On The Visual Sociology and Methodologies Research Cluster of the Canadian Sociology Association 

Glo­ria Nick­er­son and Kyler Zele­ny, Orga­niz­ers. “Visu­al Exhi­bi­tion” of The Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy and Method­olo­gies Research Clus­ter. The Cana­di­an Soci­ol­o­gy Asso­ci­a­tion Annu­al Meet­ing at the Con­gress of the Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties held at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottawa, June 2015.

While at the 2015 Con­gress for the Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties in Ottawa, I attend­ed a Visu­al Exhi­bi­tion of The Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy and Method­olo­gies Research Clus­ter. The group only formed in 2014. I expe­ri­enced it in terms of its dis­play of inno­v­a­tive approach­es to North Amer­i­can research in Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy. The Research Clus­ter encour­ages mem­bers of the Cana­di­an Soci­ol­o­gy Asso­ci­a­tion to embrace Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy and the exhi­bi­tion show­cased the work of mem­bers who have. But what is Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy? On their web­page (http://​visu​al​so​ci​ol​o​gy​.org/), the Inter­na­tion­al Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy Asso­ci­a­tion (IVSA) out­lines five broad approach­es for visu­al sociology:

- doc­u­men­tary stud­ies of every­day life in con­tem­po­rary communities,
- the inter­pre­tive analy­sis of art and pop­u­lar visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of society,
- stud­ies about the social impact of adver­tis­ing and the com­mer­cial use of images,
- the analy­sis of archival images as sources of data on soci­ety and cul­ture, and
- the study of the pur­pose and the mean­ing of image-mak­ing prac­tices like recre­ation­al and fam­i­ly photography.

These approach­es can be nar­rowed down into three main method­olog­i­cal threads: 1) using cam­eras and oth­er devices to col­lect visu­al data, 2) study­ing visu­al arte­facts and infor­ma­tion as a sig­nif­i­cant part of research, and 3) relay­ing infor­ma­tion with visu­al medi­ums rather than, or in addi­tion to, writ­ten or oral modes of communication.

Look­ing around the room where mem­bers of the Research Clus­ter had dis­played their work, I could see sev­en exhibits—six adorn­ing the walls with a sev­enth pro­ject­ed on a screen at the front. Each was accom­pa­nied by a brief note by the cura­tor. Some researchers used the medi­um of pho­tog­ra­phy as a research tool. Oth­ers, as in Kyler Zeleny’s “Found Polaroids” exhib­it (www​.kylerze​le​ny​.com), treat­ed the pho­tographs, found in archives or in pawns shops and junk stores, as the mate­r­i­al traces and records of past lives and old com­mu­ni­ties. In what fol­lows, I take a vir­tu­al walk around the room and describe each project before con­sid­er­ing the exhib­it as a whole.

Web_Elicitations -Bellamy - June 2015 - Exhibit AFig­ure 1 - Pho­to Cred­it Kyler Zeleny

The entry “Out West,” curat­ed by Zele­ny, , takes the rur­al west as its sub­ject. Small rur­al com­mu­ni­ties nes­tle under the big prairie sky, bifur­cat­ed by the high­ways that cut across the plains. The high­way becomes a kind of mea­sur­ing imple­ment that gauges how far one can real­ly see and that could, in the mind of the view­er, tie the rur­al to larg­er urban cen­tres. The cura­to­r­i­al com­men­tary stressed that these images are not some for­got­ten relics of Amer­i­cana, but hail from the Cana­di­an West and that they are doc­u­ments of our present.

The next exhib­it lingers in the Cana­di­an West. Dr. Liza McCoy, a soci­ol­o­gist from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­gary, has been col­lab­o­rat­ing with Dr. Bar­bara Schnei­der (also at the U of C) in a research project that engages the square dance com­mu­ni­ty. They are par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the gen­dered and embod­ied prac­tice of square dance—both in terms of its col­lab­o­ra­tive form and the age of the com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers (most­ly elder­ly). McCoy’s pho­tographs sug­gest the bound­aries of the square dance hall as the bound­aries of the com­mu­ni­ty. Those present in the hall who are not danc­ing watch. Every­one takes part in shap­ing the com­mu­ni­ty. One can pic­ture these fig­ures dri­ving along the roads and fill­ing up their tanks at the pumps from the pre­vi­ous exhibit.

