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What people do with pictures - Visual Studies

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What people do with pictures


Author: Alan Radley [ show biography ] DOI: 10.1080/1472586X.2010.523279 Published in: Visual Studies, Volume 25, Issue 3 December 2010 , pages 268 - 279 Publication Frequency: 3 issues per year Previously published as: Visual Sociology (1067-1684) until 2002 Download PDF (~725 KB) Articles To cite this Article: Radley, Alan 'What people do with pictures', Visual Studies, 25:3, 268 - 279 View Related

Abstract
This article argues that there is no single 'voice' that picturing makes audible, nor any single image that it makes visible. It examines how members of two different groups hospital in-patients and homeless people - talk about photographs they had taken using cameras supplied by the researcher. Examples of these photographs are used in the article to examine conventions of picturing, different ways of narrating content and production, and movement of pictures through space and time. The argument is made that these features are variously deployed in explanations of what photographs mean. This leads to the conclusion that what pictures portray and what stories narrate are better thought of as versions of our experience of the world than as constructions of the world that we experience.

INTRODUCTION
Photographs are not just pictures of the world (as it is), but are also resources for communicating how it might have been and what it could be in the future. As such, pictures are more than representations, because they are also resources, mediators that, along with words, give shape to ideas. This is true not only of a society that is photo-literate but also of cultures where the use of cameras is less common. In the examples I will discuss in this article - homeless people and those who are hospital inpatients - a camera is something that they rarely use, for quite different reasons. An important issue arises, therefore, as to what these people might want to show and tell about their situation or even be allowed to show to a researcher. The status of the image is therefore dependent upon what has been made visible and why; what has been kept hidden, unarticulated or unvoiced; and what has been made opaque or suggested (Wagner 2006). These are not just technical decisions but derive from and

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What people do with pictures - Visual Studies

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bear upon the relationship of the person taking the photograph to the researcher. This means that the analysis of a photograph is tied up with the role the depiction has in that relationship, and the place that it finds (or is given) in the world it represents. These points bear directly upon questions that form the focus for this issue of Visual Studies, especially those concerning the production of 'voice' by disenfranchised groups or populations and its relationship to those asked to make and talk about their pictures. By 'pictures' I mean in this case photographs, although it could mean other ways of picturing, including drawing, painting or video. The use of the term 'voice' found its rationale in work that encouraged less powerful populations to use photography as a way of articulating their situation (Lykes, Terre Blanche, and Hamber 2003; Wang, Burris, and Ping 1996). As such it is part of the wider approach of photoelicitation, as outlined initially by Collier (1967) and more recently described by Harper (2002). Where the use of photographs with disadvantaged people can, for example, 'communicate the voices of women who ordinarily would not be heard' (Wang, Burris, and Ping 1996), other ways of using photographs in interviews reveal a more complicated version of whose voice might be heard as a consequence of using this technique. For example, Harper (2002) describes the way that he took two kinds of photographs that were used as the basis of interviews with farmers. One set led to deeper reflection on their part, while one set failed to do this. The reason for this difference lay in Harper's initial pictures being made at eye level, while the second (and more useful) set included some taken from an aerial view, together with historical photographs. The latter, he said, 'broke the frame' of the farmers' normal view, providing them with more than one perspective on their situation. This procedure is not so much a 'giving voice' to individuals who are failing to be heard as it is an invitation to them to reflect upon their situation afresh. The researcher's involvement in the making and selection of pictures for consideration, as compared with photographs made by respondents themselves, is one distinction that problematises the issue of whose voice is being heard. Even if the researcher provides no input into the interpretation of the pictures, their display alongside whatever is said about them will structure the meanings they attain on presentation in a written report. This is not an attempt to undermine the interpretation that might be made by the researcher, whose voice - it seems to me - is of a different but nonetheless equal significance to that of the respondent. Rather, it brings forward the issue of how pictures are made and displayed as part of the interviewing and research process. For example, Becker (2002) described the work of Berger and Mohr (1982) on migrant labourers as embodying 'not just an idea, but a connected and coherent argument'. Becker goes on to say that what Berger and Mohr provide with the photographs is evidence in sufficient quantity and variety that the reader can draw the conclusion that what is being offered as explanation is possible: this kind of thing can happen, in this way. The photographs provide not a scientific proof or a summary of individual and separable stories, but rather a concrete statement of a social condition. If there is a voice here, it is not of the men and women as individuals but of these people as a disadvantaged group. And this voice is heard only through the willingness of the reader/viewer to acknowledge that these things are possible: that it can be like this for these people. Photographs do not reflect or give access to the true voice of a person or group any more than, as a culturally informed depiction, they show pictures of the real world. As an interim conclusion, what goes on in the making and interpretation of photographs by all parties involved - is central to any discussion of what 'voice' can mean in this context. Only then can we comprehend the different ways in which people use pictures to make meaning, in their production, in their viewing, and also in their

