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date: 01 December 2020

Visual and Screen-Based Research Methodologiesfree

  • Cleo MeesCleo MeesMacquarie University
  •  and Tom MurrayTom MurrayMacquarie University, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9587-643X

Summary

Visual and screen-based research practices have a long history in social-science, humanities, education, and creative-arts based disciplines as methods of qualitative research. While approaches may vary substantially across visual anthropology, sociology, history, media, or cultural studies, in each case visual research technologies, processes, and materials are employed to elicit knowledge that may elude purely textual discursive forms. As a growing body of visual and screen-based research has made previously-latent aspects of the world explicit, there has been a concomitant appreciation that visual practices are multisensory and must also be situated within a broader exploration of embodied knowledge and multisensory (beyond the visual) research practice. As audio-visual projects such as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan (2013), Rithy Panh's S-21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003), and Margaret Loescher’s Cameras at the Addy (2003) all demonstrate, screen-based research practices are both modes of, and routes to, knowledge. These projects also demonstrate ways in which screen-based visual research may differ from research exclusively delivered in written form, most specifically in their capacity to document and audio-visually represent intersubjective, embodied, affective, and dynamic relationships between researchers and the subjects of their research. Increasingly, as a range of fields reveal that the incorporative body works as an integrated “perceptive field” as it processes sensory stimuli, visual and screen-based research practices will fulfil an important role in facilitating scholarly access to intuitive, affective, embodied, and analytical comprehension.

Introduction

This article gives an overview of some visual and screen-based methods employed in social sciences, humanities, education, and creative arts research, and explores the unique ways of “knowing” that these methods enable. We begin by providing a historical account of the scholarly uses of visual methods, from their troubled and troublesome origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through to a more recent “visual turn” in the humanities that was driven by the increasing uptake of reflexive, sensory, embodied and participatory approaches to research, and an increasing confidence in the capacity of visual methods to facilitate such approaches. We then go on to describe several ways in which visual and screen-based methods allow researchers to engage with “forms of experience that are either un-securable or much more difficult to secure through other representational forms” (Eisner, as cited in O’Donoghue, 2012, para. 3). We propose that these methods facilitate multisensory, embodied, personal, empathetic and locomotive routes to knowing about the world. Three examples of visual practice feature in our discussion: Rithy Panh’s documentary film, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003); Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s sensory ethnography of a fishing trawler, Leviathan (2013); and Margaret Loescher’s participatory photography and video project undertaken at “the Addy,” a children’s playground in northern England (2003). In closing, we consider future developments and remaining questions in the field of visual research.

A Disciplinary Context

In acknowledgement of our own subjectivity, we thought it important to note that we write from backgrounds in documentary filmmaking, performance, and creative practice research informed by history and visual anthropology scholarship. The overview that follows reflects this in several ways.

Firstly, some terminology in this article may be described as “poetic.” This, as Leah Mercer, Julie Robson, and David Fenton (2012) note, is common in creative arts research, and can help to explain aspects of creative practice “without flattening the liveliness of . . . somatic, aesthetic [approaches]” (p. 16).

Secondly, we write from the understanding that knowledge emerges through context-specific, material practices, and that methodologies appropriate to one context may not be appropriate in others (Barrett & Bolt, 2010; Douglas & Gulari, 2015; Nelson, 2013; Smith & Dean, 2009). As such, this article does not aim to be in any way prescriptive.

A History of Visual Research Methodologies

Numerous theorists of visual research have noted the “deep distrust” and “troubled relationship” that social science disciplines have had with visual representations of their key subject areas, such as material culture, social knowledge, and human behavior (Banks, 2001; Collier, 1957; Pink, 2007; Ruby, 2000). Indeed, it has been argued that “one of the hallmarks of twentieth-century western thought” was “profound anxiety” toward vision, and its suppression and denigration in favor of textual discourse (Grimshaw & Ravetz, 2005, pp. 5–6). This suspicion of visual methods has some logic, particularly when we consider the widely discredited 19th-century applications of visual methods (predominantly illustration and photography) employed to advance views based on the superiority of certain races and social classes. This problematic work is most closely associated with various schools of “physical” (rather than cultural) anthropology in France (Paul Broca, Alphonse Bertillon), England (Francis Galton), Germany (Ernst Haeckel, Leo Frobenius), Switzerland (Rudolf Martin), and Austria (Rudolf Pöch), to name just a few of the exponents (Evans, 2010; Harper, 1998; Morris-Reich, 2013). Connections between visual work, colonial aspirations, and state propaganda (particularly during times of war—see Evans, 2010) added to concerns regarding the compromising potential of visual materials. Some obvious examples include Leni Riefenstahl’s films in 1930s Germany, and the “Empire Marketing Board” films funded by the British government between 1926 and 1934, where the producer, John Grierson, put his “Technic [sic] of the Propaganda film” to the creative task of marketing the produce of the British Empire (see Elliot 1931, pp. 742–744).

