Some really interesting insights from fellow students this week on how they see/use research in project development.
Analysing their responses, they boil down to three main areas:
- Professional context: What has been done before in relation to my project? How has it been done? What can I learn from the shortcomings or learnings from the projects of others? Where will my current work sit (both as a subject and also platform for dissemination?
- Fieldwork (to borrow an anthropological term): Although colleagues touched on it in various ways, ultimately they were keen to ‘know their subject’, whether topographically, culturally, psychologically, sociologically or imaginatively. Such research can be quantitative or qualitative. The phrase ‘immersion’ was used frequently, with the likes of Susan Mieselas, Alec Soth, Christopher Anderson and others often cited. Fieldwork encapsulates both the preparation and on-site research. It sets the terms of reference for what the photographer will be looking at, what sensitivities might be in play and forms the bridges of understanding between photographer and subject. But it continues throughout the project and shapes it. The act of photographing is part of this subject immersion. (At this point it is worth noting my concerns about citing ‘anthropological research’ as an in-stream into photographic research. If I learned one thing during my brief stint with anthropology during my degree it was that the products of ‘anthropological research’ is hotly contested. It is interpretative and the conclusions are often informed fictions based on informed fictions. Alexandar Boscovik, in an essay on Clifford Geertz, puts it fairly well: “‘Inscribing’ a meaning (that is later going to be deduced as a result of the interpretative analysis) on a set of events that are being observed might be of some benefit to an anthropologist/observer (making some sense for him/her out of an otherwise completely unintelligible situation), but could have nothing to do with any form of “understanding” or “explanation” of the things (events, processes, etc.) being observed. The essential plurality of truths (or possible explanations) is one thing, but the actual events are sometimes quite another. Possibility should not be confused with probability.”
- Practical: How will the work be done? What is needed to achieve the work? What are the settings for the work? What is the vision of the work and what do I need to accomplish that goal?
So far, so good. But then my colleague Tim raised a crucial issue (and I am hugely grateful for his honesty) in asking whether research can also be a justification for one’s work: that it can play a retrospective rather than a priori role in a project, and asking whether this is desirable.
Tim writes: “Within my practice I am finding myself using research as a form of justification for the works I am creating.
“My works comes from instinct and automation. It is the justification research I have done that has allowed me to explain my work to an audience.”
This is hammer, nail, ping territory. Is there a risk that ‘research’ runs the risk of stifling the personal vision, that we run the risk of being academically-clothed versions of Richard Prince, our work peculiar amalgams of what has gone before it? Arguably yes, in some cases.
But it depends on the subject. Stuart Franklin’s Footprint: Our Landscapes In Flux, which examines the effects of climate change and human use (pillage?) of the landscape have been possible without extensive research? No. Would Christopher Anderson’s Son have been made better by having spent more time examining the works of other’s on photographing the relationships between father and child? Doubt it.
Of course, research happens all the time, often without it being classed as research. We tend to call it ‘life’, or ‘doing things’ or ‘going places’ or whatever. Research is informing our every decision, all of the time, everywhere.
What purpose does research serve?
My colleague Marcel summed this up fairly well:
- It can show new opportunities or possibilities. Perhaps it changes the direction of a project or initiates a new one.
- It helps to make the project more focused.
It can also lead to projects in and of themselves, as the art and photography director Gem Fletcher found: “Through hours of research, I found an archival photograph of a small group of wrestlers based in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. I fell in love with their clothing, the energy, the history of the sport and the role wrestling played in the men’s social standing within the local community.
“I studied the sport. I read everything I could about it. Examined all the images I could find and watched the few videos of matches which made it onto youtube. I started to break down the moments I wanted to explore, attempting to make as many decisions as possible ahead of time so we could give clear direction on site. I also had to remain flexible as I had no idea what we would be able to achieve once we arrived.”
I would argue further that research done well is a shaping exercise rather than one of mere information absorption. And that, I hope and believe, performs the function of teasing out the personal vision. It helps refine that all important question: ‘W light can I bring to this?’
My own research thus far has boiled down to contextual practice and personal history. Working most recently on trying to visualise the impact of maternal abandonment, I became the subject, and I was forced to interrogate my own feelings, memories and relationships. Much of the work concerned metaphor and psychology and that took me towards looking at how others had envisioned similar themes: Sarter Protick, Rinko Kawauchi, Art Spiegelmann and Philip Toleadano.
This module, I am heading in a different direction.
I used to think my son was a bit odd for being able to watch the types of films/TV I used to watch (Star Wars, Miami Vice, Superman, Automan, Manimal, Knight Rider and the list goes on and on and on) and not desperately want to BECOME the characters he saw. It was only fairly recently I realised it was actually me that was odd, and not him. So this term’s project is likely to be a series of portraits of him and me, him as himself, me as my fictional becomings. The research will be two-fold: practical and theoretical. Practical, in terms of setting up these shots (costumes if needed/locations etc) and then looking at those artists who have touched on similar/related themes, Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s The Family Album of Lucybell Crater, for example.
But I will also have to re-watch those programmes that once so strongly influenced me, my desires, sense of self, assumed values etc. I will need to research the mannerisms and attitudes of those characters to make representation a success, and to research the work as it progresses to be vigilant for emerging interconnections and themes which merit deeper interrogation.
Boscovic, A: ResearchGate. (n.d.). (PDF) Clifford Geertz: Writing and interpretation. [online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/47392598_Clifford_Geertz_Writing_and_interpretation [Accessed 27 Sep. 2020].
Spiegelman, A. (2003). The complete Maus. London: Penguin.
Rhem, J. and Fraenkel Gallery (2002). Ralph Eugene Meatyard : the family album of Lucybelle Crater and other figurative photographs. New York, N.Y.: Distributed Art Publishers.
Progress, L. in (2017). “Photography is a gateway to so many different people and…. [online] Lecture In Progress. Available at: https://lectureinprogress.com/journal/gem-fletcher [Accessed 28 Sep. 2020].
Wells, L. (2019). The photography cultures reader : representation, agency and identity. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Franklin, S. (2008). Stuart Franklin, footprint our landscape in flux. London: Thames & Hudson.
Anderson, C. (2013). Christopher Anderson – Son. Heidelberg ; Berlin: Kehrer.