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Making with video

In September I attended a weekend course on Digital Video Production for Anthropologists and Social Researchers, run by Spectacle (http://www.spectacle.co.uk/).  My interest in the course was two-fold. First, I had just begun to convene a new MA in Visual Sociology at Goldsmiths (http://www.gold.ac.uk/pg/ma-visual-sociology/), set up by Nina Wakeford and Michael Guggenheim.  This MA is in partly practice-based, with students taking introductory sessions on (among other things) the use and value of video, sound and photography to exploring social worlds, and developing their own multi-media practice in different projects.  Having not picked up a video camera since my A Level in Media Studies, I wanted to reacquaint myself with the technology.  Second, some of my primary research interests are in images and visual (or sensory) culture and in inventive and visual (or sensory) methodologies, and while I have written on images and followed the developments across the social sciences in methodologies for capturing the sensory social world, I have not conducted research through visual for a while.

Taking this course prompted me to recall – in practice – how doing sociological research with video can (re-)attune us to some key processes within visual culture and contemporary social life.  For me, briefly and not exhaustively, these include these very basic – and perhaps banal! – observations:

- The visual is always-already multi-sensory.  This applies to visual methods as much as the social world. Indeed, being part of a team filming movement (one of the short exercises we participated in on the course) made me consider the relationship between image and sound in more detail.  Listening to the world via a microphone (and headphones) amplified the sounds of our environment, and drew my attention to how filming is as much about sound as vision: beginning and ending a shot with sound as well as or instead of what can be seen, for example, as well as the potential to direct a viewers’ attention to certain things. Exploring the social world via video means that it was impossible to separate out definitively vision from sound. In practice, what this means for social researchers is an attention to the social world as sensory; to what Kathleen Stewart describes as a ‘noticing’ of the ‘live surface’ of the everyday (Everyday Affects, 2007, p 1, 4)

are lots of practices that can go into producing a ‘perfected’ image, and these occur before and during as well as after the shoot itself.  For example, we learnt about lighting: what Richard Dyer in his book White (1997) terms the ways in which ‘photography and film are media of light’ (p 84). Dyer discusses the racialised (and racist) implications of lighting, whereby the ‘assumption that the normal face is the white face’ (p 94) is built into the infrastructure of these media, through different techniques that test and control lighting via the base of white skin. Standards of what is ‘normal’, ‘gaudy’ and beautiful are therefore set through techniques of lighting.

The girls who participated in my research in 2003 on the ways in which they know, understand and experience their bodies through images, were well aware of how, in popular media images, women celebrities have ‘been made up’ (Tasha) and ‘airbrushed’ (Fay), yet these images still had the capacity to make them feel bad about their own bodies.  Cracking open the complexities and contradictions of digital media that Lev Manovich (1995) describes in ‘The Paradoxes of Digital Media’ (http://manovich.net/TEXT/digital_photo.html) – where on the one hand we know that images are mediated and ‘not real’ yet on the other hand still regard them as in some way truthful – is still a worthwhile task, at least for some audiences. How far are images of beauty still constructed around the ideal of whiteness, for example? How far do advertising campaigns organized around ‘natural’, make-up free beauty (eghttp://manovich.net/TEXT/digital_photo.htmlhttp://www.hellomagazine.com/healthandbeauty/skincare-and-fragrances/2013080714001/cheryl-cole-make-up-free/), nevertheless depend on pre-shoot techniques?

- It is (still) important to consider, and disrupt, how technology is gendered.  This course required me to reflect on my own relationship with technology – with how I had during my A Levels opted for the director’s role rather than being behind (or worse, in front of the camera) – and to try to adopt a new attitude to using the camera.  As feminists have long pointed out, it is still worth thinking about the relationships between gender and technology then, and with how enabling participants in research to experiment with different technologies might help to disrupt such patterns.

Although this course was just a brief and introductory entry into doing social research with video, it also raises questions about the products of social research. As is being widely remarked upon, sociology’s attachment to the dissemination of research via written ‘outputs’ is currently being re-worked. Researching social worlds through video suggests that other formats might be more appropriate, which, in turn, may engage audiences other than those traditionally associated with sociology.  As Kat’s project as well as the series of workshops on Inventive Enactments of the Social that she’s been organising suggest, a sociology concerned with making (with) involves re-thinking the relationship between data and output, researcher and researched, and between thinking and making. 

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