Alongside associations with propagandist, racist, and other forms of discriminatory practice, visual media also came to be identified with populist forms of art and entertainment, as well as with less authoritative and intellectual sources of media production, such as tourism and journalism (Grimshaw & Ravetz, 2005, p. 5). These were all fields with which nascent, professionalizing disciplines wanted no connection. Additionally, within anthropology at least, it has been argued that the preoccupations of mid-20th-century scholarship—with culture as an abstraction in the United States, and with social structure in Britain—had little need for visual tools and methods, as these concerns were much better suited to the analytical form of writing (Banks, 2001; Morphy & Banks, 1997, p. 9). Meanwhile, in sociology, an emphasis by scholars on the statistical analysis of social patterns may account for the dearth of visual research in that field between 1920 and 1960 (Harper, 1988, p. 58). All of this may serve to account for the 20th-century predominance of writing as a sober, trustworthy, and appropriate form of discourse in which to investigate and describe the world.

This does not mean, however, that visual documentation and the gathering of visual evidence were absent from research practices during this period. What follows is a brief and chronological account of some significant research projects that included visual materials as central to their research aims, beginning with photography in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Photography was integral to a number of early anthropological fieldwork projects, including Alfred Court Haddon’s expeditions to the Torres Strait Islands (1888–1899), Ryuzo Torii in China, Korea, and Taiwan (1895–1911), the Hamburg Ethnographic Museum’s South-Seas expedition to the “German” Pacific in 1908–1910, and Bronislaw Malinowski’s fieldwork in Melanesia (1914–1918). While moving film was captured during this period, it was not until the 1920s and the work of U.S. documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty and his Russian contemporary Dziga Vertov that “documentary” films began to exploit narrative and descriptive capabilities of the medium that would be inspirational to later visual anthropologists, including French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch from the 1950s onward (Rouch, 2003). Rouch, in turn, developed a method he described as “cinéma-vérité” in homage to the “kino-pravda” movement of Vertov and others in Russia. His approach would become a key inspiration for later visual anthropologists, in particular because of its reflexive and participatory ethos (MacDougall, 1998).

A quick survey of other definitive visual research must suffice to complete this history. Among these must be included the 1930s work of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, who used photography to a then-unprecedented extent in their studies of culture and social organization in Bali (for a discussion on their films of this era, see Henley, 2013). In the 1942 work Balinese Character Bateson and Mead (1942, p. xii) described their project in this way:

we were separately engaged in efforts to translate aspects of culture never successfully recorded by the scientist, although often caught by the artist . . . [our work] attempted to communicate all those intangible aspects of culture which had been vaguely referred to as its ethos. . . . By the use of photographs, the wholeness of each piece of behavior can be preserved.

From the mid-20th century onward, John Collier’s work (1957, 1967) was influential in establishing photo-elicitation as a research practice, while American writer Lorraine Hansberry’s photographic study of U.S. southern civil rights issues in The Movement (1964) and Bruce Davidson’s 1971 study of black “ghetto” life (Bailey & McAtee, 2003; Harper, 1998) offered examples of how photography could be used as a research tool in sociology. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educationalist and sociologist who pioneered “dialogic pedagogy” (Freire, 1970), was also foundational in his use of photography in a 1973 project designed to investigate the lived experience of Peruvian slum dwellers. Freire asked his subjects to document their lives in photographs rather than in words, a project that has also been influential in the development of “participatory visual methods.”

