Seeing Domiciliary Care Work. Affects, ethics, materialities.

Chanelle Manton and Patricia Prieto-Blanco

In a time of COVID-19 some home spaces have been rendered highly visible/visualized. However, care spaces still go largely unseen in social life, let alone the labour processes carried out within them at both formal and informal levels. Care work in these domiciliary settings is emplaced, practiced and felt, but often unseen, often hidden from view or remaining purposely unnoticeable. From a visual perspective, then, home care has been practically impenetrable. This blog post reflects on a concrete project – “Duty of Care” – as well as on wider issues of seeing domiciliary care work[1].

As Sontag (1997) reminds, however, photography is inherently violent. We are deeply concerned by power inequalities and are determined to employ visual practice in non-violent ways. Until now, one solution in photography has been to remove humans from images altogether, as is the case in “Duty of Care”. However, this is still a learning process, and we would like to reflect more deeply on the problem of non-representation as well as representation itself, both within Duty of Care and future visual (and non-visual) projects. Dominant themes continue to emerge in visual depictions of social care, particularly an overwhelming whiteness and clear age/gender divides. In practice, then, we must create new representations and to equip others to produce and present their own narratives and stories, and to have ownership over them. Visual methods are a necessarily creative and accessible way of doing so.

Duty of Care”, produced by Chanelle Manton and supervised by Dr. Patricia-Prieto Blanco, foregrounds inevitable tensions between expectations and realities of domiciliary care work in the UK[2]. Crafted through a methodological approach that merges narrative inquiry (Bell, 2013; Squire, 1995), and visual sociology (Becker, 1974; Pauwels, 2010). Photographs were produced after a series of focus groups and narrative interviews with agency-employed domiciliary care workers in Brighton and Hove, East Sussex. Mapping exercises (see Fig. 1) were used in the research process to elicit the (dis)affective experiences (Edwards, 2012; Prieto-Blanco, 2018) of domiciliary care workers and their ‘regulation’ (Wetherell, 2012: 16). Produced by participants from memory, with the aid of symbols representing an array of labour processes, the maps themselves illustrate the floor plans of spaces of home care, demonstrating the entangled nature of human and non-human actors in care relationships in the everyday.

Participants also mapped their typical care route (Fig. 2), referred to as a ‘care run’, which elicited the emotional experiences associated with travelling to each client, and visually demonstrates the porous boundaries which domiciliary care workers are constantly and unnoticeably negotiating. Visual methodology allowed unique access into these inherently private and intimate spaces (Prieto-Blanco, 2016) of home care, both within and beyond the home, and the assemblages operating across them at multiple levels. Constructing visual images in these ways circumnavigated the potential ethical issues posed by photographic inquiry involving potentially ‘vulnerable’ individuals. and allowed potential for emotional communication and the seeing of “intimacy-at-a-distance” (Elliot & Urry, in Prieto-Blanco, 2016: 262).

Participants also mapped their typical care route (Fig. 2), referred to as a ‘care run’, which elicited the emotional experiences associated with travelling to each client, and visually demonstrates the porous boundaries which domiciliary care workers are constantly and unnoticeably negotiating. Visual methodology allowed unique access into these inherently private and intimate spaces (Prieto-Blanco, 2016) of home care, both within and beyond the home, and the assemblages operating across them at multiple levels. Constructing visual images in these ways circumnavigated the potential ethical issues posed by photographic inquiry involving potentially ‘vulnerable’ individuals. and allowed potential for emotional communication and the seeing of “intimacy-at-a-distance” (Elliot & Urry, in Prieto-Blanco, 2016: 262).

The existing disparities between expectations and realities of domiciliary care work results in underacknowledged emotional labour and ‘self-management’ (Malin, 2000: 214) of domiciliary care workers (DCWs) (McDowell, 2004).

Visual methods have potential for bringing care, its labour processes, and its affects into view.; a turn to the visual in exploring such spaces and the relationships within them is fundamental for re-evaluating what it means to care. Instead of creating distance between bodies (Ahmed, 2004) by photographing humans, through an alternative lens we can ask what it means to be dependent, what it means to provide care, and, what we can truly know about either. Visual investigations into the domiciliary sphere seem more necessary than ever, as perceptions of home and safety are shifting as a result of the global pandemic we are experiencing.  

Chanelle Manton is currently fulfilling her MSc Social Research Methods at University of Brighton (UK), as part of a 1+3 Ph.D. grant funded by South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership. Building onto “Duty of Care”, her BA (Hons) dissertation project, and inspired by her own employment as a care-worker, Chanelle’s doctoral project examines visual discourses in commercial representations of care work, and the disparities between these expectations and realities of care (labour). Her work is finding resonance in academic events such as Women, Ageing and Media (WAM), CIRCLE’s Sustainable Care, International Visual Sociology Association Conference 2021, and engAGE’s Summer School at Concordia University, Montreal.

Patricia Prieto-Blanco works as a Senior Lecturer at the School of Media, University of Brighton. Her areas of expertise are visual methodologies, photography and migration. She is an advocate of interdisciplinary, participatory and practice-based research. Patricia is technology advisor at IVSA (International Visual Sociology Association) and a member of DFG research network “Transformative Bildlichkeit: Zum Spannungsfeld von Bild und Gesellschaft” [Transformative representativeness: areas of conflict between images and society].

[1] A domiciliary care worker is typically defined as someone who is employed to assist ‘people who still live in their own homes but […] require additional support with household tasks, personal care or any other activity that allows them to maintain their independence and quality of life’ (Farrah, 2018).

[2] The turnover of domiciliary care workers is notably high (30.7%) (Skills for Care, 2018: 34). Furthermore, poor employment conditions, and systemic disparities between expectations and realities of domiciliary care work facilitates a space of emotional labour and ‘self-management’ (Malin, 2000: 214) of domiciliary care workers (DCWs), which is arguably underacknowledged (McDowell, 2004) – and thus underpaid and underregulated.

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