This is the third of a series of blogs about creative urban methods. For the introduction and longer versions of the blogs, see the website of CRUM.
Photographs have been used in Urban Geography as data and illustrations of specific situations for a long time (Rose, 2014). Visual methods have for example been used to provide in-depth understandings of daily urban places in which people meet, recreate, work and live. Photography is a great tool to grasp the experiences or atmospheres of a specific urban place, to think and understand the urban environment from various perspectives and to make theoretical concepts visible in streetscapes. In recent years interest for using photographs as a method has increased. An explanation could be that visual culture has become more central in people’ s everyday lives; almost everyone has a camera in their pocket nowadays and social media, which is highly visual, is greatly affecting our ways of engaging with the world.
Photo-walk your neighborhood
In our course Visual methods (Utrecht University) we trained Master’s students Human Geography in the use of mental mapping, photo voicing and (auto-)photography for doing qualitative research. Students were encouraged to explore their everyday environments by dwelling, walking and doing (auto-)photography. The main aim was to reflect on everyday practices, to deepen understandings of the world around them and to get a relational understanding of human and non-human entities in space. These photo walks were creative encounters with daily spaces and were inspired by the urban flaneurs of Baudelaire and the Situationists (1950s) who explored the city by drifting freely through it.
This year (2021) students took pictures of signs and changes in social behavior in public spaces due to Covid19 regulations. While looking through a lens they critically reflected on how Covid19 has affected the material city, other people and their own feelings. They all choose a part of their daily and familiar neighborhood by looking “at the world anew”. As Pyyry (2016, p. 102) stated: “(…) through the lens of the camera, you don’t take these places for granted anymore, but became aware of local relations and processes. Photography is used as a method to ‘make the familiar unfamiliar’ and question the ‘taken-for-granted’ ”.
Surprising paradoxes: emptiness – unsafety – street life
A number of students showed us, with their photographs, the effects of closed stores and the revival of the delivery economy: empty boxes on the street in front of the facades of closed facilities. Not only a lot of clutter and reduction of livability, but also less people in the streets and squares were documented. It became apparent that many urban facilities were not only physical buildings but also provided social surveillance opportunities through “eyes on the street”. Especially female students explicitly noted that this assignment made them think about safety in public spaces.
At the same time, the “to-go” economy created much more interaction and contact on the street especially during the day. Covid19 has put new pressures on urban public space. Where people live in small houses and are forced to work from home there is more need for outdoor air and a stroll after the countless video calls with colleagues. Because of the virus urban public spaces have also become high-risk places dominated by arrows, red and white ribbons, rules, warning signs and traffic circles. As a result the outdoor space increasingly resembles an indoor space with all those rules. Moreover, windows seem to have become communication columns with messages of hope, emotions and solidarity.
Pictures taken by Master students Human Geography in the course Visual Methods (cohort 2020-2021)
This year’s visual methods course clearly showed us that taking pictures stimulates thinking by concentrating on what happens in situ. It also stimulates dialogues about important issues. After taking pictures of empty shopping streets and empty, dark storefronts images were shared and discussed with local policymakers and entrepreneurs. This discussion led to possible solutions for creating more liveliness and safety, for example by using shop windows as temporarily exhibition spaces. We can conclude that these visual methods not only make it easier to visualize and discuss issues with students in class, but also to provide planners and policymakers, who are responsible for the design of public spaces, in-depth insights into the daily experiences of citizens in their urban environment.
Benzon, N. von, Holton, M., Wilkinson, C. & S. Wilkinson (Eds). (2021). Creative methods for human geographers. London: Sage.
Pyyry, N. (2016). Learning with the city via enchantment: photo-walks as creative encounters. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 37(1), 102-115.
Rose, G. (2014). ‘On the relation between “ visual research methods ” and contemporary visual culture’. The Sociological Review 62(1), 24 – 46.
Irina van Aalst works in the Department of Human Geography & Planning at Utrecht University and coordinates the Master Human Geography and Planning.
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