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display. What people choose to picture, using which devices, what they choose to hide, to whom and how the pictures are shown - these are all part of what we might term photo-production, a term richer in potential than the methodologically inclined term photo-elicitation. Respondents not only talk about what their pictures show, they also talk about how they made their photographs, which ones they could not achieve (Hodgetts, Chamberlain, and Radley 2007), and the various interpretations that might be made of them. Many respondents (depending upon cultural position) are also educated about images, and able to talk about their uses and effects. To that extent, people can draw upon voices of the media (a visual culture) as well as their beliefs about what pictures show, are trying to show, or are trying to avoid. Bringing the act of photography into the analysis raises questions about the status of what is termed 'the image', and about the reasons for the selection of what is shown. We move from an interest in the meanings of pictures alone to an attempt to understand what has been made visible and why. (And, of course, which things have not been pictured, or have been left unclear - or are there for others to see but fail to be mentioned.) If photographs portray something important among people, then they do so by giving information; they attest to the instantiation of the moment ('it happened'). But by slicing up time and space into units of infinite number the camera makes reality atomic, reinforcing a nominalist view of the world (Sontag 1979). As Sekula (1978) has put it, 'the camera serves to ideologically naturalize the eye of the observer'. The use of photographs to picture reality is itself a form of social representation. If one wishes to understand the photograph as more than an unproblematic source, one must ask questions such as those posed by John Tagg: 'what does it do; how does it inflect its context; where must the observer be positioned to accept it as real or true?' (Tagg 1988, 119). To these I would add the following questions: How was it made? What does it do for the relationship between photographer and viewer? Where does it find its place in the world of things that it represents? These further questions bear, first, upon the idea that the productive context of photographs is crucial to their scope of meaning making; second, upon the idea that photographs do work, now, between their maker and those who view them; and third, upon the idea that they intervene as objects in the material world. All these things relate to the question of how photographs represent or what a researcher might find out by use of them. As a technique for holding on to the past and for capturing fleeting moments of the present, the camera's interventions have come to articulate our very sense of situation (Sontag 1979). And as with other methods of technical reproduction - which make images available to all - our relationship to the original object is transformed (Benjamin 1970). Photography is more than a medium; it is a way of making known and, indeed, of shaping the observer by virtue of its potential to fashion an image.

WHY PHOTO-PRODUCTION?
Before considering some photographs in detail it is necessary to explain the differences between using photographs as ways of eliciting interview material and making the photographic exercise part of the analysis. I do not wish to underplay the