It would be impossible to conclude a historical overview of the area without reflecting on the “crisis of representation” (Marcus & Fischer, 1986, pp. 9–12) that engulfed anthropological discourse in the 1970s as it dealt with disciplinary fragmentation, and with accusations of being a discipline of “merely Western significance” and “colonialist” in nature (Asad, 1973; Winthrop, 1991). These concerns, allied to broader introspection as a result of participation in the Vietnam war, the publication of Bronislaw Malinowski’s diary revealing a dubious regard for his subjects, and the disclosure of clandestine use of social scientists in Latin America and Southeast Asia, precipitated a “crisis of confidence and loss of innocence” for anthropology (Ruby, 1980, p. 154). This had significant implications for visual research, as it did for the social sciences as a whole. As Jay Ruby (1980) notes, it was no longer possible for researchers to be “shamans of objectivity” and it has since become widely appreciated that “all serious filmmakers and anthropologists have ethical, aesthetic, and scientific obligations to be reflexive and self-critical about their work” (p. 154).

In response to these challenges researchers began to develop new and increasingly reciprocal relations with their subjects, and to be more reflective about structural power dynamics, authorial positions, and “looking relations” with subjects, often leading to more shared and collaborative forms of authorship (Gaines, 1986; Ginsburg, 1994, 1995; Michaels, 1986). All of these challenges would also greatly accelerate the future application of visual research practices, leading to what scholars have described as a “pictorial” (Mitchell, 1994) or “visual turn” in cultural research (Jay, 2002; Pauwels, 2000). In what follows, we will advance a position that this emphasis on the visual also encouraged the consideration of sensory, affective, and embodied dimensions to scholarship (Pink, 2009, 2012, para. 7; Rose, 2014, p. 30).

Beyond Textual Approaches to Knowledge

Visual materials, as discussed in the section, “A History of Visual Research Methodologies,” have been a component of qualitative and quantitative research methods for a long time. The legitimacy and efficacy of these practices as methodological tools, however, have been an ongoing source of contention. Indeed, for most of the 20th century—if they were employed at all—visual materials and research practices were primarily understood to function as adjuncts to conceptual and text-based knowledge, useful as sources of data, or as “an audiovisual teaching aid,” as Jay Ruby (2000, p. 3) put it. Skepticism of their value, and ridiculing of the idea that visual methods “might become . . . [more] than mere tools in fieldwork” have continued until recently (Wolcott, 1999, p. 216, emphasis in original). It has become more common, however, for scholars in the social sciences, education, media studies, and creative arts to acknowledge the value of nontextual and nonverbal ways of knowing, mediating, and communicating experience. These methods can bring us into contact with the world in novel and enlightening ways, with images deployed “not merely [as] appendages to the research but rather [as] inseparable components to learning about our social worlds” (Stanczak, 2011, para. 6).

Visual anthropologists Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz (2005, pp. 5–6) make a case that the “dominance of linguistic, semiotic and textual models of interpretation” that characterized 20th-century academic practice has recently begun to erode in the face of a “more phenomenologically inflected” and “sensuous scholarship.” Indeed, the uptake of visual methods is wrapped up in a broader sensory and embodied turn in the humanities (Pink, 2012, para. 7; Rose, 2014, p. 30), in which the interconnectedness of the senses and the emotive, tacit, corporeal, and ineffable dimensions of knowing are deemed increasingly valid and worthy of investigation.

A problem remains, however, namely that many of these domains of human experience exist “beyond discursive reach” (Grimshaw & Ravetz, 2005, p. 6), and attempts to investigate them through nonlinguistic means have sometimes been problematic within a “logocentric” university context (Ruby, 1996, p. 1351). This has been particularly true of creative arts research, where “personally situated, interdisciplinary and diverse and emergent approaches” (Barrett & Bolt, 2010, p. 2), including research presented in nontextual forms, have been challenged as (in)valid generators of knowledge.