Web_Elicitations -Bellamy - June 2015 - Exhibit B

Fig­ure 2 - Pho­to Cred­it Kyler Zeleny

In an entry curat­ed by Zele­ny, pho­tographs by David Schal­li­ol (http://​david​schal​li​ol​.com)—a Soci­ol­o­gy PhD Can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago—render vis­i­ble Penn­syl­van­ian towns that have been obscured in the shad­ows of indus­tri­al oper­a­tions. Schal­li­ol cites the 1948 Smog dis­as­ter in Dono­ra, where 20 were killed, as one of the inspi­ra­tions for the pho­tographs. Smoke stacks tow­er over homes and chil­dren ride under pow­er lines. These images raise the ques­tion, who, or what, is the sub­ject of these pho­tographs? Seem­ing­ly in response to the ques­tions raised in Schalliol’s work, “Pho­tog­ra­phy as Sense-Mak­ing Prac­tice,” anoth­er entry curat­ed by Zele­ny this time with pho­tographs by pho­tog­ra­ph­er-researcher Andriko Lozowy (http://​www​.art​srn​.ual​ber​ta​.ca/​a​l​o​z​o​wy/), uti­lizes the com­bi­na­tion of images and a text guid­ed by ques­tions devel­ops method­olog­i­cal claims about Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy. The accom­pa­ny­ing text asks: “Who am I, to pho­to­graph?”, “What do images do?”, and “Where to gaze with a cam­era?” These ques­tions and the med­i­ta­tions that fol­low them frame visu­al soci­ol­o­gy as an inter­ven­tion into and reflec­tion on com­mu­ni­ty. The final claim in the write up sug­gests that “images…work for me…to ensure that like a few moments of inward med­i­ta­tion, pho­tog­ra­phy-research can help to make even the most inco­her­ent sen­so­r­i­al expe­ri­ence, just flat enough, for just long enough, to make some sense” (text from exhib­it). In light of this, we can read both Schalliol’s and Lozowy’s images as tem­po­ral “moments” that arrest the sub­ject as much as any­thing else cap­tured with­in the frame of the photograph.

Web_Elicitations -Bellamy - June 2015 - Exhibit C
Fig­ure 3 - Pho­to Cred­it Kyler Zeleny

Turn­ing from infra­struc­ture to mourn­ing, York University’s Dr. Deb­o­rah Davidson’s cur­rent research project looks at the ways grief gets embod­ied through the visu­al medi­um of tat­too­ing (http://​ctc​.app​s01​.yorku​.ca/). Davidson’s work uses pho­tog­ra­phy to pre­serve the mourn­ing, memo­r­i­al, and remem­brance of tat­tooed bod­ies in order to study the rela­tion between the mate­r­i­al ephemer­al­i­ty of loss and the per­ma­nence of ink. When look­ing at Davidson’s archive, one can­not help but think when we die the marks we have made on our bod­ies endure until our own end—they die with us.

Web_Elicitations -Bellamy - June 2015 - Exhibit DFig­ure 4 - Screen Cap­ture from http://​ctc​.app​s01​.yorku​.ca/​g​a​l​l​ery

The “Pic­tur­ing Diver­si­ty” exhib­it, run by Dr. Cathy Holt­mann, Dr. Nan­cy Nason-Clark, Glo­ria Nick­er­son, and Jolyne Roy—all at the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Brunswick—and the project (http://​reli​gio​nand​di​ver​si​ty​.ca/) each deploy the visu­al as a tool for teach­ing and learn­ing about the entan­gle­ments of reli­gion and immi­gra­tion in com­mu­ni­ty. These pho­to essays span a range of top­ics from domes­tic vio­lence, immi­grants, reli­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion, pil­grim­age, iden­ti­ty for­ma­tion, sex­u­al diver­si­ty, and reli­gion and tech­nol­o­gy. One strik­ing aim of the project is to use pho­tog­ra­phy and film to empow­er researchers and par­tic­i­pants alike. Here, the visu­al pro­vides a method of study and tool that par­tic­i­pants can use to express them­selves and to expe­ri­ence difference.

Each of these approach­es use the visu­al in some way to cap­ture some­thing vital to the research. The visu­al becomes a part of the method­olog­i­cal appa­ra­tus in a way the bol­sters the con­nec­tions between researcher, par­tic­i­pant, and com­mu­ni­ty. One con­nec­tion that I can­not ignore is the way these pho­tographs, con­sid­ered togeth­er, reveal some­thing that cuts across most of these projects: the pho­to­graph­ic back­ground. By fore­ground­ing the dancers in the hall or the chil­dren rid­ing bikes along a rur­al street, these pho­tog­ra­phers and visu­al soci­ol­o­gists allow us to see also the background—the square dancers need to dri­ve to hall, the mas­sive infra­struc­ture of high­ways dwarfs the bicy­cle rid­ers, and the small west­ern rur­al com­mu­ni­ty needs the vital link to the urban centre.

