Unhomely Homes: A visual study of Airbnb

milk bottle and white jug with white flowers on a table

Anna Pechurina and Kenneth Kajoranta

This blog brings together two projects: a sociological study of ‘Airbnb Homes and People’ – that used qualitative interviews with hosts and guests – and a photographic project ‘My Airbnb Memories’ by photographer Ken Kajoranta. How home is defined, maintained, and constructed is a focal point for both projects, and in this respect Airbnb is certainly an interesting case. From one perspective, Airbnb offers competitively-priced accommodation which also has a ‘homely’ and ‘authentic’ feel, the place where one can ‘feel at home’ or ‘feel like a local’. At the same time, the very elements that are intended to make one feel welcome can represent boundaries and signify power and control over domestic space and its use. In this sense, it can be argued that Airbnb represents a domestic environment that combines the notions of home (where one can feel at ease) and non-home (where one knows their place). Our shared aim was to explore and visualise these ambivalences of Airbnb homes, where signs of welcome and hospitality co-exist with indicators of boundaries and rules, and can also act as glimpses into the identities of places and their owners.

The interviews were conducted between 2017-2019 with 16 participants (six hosts and ten guests) of various age and ethnic backgrounds. All hosts resided at their property at the time and rented out private room(s) on a regular basis. Ken Kajoranta has been photographing Airbnb homes since May 2016 whenever he travels to different locations in the UK and Europe. Ken photographs rooms, objects and elements of home decor aiming to creatively capture the unique qualities of the homes he visited; things that may not be described on Airbnb listings but that make one feel connected to a place and remember it in a particular way.

Creative approach: combining sociological research and documentary photography

Two narratives that emerged from the projects have been combined here: a creative visual story and extracts from participants’ interviews. This strategy was inspired by Jenifer Mason’s work on ‘facet methodology’ (2011) that encourages imaginative and creative ways of doing and presenting research. The presented facets in the form of creative combination of images and text are designed to produce ‘flashes of insight into conceptual issues’ (Mason 2011: 80); or, in our case, to offer different ways of engaging with shared domestic spaces and their material and sensory characteristics. In doing so our approach to combining images with text can be described as intuitive and artistic. Thus, the quotations from participants’ interviews do not necessarily correspond or annotate the images directly, but rather act as associations and reflections, which can equally clarify and question. Our collaboration also enabled us to reflect on how sociological research and documentary photography can be combined in a way that enriches both. The format of visual essay enabled us to keep a strong visual dimension so the images act as a standalone narrative while offering connections to the theoretical and conceptual grounds of the study. At the same time, while acknowledging the important role of text our approach aimed to avoid the situation where the quotation simply duplicated what the image was saying in a descriptive way.

We left the detailed captions and commentary out thus enabling the reader to explore possible ways of reading and interpreting the layers and meanings depicted in the photographs. The inclusion of interview quotations is meant to offer additional insights into the research themes but it can also be read as a separate story. We used torn paper background to present quotations as it was one of the common ways of communications between hosts and guests – written on sticky notes, random sheets of paper, envelopes, and notepads. By doing this we hoped to achieve some closeness to hosts’ and guests’ experiences and also to ‘socialise’  the narrative – after all, the relationships between hosts and guests constitute an essential part of the Airbnb experience but there are no people present in the photographs.

Hosts’ and guests’ experiences and feeling at home

As the fieldwork showed, although both hosts and guests distinguished between the notions of personal home and ‘Airbnb home’ there were variations in strategies of how they wanted to present themselves in those spaces. We particularly wanted to uncover two themes through the photographs.The first theme refers to the exploration of hosts’ and guests’ experiences and their sometimes ambivalent feelings towards places they live or stay. While some hosts maintained a more relaxed and ad hoc approach to negotiating house rules, others preferred to have more clear and visible instructions for their guests. Guests appreciated a certain degree of flexibility (such as using the kitchen or the whole property) and relative privacy, but they also showed awareness of its temporal nature which prevented them from developing close attachments to places they stayed in, and feeling at home ‘too much’.

The presentation of the place as ‘homely’ and ‘authentic’, i.e. containing personal artefacts and possessions of the owner, generated mixed responses. Overall, guests seemed to want to experience ‘lived home’ as it was, with traces of life, personal items and decor, but they did not want to have too much of it. They wanted it to be clean and prepared, an almost ‘prepackaged’ type of domesticity, homely enough so it is different to a hotel, but not too personal either. Thus, home becomes a site of emotional management where both parties are expected to negotiate largely unscripted roles of ‘hosts’ and ‘guests’, manage everyday life commitments, and fulfill the expectations to provide relaxed and welcoming environment while ultimately knowing that all these qualities are part of the transaction. Correspondingly, the notion of ‘feeling at home’ becomes objectified and functions as one of the criteria for evaluation of the service at the end of the stay. The second theme touches more specifically on rules and boundaries, both seen and unseen, utilised by hosts and guests to maintain their respective roles. This can be presented in the form of visible instructions, but also through elements of decor and furnishings, things that are placed on a spot and hidden away in a corner.

Overall, we are seeking to offer a way to think about the constructed nature of the aesthetics of the place and its presumed ‘authenticity’, home appears as a place that is both presented and represented and thus open to different interpretations depending on individual background, biography, memories and associations. It is also an attempt to visualise the ambivalent nature of home cultures that Airbnb hospitality may produce, where the line between a ‘welcome guest’ and an ‘unwelcome other’ can be blurred.

See more: https://www.kenkajorantaphotography.com/work/airbnb

Dr Anna Pechurina (PhD in Sociology, the University of Manchester) is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences. Her research interests are in researching the meaning of home and homemaking practices within various cultural and social contexts. Her monograph “Material Cultures, Migrations, and Identities” (Palgrave, 2015) explores material cultures and homes of Russian migrants in the UK. Her other research also engages with mobilities and migration, post-Socialist cultures and identities, ethnographic and visual methods. Her areas of teaching specialisation are in Social Research Methodology, Urban Theories, and Identity and Society. Anna tweets @anyapechurina

Ken Kajoranta is a Swedish artist and independent photographer whose creative background draws on documentary photography of Nordens Fotoskola and features subjective and intimate approach to search for experiences and moments of everyday life. Working with film and digital formats Ken specialises in documentary photography, portraiture, and landscapes, as well as exploring boundaries and symbolisms of urban spaces. Ken tweets @KenKajoranta

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses cookies to personalise your experience and analyse site usage. See our Cookie Notice for more details.