What follows in this article is not intended as a survey of all the nontextual forms of research enquiry and dissemination that exist across performance, the creative arts, education, the humanities and social sciences in the early 21st century. Instead, we wish to concentrate on visual and “screen-based” research (we use this term in order to encompass the wide range of formats and contexts in which visual screen media can be found), in which the medium of research delivery and dissemination is itself screen-based, and in which the world is explored “through the grain” of the visual medium (MacDougall, 1998, p. 76). For this reason, we will include three case studies of screen-based research from scholar-screen producers, including Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Rithy Panh, and Margaret Loescher. In each case the researchers describe learning about the world and discovering the essence of their specific knowledge quest through the distinctly material, sensory, and social processes of screen production. Their image-making processes were not so much “an aesthetic or scientific performance” as that they formed the very “arena of inquiry” (MacDougall, 1998, p. 136), an idea that Lucien Castaing-Taylor (1996) put in a series of rhetorical questions more than two decades ago: “What if film not only constitutes discourse about the world but also (re)presents experience of it? What if film does not say but show? What if a film does not just describe but depict? What, then, if it offers not only ‘thin descriptions’ but also ‘thick depictions’?” (p. 86, emphasis in original).

In making an argument for these screen-based research projects as methodologically powerful ways of accessing previously latent understandings, and hence new knowledge, we do not wish to encourage binary oppositions between written and non-written forms of research, or between the increasingly redundant scholarly division between “theory” and “practice.” Rather, we prefer to draw attention to “all the possible variations in the way [these components] can be combined” (Mercer et al., 2012, p. 11). This is because, in the first instance, many visual research strategies are employed to support what are ultimately text-based qualitative methods and publications (Rose, 2014; Stanczak, 2011); and in the second instance, because text-based publications can also facilitate sensory and embodied scholarly practices. Laura U. Marks’s work (2002) on “haptic criticism,” for example, proposes that writing can offer mimetic, tactile, and experiential accounts of the world that are not so much interested in arriving at clear interpretations of events as brushing up closely to experience and “[forming] multiple points of contact [with it]” (p. vx). This suggests that particular routes to knowledge do not so much rely on a choice of medium as on a particular approach to knowing and mediating. With this important qualification, we will now describe what we see as some fundamental aspects of screen-based visual research. We will illustrate these with reference to the three case studies mentioned in the Introduction to this article.

Some Characteristics of Visual “Knowing” and Screen-Based Research

Multisensory Knowledge

The multisensory nature of vision—and an appreciation of the senses as fundamental to how we understand the world and interpret and represent the worlds of others—has become increasingly significant to scholarship in the humanities and social sciences (Pink, 2009, p. 7). This understanding has led to calls for further scholarly attention to the multisensory body as a research tool (Howes, 2003, p. 27).

Vivian Sobchack (1992), in her work on the phenomenology of vision and the spectatorship of screen works, makes the point that “the senses . . . cooperate as a unified system of access. The lived-body does not have senses. It is, rather, sensible. . . . My entire bodily existence is implicated in my vision” (pp. 77–78). It is a point that has been numerously made since Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962) described the body as a “synergic system” of interconnected faculties (as cited in Ingold, 2000, p. 268) where the body works as an integrated “perceptive field” (MacDougall, 1998, p. 50). Appreciating the interconnectivity of the senses in this way leads to an understanding of the ways in which audiovisual media offer a multisensory (rather than bi-sensory) encounter with the lives and worlds of other beings (Pink, 2012, paras. 2–5).

As we explore in more depth later, many discussions of the interconnected functioning of the senses are additionally concerned with the way that the act of looking also facilitates a form of touching, a kind of contact with the world that involves (following Merleau-Ponty) mimesis: that is, a “resonance of bodies” that emerges through an imitation of the “postural schema” of other entities (MacDougall, 1998, p. 53). By enabling mimetic and multisensory encounters, visual media can teach us about the world in distinctly experiential ways that are replete with affective, emotive, and ambiguous dimensions (Rutherford, 2006, p. 136).

Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s feature-length film, Leviathan, provides a strong example of how a technically “bi-sensory” medium can convey a multisensory understanding of places, people, and processes.

Case Study: Leviathan

Carrying us from night to day, and back into night aboard a fishing trawler, Leviathan consists of a series of long takes, a roaring soundscape, and virtually no human speech. Michael Ungar’s suggestion that the film creates an audiovisual rendition of the experience of being aboard the ship (2017, p. 15) feels apt: we begin the film disoriented, clanking about in the dark, unsure of where we are, or of what we are seeing.