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role of photo-elicitation in gathering information, nor the potential of showing and making pictures for widening the social relationships of respondents who might work together. Instead, my intention is to direct attention to what people say about how they made their pictures, and how they use them in the course of explaining their situation. This is, in effect, seeing the photo-making activity as a fragment of the context (the person's world), not as a procedure that stands outside it, providing a view or a voice. In the work my colleagues and I have conducted with hospital patients (Radley and Taylor 2003a, b) and with homeless people (Radley, Hodgetts, and Cullen 2005; Hodgetts, Chamberlain, and Radley 2007), the photographic exercise was constrained by their situation and in turn reflected those constraints. For example, while recovering from surgery, one's body is weak and one's mobility limited; a homeless person's scope to take pictures is compromised because there are situations where obtaining pictures will involve risk of physical danger. To talk about how and why photographs were obtained is to understand, if only in a limited way, what it means to be a person in this situation. But it is also to place within the analytic frame the ways that respondents choose to communicate their experience through the photographic medium. The sign-making activity of picturing then becomes part of the analysis, rather than something passed over in order to get to either the subjectivity of the respondent or the features of their social situation. Photo-production is not just about making pictures: it also involves making episodes and breaches in the lives of the people concerned. To illustrate, I will draw upon the two studies mentioned above. In the first, we asked hospital inpatients to take photographs of the ward five or six days after abdominal surgery. Once patients had given consent, we explained to them that the study was about their experience of the ward and that we wished them to photograph up to 12 things that they thought significant about their stay. They were told that the pictures could be of anything on the ward that was significant to them - these might be positive or negative things. They might select spaces, things that were part of the hospital, or objects that they had brought in with them. Written guidelines about the photography exercise were left with them, as well as a sheet on which they could plan their shots in advance. The following day the researcher discussed the list of planned photographs and checked that these were viable within the guidelines of the project. We had hoped to leave the camera with the patients for twenty-four hours so that they could take photographs on their own, but the hospital did not allow this. Concerns of hospital management about the use of photography, particularly the taking of photographs by patients themselves, led to restrictions on the project. Patients could photograph only places and objects; no photographs of people were allowed. As a consequence, the researcher stayed with the patients while they selected and took their photographs. The fact that patients were unable to take photographs of people might seem a singularly damaging constraint. In fact, although the focus of the work was upon the setting and the picturing of objects, it did not preclude patients talking about these images in relation to other people (staff or patients) who were associated with them. So, people did get into the study through patients inserting them into the pictures, not through being photographed in the flesh. The requirement that we stay with patients while they took their photographs meant that we gained knowledge of the context in which the pictures were taken, and became aware of the kinds of questions that arose when patients decided what to photograph or what not to photograph. These exchanges involved some requests by patients for information from investigators ('Is it possible to take this? Can you help me take that?'). Although we had not planned to record this information, we made field notes immediately after every interview and made particular mention of the way that the photography had been conducted. From these notes we sensed the differing

