of course aurally, in the case of video, often overlooked). Media methods allow us to easily change the pace of time, undertake minute analysis of events and empower people to share their stories directly to audiences both in and beyond academia. However, these technologies, and people’s perceptions of them, are also changing rapidly as equipment is becoming less expensive, more powerful and ever pervasive. These changes are creating new opportunities, and difficulties, for researchers.

For my PhD, I conducted a four-year research project with urban explorers, groups of people working to document off-limits parts of the urban environment often hidden from public view. Many of these explorers were very skilled at capturing low-light photographs under stressful shooting conditions. By spending time with them, I also became a photographer, often documenting them documenting places (the hybrid role of the visual ethnographer). Eventually, we began shooting video footage of our collaborative explorations, producing Crack the Surface, a rather unorthodox ethnographic film (the other films which comprise the 10-part visual ethnography can be found here).

All of the films in that series, and indeed every one of the 14,000 photographs I took on that project, were distinctly urban and I have come to believe that video and photography are ideal methods for capturing ever-changing urban contexts. In 2010, I worked with Ellie Miles, Terri Moreau, Michael Anton, Amy Cutler and Alison Hess, researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, to create London’s Olympic Waterscape, a film made to capture a slice of time around the Olympic stadium during its construction that was incredibly delicate. Many of the places in the film, shot only two years ago, are unrecognisable now, a testament to the power of audio/visual media in capturing change, an incontestable symptom of contemporary urban life. In the same year I also teamed up with Brian Rosa and Jonathan Prior to create Jute, a film about time, pace, waste and memory in urban life where we used sound and images to encourage a lingering attention. That film, published in Liminalities, and another of my films Urban Explorers: Quests for Myth, Mystery and Meaning, are now among the first video articles in academic publishing, a promising new format.

Though I’m proud of this body of work, using these technologies created new sets of difficulties that I had to contend with around issues of ethics, consent and ownership of recorded materials. As the novelty of ‘new’ media and online sharing platforms wears thin, people are naturally becoming more guarded about being recorded. Researchers using media have to consider carefully the ways recordings can be used and misused, especially in the context of work with people.

I feel the process of becoming a “visual geographer” has been far more than learning how to utilise a novel platform to share knowledge – these media were the language I always understood, a language that I think many people find concord with and a language that I think has a potential for wider reach than text. These issues, among many others, were discussed in the conference on visual urbanisms at the British Library on 8th October 2012.

Other useful links:

British Sociological Association Visual Sociology Study Group

Professor Gillian Rose’s Visual Methods Blog

International Association of Visual Urbanists


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