This state of disorientation prompts us to sensorily ascertain the parameters of our environment: its textures, forms, weight, smells, and temperatures. Visual ethnographer Sarah Pink’s argument that we use vision to make multisensory evaluations of materials (such as evaluating whether an object is hot to the touch, heavy to lift, etc.) rings true here: we use the aural and visual materials available to us to develop a multisensory understanding of an unfamiliar environment. Sound, condensation on camera lenses, and flashes of recognizable forms in the maelstrom create sensations of extreme wetness, of hard wind, and hard work. When the camera is pushed underwater, we meet the sharp edges of danger: shards of broken coral flash menacing and close, and we feel the force of water rushing past the ship’s keel. Rather than telling us about this world, the film subjects us to its sensory physicality, giving us an embodied and affective sense of its stakes, and of the elements within it.

Disorientation and ambiguity are key attributes of this work and are intentionally contrary to disciplinary norms that Castaing-Taylor has described as “the discursive and its desire for transparency” (in MacDonald, 2013, p. 295). Paravel and Castaing-Taylor (2013) have stated that their “purpose was to give people a very potent aesthetic experience, to give them a glimpse into a reality that they haven’t had first-hand – a protracted, painful, difficult, visceral, profound embodied experience. . . . Our desire was simply to give an experience of an experience . . .” (as cited in Pavsek, 2015, p. 6).

For those who argue that Leviathan makes a contribution to scholarly knowledge, as we do, its value exists in what each of us extract from this “experience.” Anna Grimshaw (2011), for example, has argued that it opens “a space between the experiential and propositional, between the perceptual and conceptual” (pp. 257–258), which it does through a disavowal of conventional codes of semiotic screen-based meaning, such as forms of direct address to the audience (voice-over, text, interview), or indirect address through on-screen characters. We are asked to construct meaning through our own sensory experience of the film rather than through a “semiotic coding and decoding” that co-director Paravel believes, “cuts off viewers from the pro-filmic world in the very act of seeming to provide them with authoritative knowledge about it” (as cited in interview with Alvarez, 2012, para. 13).

Empathetic, Mimetic, and Embodied Knowledge

The notion that looking becomes a sort of touching (mentioned in the sub-section “Multisensory Knowledge”) is significantly based on the idea of kinesthetic empathy: the idea that when we look at movement, we are able to mimic that movement in our own bodies and establish a kind of physical contact with it. Knowledge of the world thus emerges from what Anna Gibbs (2010) calls a “borrowing of form that might be productively thought of as communication” (p. 193, emphasis added), or even what Sarah Pink (2009) has called “(audio)visual sensory apprenticeship” (para. 1). This idea is significant because it points to another way in which screen-based research might communicate with audiences.

A central feature of kinesthetic empathy is what neuroscientists Vittorio Gallese and Michele Guerra call “embodied simulation.” This revolves around the activity of mirror neurons in the brain. When a person watches other humans (or animals, or entities) do things—like eat an apple or jump up and down—their mirror neurons fire in exactly the way that they would if they were doing that thing themselves, producing a physiological, empathetic response (Gallese & Guerra, 2012, p. 184). As Karen Nakamura (2013) notes, theories of kinesthetic empathy dovetail with theories of synesthesia (or, the ways sensory information can flow across, or trigger, multiple sensory channels at once) (p. 135), further bolstering our understanding of the human body as a “unified system of access” to the world (Sobchack, 1992, p. 77).

The concept of kinesthetic empathy also has a strong basis in philosophical thought. Philosopher David Abram (1996), for example, invokes the work of Merleau-Ponty to imagine an epistemology that does not so much aim to achieve a “mastering” overview of the world, as to participate with it. This means entering into a physical “conversation” with things, working with them and mimicking them, such that we “enter into a sympathetic relation with [the world]” and achieve an “attunement or synchronization between [our] own rhythms and the rhythms of the things themselves” (p. 54). In such an epistemology, the sensible is not comprehended by us, but rather “animate[s]” us, and “thinks itself within [us]” (p. 55). Anne Rutherford (2003), in a similar spirit, describes the effect of mimesis as “a kind of contact—a mode of sensory, tactile perception that . . . closes the gap between the spectator and image” (p. 127). Looking thus provides, through a process of empathy and attunement, a shared sense of physical locomotion as a way of getting closer to the experiences of other entities.