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involvement of patients with the activity, depending upon the person's state of health, their understanding of the project (its perceived worth), and the scope they had to frame their experience through the choice of images. The point here is that the photographs gained their meaning from the act that produced them; they were not meaningful only in the sense of their pictured content. The act of photography is one of separation of self from surroundings - even if only briefly - so that what is picked out defines boundaries, transitions, preferred and disliked orderings and invocations. To be given a camera in this situation is to be invited to turn upon one's setting, to objectify a relationship that one has so far been living out. To photograph things is to detach oneself from them - even for a moment and to do this while you are in hospital is to make small breaches in one's ongoing engagement as an ill person. In the interviews based upon the photographs obtained, conducted first in the hospital and later in patients' homes, the photographic activity remained within the focus of inquiry. Each patient was asked to comment upon their choice of shots, whether they had been able to photograph things they wanted to select, and the limitations of the exercise for showing something of their time in hospital, and also to say something about the act of photography itself. In the follow-up interview in their homes they were asked to comment again on the act of photography while they were in hospital, to say what they would have taken if they had had the opportunity, and to express their feelings about the photographs as presently displayed in front of them. The situation of homeless people is also one where the physical setting matters, and where the persons involved are dealt with and deal with others by virtue of where they are required to be, or where they are denied access. People in the city do not enter into each other's field of vision as whole or rounded persons, but only in terms of what is necessary for particular exchanges to take place or what can be seen by virtue of the space that they must share together. That is, they experience fragments of each other in terms of glimpses of faces or bodies, shreds of conversation, smells of fellow travellers on buses or in lifts/elevators. This is not the same as saying that city people are 'fragmented selves' because they are members of diverse groups, but that they expose themselves to others and see others in fragmentary form. It is a world of glimpses (Goffman 1976) that is traded upon by presentations that exploit surface qualities - using clothes, possessions and the occupancy of places having a social cache. Such encounters define the life of the city, so that estrangement makes possible the elaboration of appearances as well as the establishment of distance and reserve (Radley, Hodgetts, and Cullen 2005). Using photography allowed us to collect a series of such glimpses of the city as seen by homeless people. Because homelessness is about displacement, the use of cameras to capture spaces and places is important on two counts. First, it depicts settings that are identified with homelessness; and second, it shows other spaces that the homeless share with domiciled people. The research again took the form of a photo-production study involving 12 homeless people recruited from two hostels and one day centre in central London. Written information was provided and signed consent obtained regarding the giving of interviews, the photographic exercise and the rights to use of text and visual material obtained. There were three phases to the research. First, an interview was conducted with each participant exploring their pathways to homelessness, significant events in their lives and the pattern of their typical day. At the end of the interview each participant was given a disposable camera and asked to take pictures that represented their experience of being a homeless person. They were told that photographs could be of key times in their day, of typical activities and spaces, or of anything else that portrayed their situation. Taking the

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pictures and returning with the camera constituted the second part of the study. The film was then developed, a further meeting arranged and participants were offered a copy set of the pictures they had taken. In the second interview, conducted one or two days after the photography session, participants were asked about their photographs, now set out in front of them. Following the procedure used in the hospital study, participants were asked to say what each photograph showed and what its focus was, and to give their response to the person, place or object depicted. All photographs were then spread out and the person asked to identify the ones that best captured their experience of homelessness. They were also asked to comment on the act of taking the photographs and to express their feelings about the pictures they had taken. Both interviews were audio-recorded and later transcribed for analysis. Photographs were digitally rendered for ease of inspection. This approach allowed respondents to engage the visual material in a number of ways, not least to explicate what the pictures did not show (Hodgetts, Chamberlain, and Radley 2007). Particular issues and generalities were brought out through accounts that justified the inclusion and the exclusion of people/places/objects from the photographs being addressed. Equally important, the act of photography was an acceptance of an invitation for the person to engage his or her world in a different way. While taking pictures with a disposable camera might not seem special for most people, for homeless individuals who rarely pick up a camera - still less use it - the legitimation of this exercise cannot be overemphasised. Like the hospital patients, by being given permission to turn upon their environment and objectify it, homeless respondents were allowed to make a breach in the 'taken for grantedness' of their lives. In this context, encouraging them to make and present their snapshots was an invitation to objectify the 'glimpses' that the city offered them. As interpretive practice, this comes close to Mitchell's (1994) description of representation as something assembled over time out of fragments. It is the structure of this representation that photo-production foregrounds in the attempt to understand not people's worlds as such (as if one could look through the photographs), but their versions of it - made, put together, offered to others at a particular time.

SHIFTING THE FOCUS


In the remainder of this article I want to outline some different ways in which respondents from these two studies put together their pictures as a way of showing versions of their worlds. My aim in doing this is to illustrate the different ways in which photographs are 'made up' as sign vehicles, both in the course of their production and during their interpretation within the interview setting. Miss B. was a 27-year-old woman who had been in hospital for just over a week before the interview took place, but who had had several periods of admission previously. Her photographs - taken as a set - were different from those taken by any other patient, perhaps because she was in for tests rather than surgery. The following comment is from the notes I made at the time: On arrival I found that Miss B. had prepared the list of 12 photographs she wanted to take. She appeared to have understood the purpose of the interview though her photographs, and the reasons given for taking them, suggested that she had slanted her choice towards what might be useful