Web_Elicitations -Bellamy - June 2015 - Exhibit EFig­ure 5 and 6 - From www​.found​po​laroids​.com

This obser­va­tion becomes ampli­fied in Found Polaroids (www​.found​po​laroids​.com)—the col­lec­tion Zele­ny works with in his exhibit—which con­tains over 6, 000 Polaroids. In Zeleny’s words,

The top­ics the project threads through are wide and var­ied. They include: object-jour­neys, the lega­cy of instant pho­tog­ra­phy, the moral­i­ty and legal­i­ty of shar­ing and repro­duc­ing the images of oth­ers (with­out their con­sent), the chang­ing under­stand­ing of ‘found pho­tog­ra­phy’ as a cat­e­go­ry, the death of the phys­i­cal pho­to album, and the image fetishism of phys­i­cal images in a dig­i­tal world.

The back­ground of these Polaroids springs to the sur­face when viewed in the same room as Zeleny’s oth­er exhib­it “Out West.” Peo­ple pose in front of cars, sit in them, or stand on them. In a sense, this archive cap­tures the back­ground of petro­le­um that appears across the reg­is­ters of Zeleny’s con­cise artic­u­la­tion of what this archive offers to soci­ol­o­gists and oth­er cul­tur­al the­o­rists more broadly.

Web_Elicitations -Bellamy - June 2015 - Exhibit FFig­ure 7 and 8 - From www​.found​po​laroids​.com

But the cen­tral dif­fer­ence between Polaroids and their dig­i­tal legacies—Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and so on—lies in their remark­able phys­i­cal pres­ence and, it turns out, sur­pris­ing­ly light eco­log­i­cal foot­print. The Guardian recent­ly fea­tured an arti­cle by Nicholas Mir­zo­eff who writes, “In 2014, 1tn pho­tographs were tak­en, more than a quar­ter of all pre­vi­ous­ly exist­ing pho­tos” (Mir­zo­eff), which account for only a frac­tion of the mas­sive amount of ener­gy con­sumed annu­al­ly for dig­i­tal stor­age. Anoth­er obser­va­tion will help to dri­ve home the com­par­i­son. Mark P. Mills has recent­ly revealed a shock­ing fact: “Although charg­ing up a sin­gle table or smart phone requires a neg­li­gi­ble amount of elec­tric­i­ty, using either to watch an hour of video week­ly con­sumes annu­al­ly more elec­tric­i­ty in the remote net­works than two new refrig­er­a­tors use in a year” (Mills 3). Today, we are pro­duc­ing more images than ever before and yet, at one and the same time, we are hard pressed to see the impact this is hav­ing. In spite of the invis­i­bil­i­ty of the ener­gy demands made by our intense­ly dig­i­tal, visu­al cul­ture, these exhibits cap­ture traces of its infra­struc­ture and par­tic­i­pate in its won­der­ful­ly gen­er­a­tive, pos­si­bil­i­ties. Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy devel­ops from with­in this cul­ture. Those inter­est­ed could also look to books like Jon Prosser’s Image Based Research (1998) and Dou­glas Harper’s Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy (2012). Indeed, Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy has been mak­ing a name for itself thanks to the IVSA and to Gold­smiths MPhil and PhD pro­grams (http://​www​.gold​.ac​.uk/​p​g​/​m​p​h​i​l​-​p​h​d​-​v​i​s​u​a​l​-​s​o​c​i​o​l​o​gy/) but also thanks to the col­lab­o­ra­tion of researchers like the ones pro­filed above. Hope­ful­ly, the Research Clus­ter will expand its exhi­bi­tion and host a few more pan­els at Con­gress next year; giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty, I would cer­tain­ly attend. This year, at the exhi­bi­tion I learned that Visu­al Soci­ol­o­gy is as much about using new tools to inves­ti­gate and re-present the world around us as it is about encoun­ter­ing objects of dai­ly life in a new light.

Brent Ryan Bel­lamy is a SSHRC Post­doc­tor­al Fel­low at the Memo­r­i­al Uni­ver­si­ty of New­found­land in St. John’s.

List of Figures

Fig­ure 1 - Pho­to Cred­it Kyler Zeleny
Fig­ure 2 - Pho­to Cred­it Kyler Zeleny
Fig­ure 3 - Pho­to Cred­it Kyler Zeleny
Fig­ure 4 - Screen Cap­ture from http://​ctc​.app​s01​.yorku​.ca/​g​a​l​l​ery
Fig­ure 5 and 6 - From www​.found​po​laroids​.com
Fig­ure 7 and 8 - From www​.found​po​laroids​.com

Works Cit­ed

Mills, Mark P. The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Data, Big Net­works, Big Infra­struc­ture, and Big Pow­er. August 2013. Web. 20 July 2015.

Mir­zo­eff, Nicholas. “In 2014 we took 1tn pho­tos: wel­come to our new visu­al cul­ture.” The​guardian​.com. 10 July 2015. Web. 20 July 2015.