It is important, however, to note the ethical complexities that surround the notion of “empathy”—achieved either through mimetic processes, or any other method. As feminist scholar Sandra Bartky argued in her book, Sympathy and Solidarity (2002), our capacity to gain access to the experiences (and particularly the suffering) of others will always remains limited. And if, by putting ourselves in the shoes of others, we partially overwrite their experience with our own, then perhaps empathy is not always appropriate, or sufficiently respectful of others’ difference. Such concerns must continue to be explored in accounts of the communicative capacities of audiovisual media.

By accepting this qualification, the significant idea here is that moving with or like the world teaches us about it in an intimate, embodied way, and has the capacity to bring forth both new and remembered knowledge. This might happen through the physical retracing of particular movement pathways in the body and in place (Pink & Leder-Mackley, 2014, p. 147), through re-enacting or performing historical events (Dening, 1996; McCalman & Pickering, 2010; Pink & Leder-Mackley, 2014) and, as we have described earlier in this section, through the kinesthetic, empathetic, mimetic act of looking.

The potential of movement to bring about new and remembered knowledge is foundational to the visual and re-enactment methods employed in the making of Rithy Panh’s S-21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003—henceforth S-21), as well as to its knowledge claims.

Case Study: S-21

S-21 reunites perpetrators and victims of state-sanctioned torture at the titular “S-21” prison during the repressive rule of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Panh has explained that the visual methods he used for the film were founded on a belief in the powerful ways that multisensory environments, actions and gestures, and (audio)visual materials could function as “footholds” in the process of knowing and remembering (Oppenheimer, 2012, p. 244). In the film, the former guards of the Khmer Rouge–run S-21 prison are faced with the enormous challenge of recalling, describing, and reflecting on their crimes. The following account by Panh shows how central the revisiting of sensory states, locations, and actions was to accessing repressed, traumatic, and often ineffable memories:

I met Paul, who does the re-enactment in the film, in his native village. And I understood that this man wanted very much to explain what he had done at S21. But he couldn’t get round to explaining it properly, all his phrases were cut off. So at a certain moment I brought him a map of the camp. And so he said, “oh yes, I was a guard in this part of the building.” So then he was able to explain, but in doing that he made the gestures that you see in the film, which completed the phrases he couldn’t discuss. And it’s then that I discovered that there was another memory, which is the bodily memory. . . . Sometimes the violence is so strong that words don’t suffice to describe it. . . .

So it was then that I said to the guard “you can use gestures, you can speak, explain it in any way you wish.” And then that I had the idea [sic] of taking the guard back to S21, which is now a museum of the genocide, and because the guard said that he worked at night there, I took him there at night. I asked at the museum how the building was lit at night—it was lit only by neon—so I cut all the other lighting and just put the neon up there. I sought to create an atmosphere, which recalled the situation, which the guard was actually working in. Sometimes at night they had the radio on with revolutionary songs so that’s why the radio came into it, with the revolutionary songs.

. . . I made him listen to the songs. . . . It’s like giving somebody a foothold to get up a mountain. He needs to have these grips . . . in order to achieve what he’s setting out to do, which is to describe his own testimony.

(Oppenheimer, 2012, p. 244)

In addition to recording the film at the location where the atrocities occurred, re-creating sensory and physical environments, and inviting his participants to re-enact what they did as a means to remembering it, Panh also used elicitation devices such as the sprawling archive of photographs, logbooks, and other documents that remained from the prison as props to facilitate remembering (Oppenheimer, 2012, p. 245). Sensory encounters with these artifacts supported participants in the process of testifying. In the film, we see these processes at work. We see the former prison guards enter the former cells, yell at, handcuff, physically assault, and escort imaginary (and/or remembered) prisoners; we see them leaf through and recite from the logbooks and other archival materials provided by the filmmakers. Doing these tasks helps the guards to start talking about the unspeakable things they participated in many years ago, reflecting Gillian Rose’s observation (2014) that visual methods allow participants and researchers access to not only aspects of experience that are multisensory, but also to affective or feelingful experiences that are ineffable (p. 28), or difficult to talk about.

Panh’s belief in the power of mimicry to produce empathy and understanding meant that he refused to enter the prison cells with the guards when they were re-enacting their routines. The prisoners had (historically) been chained to the floor, lying down in rows like sardines—and so to walk into the room, Panh, said, would have been akin to stepping on them, throwing into question his moral position as a filmmaker. As Panh put it: “it was instinctive to stop, to hold the camera at the door, not to follow in. Otherwise we’d be walking over the prisoners, if you like. And would knock over into the side of the guards. . . . If I had done, ‘who would I be?’” (Oppenheimer, 2012, p. 245).

