Visual Sociology and Urban Icons

4 angles of the Liver building in Liverpool

Maike Pötschulat

Any type of social research risks reiterating what is already known about the social world; getting beyond this is a challenge for us all.

Visual methods are by now a mainstream part of qualitative research and offer a lot of potential to generate sociological knowledge by revealing a wider range of standpoints than traditional methods do. This is especially the case for the connection between the visual and cities, as urban (social) realities are frequently represented through images. This affinity led to a problem in my fieldwork: so-called ‘iconic’ urban sites were a frequent feature of participant-generated images of the city in a research project on urban belonging. In academic theory, iconic buildings and structures are regularly associated with the divisive, but prominent, use of urban architecture for economic purposes and at first it seemed that the participants’ images in my research were de facto reiterating this point. Yet, closer analysis of the deployed autophotography method and the participant’s sense-making around their images via photo-elicitation interviews revealed that the method offers an approach through which taken-for-granted narratives of the urban environment can be disrupted.

Autophotography is a visual method deployed to get a closer understanding of how people make sense of themselves and their environments. Participants are asked to take images in reply to a specific task or question that is focused on getting an understanding of their self-concept, for instance, in my research, the participants were asked to take pictures of places in the city that are important for their everyday lives. In combination with photo-elicitation interviews, the method establishes a deeper sense of meaning around the image, even over and above what is explicitly pictured. In doing so it allows for an exploration of issues of meaning, practice and space. Notwithstanding that images can be meaningful in themselves, in my deployment of the autophotography method the focus is on the meaning that the images carry for the participant and this is explored via photo-elicitation interviews. While on the surface autophotography is very similar to the far more famous photovoice method, it is distinctly different in that it aims to establish a deeper sense of the lifeworld of the actor (as well as the group they belong to) without necessarily focusing on community issues and policy impact. In this sense, autophotography offers new ways of studying people’s ‘sense of place’ in Doreen Massey’s understanding of the term, as a unique combination of the local and the global, the past and the present and the individual and the collective.

Since its inception photography has been deeply embedded in the study and representation of urban life. Urban flâneur and photographer Eugene Atget, provides one of the earliest photographic explorations of late 19th/early 20th century Paris with a focus on its built environment. Similarly, the photographic explorations of André Kertész emphasise urban structures through the deliberate use of light and shadows (and predominantly unidentifiable urban actors). The inclusion of social interaction in urban photography (as for instance in the work of Fred Herzog, Helen Levitt, Vivian Maier and many others) shows how photography can capture people’s practices and interactions that shape and are shaped by their urban surroundings. Ultimately, the divide between photography as an art form and photography as a scholarly method needs dissolving.

The visual in the social sciences, in all its variety and diversity, provides an alternative way to study the city and urban belonging. Indeed images are already frequently used to emphasise and construct particular senses of place and urban cultures over others, for instance in practices of city branding and place marketing by public and private sector institutions. A common visual trope in these images is the photographic staging of iconic urban sites as glossy, attention-grabbing symbols of the places they are intended to represent. The sociology and geography of place branding has over decades connected these practices and images to entrepreneurial urban economies and subsequent geographies of symbolic and physical exclusion in cites.

How then, can sociologists make sense of visual representations of urban icons in participant-generated photography? I encountered this dilemma during a recent research project with undergraduate students, exploring their relationship to the city (Liverpool in this case). I deployed the method of autophotography coupled with photo-elicitation interviews asking the participants to take pictures of meaningful everyday places and then discussing these images individually in interviews. Besides incorporating images of meaningful everyday spaces, the participants also submitted snap-shot quality images of iconic sites in Liverpool, such as the Albert Dock, the Metropolitan Cathedral or the Liver Building. Initially, I felt a sense of disappointment when seeing these images, concluding (prematurely) that they reflect the entanglement of student culture in neoliberal urban practices and exclusionary urban governance strategies. But I came to realise that the method has far more to offer than just reiterating these processes. 

The images pictured above are from my fieldwork and were all taken by participants. In many ways these images could be classed as ‘bad photography’, since they are lacking the aesthetic and artistic qualities of any of the urban images of the photographers mentioned above. In autophotography, the participants are briefed that snap-shot photographs are sufficient and ultimately, the quality of the images is dependent on the participants’ engagement (or lack of) with image-making; wonky frames, under- and overexposure as well as dull compositions are a likely outcome. Yet, when combined with photo-elicitation interviews, depth is achieved via the contextualisation of the visual rather than the image itself as the only source of meaning.

In my research, the photo-elicitation interviews revealed that frequently visualised buildings such as urban icons had become tangled up with many senses of place. In the interviews, the participants discussed how the icons pictured above are a frequent feature in their everyday lives, they are also spaces they associate with special occasions such as family visits, weddings or baptisms and they are sites – and sights – they find aesthetically interesting and unique. Overall, images of iconic sites stood in, physically and symbolically, for the entirety of the participants’ lives, experiences and memories in the city. From big life events to everyday occurrences, photographs of urban icons were in fact a display of urban belonging, standing in for the social bonds they had formed in and with the city. Their symbolic power lied in capturing the intangible; they represented emotional, social and spatial connections that the participants had created. These are only marginally connected to the entrepreneurial narratives so often associated with urban icons and their visual representation. In short, it was the participants’ urban experiences that were revealed, not their absorption of place-marketing images.

From early art-based photography to contemporary visual techniques, autophotography is just one method of a larger visual repertoire that offers new ways of studying place and allows us to get a deeper understanding of the multiple and contested meanings attached to urban environments. It enables the discovery and exploration of different standpoints even via taken for granted visual tropes. Icons and images of them are symbolic to all sorts of publics and ultimately, participant images can signify the contradictory social positions from which people make sense of them. In the case of my research, the autophotography method (only via its combination of participant-photography and meaning elicitation) offered a way of deconstructing visual and contextual connections between the urban built environment, images thereof and associated narratives. The discussions of the participant-generated snap-shots revealed that they had appropriated the icon’s symbolism and adapted it to represent their own senses of place. In this process, the participants also made me confront my own bias as a social researcher to not just find and simply confirm what researchers already seem to know.

Maike Pötschulat is a Lecturer in Sociology at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research interests are in the fields of urban and visual sociology, in particular the exploration of the visual in the study of urban life and the types of realities that visual methodologies are capturing. She tweets @maike_poe

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