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for 'any patient' to know about the hospital. The order of the pictures (beginning with the main entrance to the hospital) was consistent with the idea of a generalised passage through the hospital experience. She said that she had planned the pictures by imagining what it is like to go into hospital. The following list of photographs, in the order she made them, was accompanied by her brief description of each one: 1. Hospital main entrance People can see what the environment is like. Shows what sort of atmosphere the new patient is going into. Makes you feel secure - handrail on side, slope for wheelchairs, camera for security, map - shows where you are, no-smoking sign. [Interviewer: Is it an entrance or an exit for you?] Mostly an entrance - but sometimes an exit, when I sigh a big sigh, I'm getting better. But on arrival I think, 'I've got to get it over and done with.' 2. Mini bank in reception Elderly/young people on their own - with no friends or family - you can get money out when you need it. Once inside the hospital you are not going to get robbed. Use money for newspapers/cards etc. 3. Hospital shop To get some essential items. Very handy - for basic goods. If you can't leave hospital - they give you a green band. When you see the goods you feel you are in the real world if you see the packages. In the hospital the food is put straight onto plates - you don't see what package it comes from. 4. Ward entrance/reception desk To get to know the ward. Shows what sort of environment you are coming into. Photo shows notices computer - signs about visiting. If you are off the ward for treatment and return, you come back to where you are safe. Nobody is going to touch you. This a positive picture. 5. Bed area To show where they live - be sleeping. [She gave a very detailed description of the image. She said, 'You know this is going to be your area.'] 6. Noticeboard on ward To keep up to date on information. Where people can read about illness, what's going on, information for them and their relatives. Not many people use it or as much as they should. I think it's important. 7. Kitchen To ensure cooking facilities are kept safe. Where food prepared - where you can put stuff in the fridge and also help yourself to it at other times. Allowed to go in and ask for tea. Allowed to get drinks at other times. At home you are usually in and out of the kitchen. 8. Dayroom To help them relax. Really essential. Part of the build up to recovery. You can get really comfortable. I spend time in there reading. In the Dayroom I can talk to other people. But at other times I go there to find peace and quiet. To get away from the bed area where the other patients make me feel helpless. It's nice to take yourself off for a while. 9. View Outside from Dayroom If you feel like a walk. You can put chairs outside with family and have a cigarette. Can let thoughts wander when looking outside - about what the Dr says or does not say. In hospital there are too many distractions - outside there are no distractions. It is the noise - of trolleys, nurses walking, other patients, beds being made or moved, toilets flushing.

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These photographs (only one is shown here) were interesting for a number of reasons, but especially because they constituted an ordered series that was designed to show a journey. Miss B. was quite explicit about the fact that she planned this ordering, and that she had done this so that the photographs might show 'anyone being admitted to hospital' what they might expect. This offering was unique in the study because all other patients took photographs to illustrate something about their own stay, about their personal experience of being a hospital patient. We might also say that her photographs form a pictorial narrative, in showing the places and spaces that the potential patient will meet as she comes into hospital. Seen in this way, the photographs denote situations as waypoints, and they do this by virtue of the way she organised and talked about her pictures in relation to one another. In this way they constitute a single set, linked by the passage into hospital that Miss B. generalised out of her own experience. This way of using her photographs to denote stages in the passage through admission to hospital is emphasised by the fact that they were planned as part of the story she wished to tell. Tell to whom? Clearly to the researchers who asked her to take the photographs, but also with an eye to future patients who might follow her into this territory, with all its uncertainties and anxieties. She offered them as a pointer or guide that any other patient might use. As well as this, however, the photographs were indexical of this session - they were products of my meeting with her - so that they do more than denote matters relating to the generality of her story. They attest to the time we spent together making a record of her stay in the hospital. This reminds us that the photo session was not quite separate from her hospital experience but, in a sense, was part of it. It was an opportunity for her to make sense, perhaps in a different way, of her time on the ward. What I am arguing here is that, with the aid of discourse, photographs can be used as 'labels for', which means representing by pointing (Goodman 1968). But they are also more than labels, because they can be used to illustrate something of the situations that they denote. To illustrate is to show or to display in some way, and to do this with photographs is to set out both more and less than the picture's labelling function. By 'less', I mean that syntactically the picture may be less precise in delimiting a class of events; we need words here to do this. By 'more', I mean that the photograph does something as well as denote, and that this is important to the semantic potential of visual media in this kind of research. To explain this second aspect we need to examine the picture of the dayroom (see Figure 1). Once Miss B. had commented on each of the photographs in the order in which she had taken them, I asked her which one was most significant as a marker of her stay. She chose the dayroom because, she said,

