Photography and social research

I have often felt in doing research that I have missed out on using photographs, but when it comes to it I am not sure what an image tells us. Or rather my suspicion is, to borrow a phrase from Ryle [1], that an image gives you a ‘thin’ description’, it shows you what is happening but not why it is happening or the intention of the person doing it. Words offer the possibility of a thick description and I would much prefer, for example, to read George Orwell on shooting an elephant [2] rather than look at a photo or see a film of the same thing – though to be fair a photo has the particular value that it could have established whether Orwell really did shoot an elephant or not.

Two sets of photographs have recently grabbed my attention. Both from 1930’s and early 1940’s. The historical context is important as this is the period in which small, reliable and affordable hand held cameras were coming on to the market triggering a new interest in photography, just as hand held video cameras and now Smart/ I phones have led to an explosion of moving images being taken today.

The first set of photographs were taken by [3] Bateson and Mead – in fact of the two Bateson seems to have led on the photography. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were both established social researchers and were excited about using photos in their ethnographic reporting as this might fill a gap between ‘journalistic description’ and ‘over analytical disembodied discussion’. The book they produced was a mix of text (Mead provided the written descriptions of Balinese culture, for example, covering topics including learning, integration of the body, parents and children, rites of passages and so on) Bateson’s photographs could illustrate through image what was being described in text. The book was first published in 1942 though the images were taken some time earlier when, over a period of time, they immersed themselves into Balinese life. [4]

Bateson and Mead worked with a great many photos as well as some short film clips. Interestingly they did not ask permission to take photographs and their subjects, they suggest, had lost a sense of self consciousness as they had got used to the sight of cameras being carried around the village. Very few of the compositions were in any sense ‘posed’ and this the authors see as giving their work greater authenticity.

Mead and Bateson were leading social researchers of the last century and they have been rightly celebrated; if judgments are to be made about their work then these should be framed by the times in which they lived. Mead and Bateson wanted to learn from the communities they studied and they offer some fascinating insight not least in respect to education. In a section about learning Mead describes a socialisation framework which might be seen as a community of practice. Children it is said learn virtually nothing from verbal instruction and even in story telling words must be repeated to have meaning. However some of the text really grates to the contemporary reader and many would question  the process by which western ethnographers come to enter and appraise traditional community. The photos look horribly intrusive and Mead and Bateson did not follow through on the ethical issues raised by their methods and I doubt if any of their colleagues or readers at the time would have done so either. [5]   The pictures are helpful to support the text but they are secondary. To be honest they remind me of tourist ‘snapshots’ more than anything else (nothing wrong with that of course but unsettling in the context of social research). Mead and Bateson set out to avoid presenting Balinese culture as disembodied and being over analytical, yet in tone that is what they have done.

Around the same time that Mead and Bateson were in Bali, other American photographers, some of the key names were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and Roy Stryker, were working on documenting the experiences of smallholders in the USA itself.  This was the work of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration Programme (the FSA) – the FSA programme being part of the interventionist New Deal to tackle unemployment and poverty. In particular smallholders in central USA were made destitute not only by the economic depression but also by ecological catastrophe. Farm land in the plains was always susceptible to drought and erosion but the soil could be held together by grass. As the great plains were ploughed up the soil lost its binding and come the droughts the soil simply blew away in great dust clouds [7]. Faced with the destitution of farmers the government at first did very little but the New Deal offered by Roosevelt offered more, though how radical has always remained a matter of debate. The idea of a historical section seems to have been to record the lives and trials of shareholder farmers in the hope that this would generate a sense of social solidarity leading to action to address their plight. The photographers working on the project produced a very large numbers of images which can be accessed in library of Congress web site [6].

Many of the photos draw the viewer in and do what they set out to do which is to provoke an emotional response. I don’t want to overdo the contrast between these photographs and those of Bateson as the FSA ones were taken by professional photographers and were designed to persuade not just to document. However it needs to be said that the photos are engaging and humanist in ways that Bateson’s are not. Interestingly though, similar ethical issues are raised by both sets of photographs as the FSA photographers did not seek permission from their subjects either  and there has been some talk of smallholder  being unhappy at the way their lives were documented.

The FSA collection remains haunting. And particularly so as it seems to offer a direct  comparison with the images we have of, displacement and forced migration  in particular from Syria into Europe.

Photographs

The images below are available from the Library of Congress and are respectively titled:

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma (Arthur Rubinstein April 1936)

dust-storm

Children of destitute Ozark mountaineer, Arkansas (Ben Shahn, October 1935)

destitute-children

Toward Los Angeles, Calif. (Dorothea Lange March 1937).

next-time

Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California (Dorothea Lange, February or March 1936)

pea-picker

(Note the collection is available to view via the Library of Congress and I understand is copyright free but apologise in advance if this is not case.)

[1] Ryle, G. (1968) The Thinking of thoughts, What is ‘Le Penseur’ doing?, University Lectures No 18, University of Saskatchewan. Online. Available HTTP: <http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/CSACSIA/Vol14/Papers/ryle_1.html>

[2] Orwell (1936) Shooting an Elephant is in various collections but can be accessed at the Orwell archive online at http://orwell.ru/library/articles/elephant/english/e_eleph

[3] Bateson, G.and Mead, M. (1942) Balinese Character A photographic analysis New York Academy of Sciences, New York

[4] It is a grey area but I don’t think I have permission to upload photographs to the site but you can see them on a web site publicising a ibrary of congress event at

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead/field-bali.html

[5] a contrasting approach is to give cameras to participants in order that they may make their own images and discuss them together – see for a example Johnsen, S. et al (2008) Imagining ‘homeless places’ Area, 40, 2. 194-207.

[6] I became aware of these photos via an exhibition at my university: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930’s America http://www.warwickartscentre.co.uk/whats-on/2016/the-human-document/

[7] Some of the context can be seen in the film ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains’.  I found it extraordinary. The film can be easily accessed on You Tube, for example at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQCwhjWNcH8

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