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FIGURE 1. Dayroom. When sitting there can I think about what's happening and about my own anticipations. I can turn myself off from the hustle and bustle of the ward and have a good cry, with nobody watching you. I've had several episodes cried. In the dayroom you are all by yourself, and you can cry. Focusing upon this photograph in this way - taking it out of the set that made up her public story - the image that she conjures is very different from the one implied in the idea of the dayroom as a place to relax: it is now a place of retreat. She appropriates the dayroom as a private space where she can cry in the act of collecting herself together. This photograph is now more than a label denoting a stage in the narrative of any hospital patient, and more than something indexical of the photographic exercise we asked her to undertake. It is made more in the course of her talking about it, so that the photograph no longer just denotes the dayroom as a place for any or every patient. Instead, what the picture now indicates for her - and for those of us who can hear what she is saying - is the dayroom as the location of times of crying. But it is also more than this. In being used to indicate crying occasions, the place that is pictured exemplifies Miss B.'s unhappiness in the hospital. It says something along the lines of 'this kind of thing can happen in this way'. The photograph carries meaning by virtue of the pictured location being coloured by the crying, so that what the photograph means is something that cannot be pointed to on the photographic print. She invites us to see the picture in this different way. The photograph is - if we look long and closely enough - expressive of her personal experience, something different from its use as a label for denoting a way-mark in the experience of the generalised patient. It supports, psychologically, a quite different image. Goodman (1968) has argued that an expressive representation, while it denotes its content (it points), also involves the referent exemplifying features that it shows forth. In the case of Miss B.'s picture of the dayroom, these features are articulated into significance though her talk, so that the photograph comes to display tones (of feeling, not colour!) that do not inhere in it and neither, it should be said, can their meaning can be located 'in' the picture itself. By speaking about this particular photograph in this way she invites us to look at it differently. No longer seeing just a room, we might look at the photograph for signs of it being a retreat, a place of safety. Where particular features of the picture denoted this as a dayroom, now we might look to see which other features might show it as a 'sad' room - one occasioned by tears. However, the features that the pictured dayroom

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now possess are owned metaphorically rather than intrinsically. (Our individual experiences of times of despair mean that each viewer can read this particular photograph in this way.) The bare furnishings that denote the room's function perhaps take on a bleaker aspect. And that viewing of the picture mattered when we listened further to what she had to say as her interview progressed. There is an important crossover here between the visual medium and other ways of telling. It might be said that, though somewhat different, this is just another story that Miss B. is offering. However, she deploys the photograph in a significantly different way, by picking it out for special attention, and thus particularising it. The way she uses it as a resource makes for a different kind of story, which is grounded in the way that the visual material is made to signify. What is apparently the same photograph supports different interpretations, and, in effect, different images that can be apprehended. That is why I prefer not to use the word 'image' to refer to the picture content, as if pictures captured one image that could then be re-interpreted by different people, or at different times. An image, in my view, is a constellation of features, feelings and sensations that adheres to, or can be constru

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