It was a space in which Panh did not belong, either historically or in the process of re-enactment. He literally had no place there, and in the dynamic of re-enactment—which is an environment of mimicry and empathy where affects and emotions might spill from body to body through shared physical movement (Gibbs, 2010)—his presence would confuse and disturb. His presence would also demand that he be a social “actor,” in which case Panh’s question, “who would I be?” describes a powerful (and impossible) ethical rhetoric. Such dilemmas get to the heart of the methods used in S-21 to access and represent the events of the past in mimetic, embodied, and affective ways.

Screen-Based Research Is Informed by Material Contexts and Is Process-Driven

In much early-21st-century visual and creative practice research, it is accepted that research outcomes follow from the material contexts and processes of production. This is to say that “thinking” and “making” require material tools, and interactions between these materials and the subjects of research are part of a dynamic that influences both the research processes and outcomes of the work (as argued by Paul Carter in Material Thinking [2004]). This is also to appreciate that research materials (for example, a camera, a screen) can serve as both the means of investigation, and the means of research dissemination, and that these have their own capacities and limitations.

As just one example, the camera’s ability to objectify others, and the capacity for the embodied presence of researchers and their instruments to shape events and distort “pro-filmic” reality, has been amply noted (Bruzzi, 2000; Gaines, 1986; MacDougall, 1998; Mulvey, 1975; Rouch, 2003). The critical concept here is that the space between subject and camera/operator is an inherently “intersubjective” and dynamic one. The act of recording and rendering a subject—the particular way in which a place is materialized on screen for example—is in itself a description of the circumstances and decision-making processes embedded (and embodied) within the moment of capture. Sarah Pink (2007), for example, suggests that the places she films consist of multiple interweaving trajectories, including the trajectory of the camera. In her definition of place (which draws on definitions put forward by Tim Ingold and Doreen Massey), places are not fixed, but reconstituted moment by moment, depending on these variously moving entities and trajectories.

Trinh T. Minh-ha also describes the image capturing process in distinctly relational terms, calling it “an intrinsic activity of image-making and of relation-forming.” She writes that “the subject who films is always caught in the process of relating—or of making and re-presenting—and is not to be found outside that process” (Lippit & Minh-ha, 2012, para. 15–19). Jean Rouch would agree that the camera instigates many of the movements and responses it captures. For him, the “fundamental problem in social science,” namely that “you distort the answer simply by asking a question” (Georgakas, Gupta, Janda, & Rouch, 1978, p. 22), must be embraced and openly examined in the screen works one makes.

One outcome of this reflexive awareness is a growing tendency to prioritize participatory and participant-led modes of screen research—methods where subjects have agency to negotiate, and even direct the ways they are represented (Ruby, 1996, p. 1350). In such approaches, the screen researcher is required to share the filmmaking process with the subjects of the research, and to operate with a “willingness to be decentred in acts of translation” (Clifford, 2000, p. 56).

Such practices not only help to redress the historical power imbalances implicit in visual and social research, they can also provide a unique form of knowledge in that they record, and give material form to, the negotiation of knowledge and representation between researcher and subject. As Rose (2014) points out, “taking a photo always entails some sort of negotiated relationship between the person making the image and those being pictured” (p. 29), and the resulting image can, if the researcher allows for it, bear the very imprint of that negotiation. The traces of negotiations surrounding representation, power, and knowledge embedded in participatory visual media may offer us unique routes to thinking about these issues.

All of the case studies invoked in this article were profoundly informed by material and relational processes of production (see Oppenheimer, 2012, p. 243, and MacInnis, 2013, p. 60), and the following case study offers an insight into how the materials employed within the research project were part of a negotiated and process-driven method of research.

Case Studies: Cameras at the Addy

Margaret Loescher’s visual ethnography project at “the Addy,” an adventure playground in Hulme, northern England, provides a good example of a collaborative ethnography, in which the subjects have been allowed forms of agency in which to represent themselves. The project explored the ways children navigate and make use of urban spaces, and resulted in the production of a photo essay, a documentary film, and reflective writing.

When Loescher (2003) set out to film her six- to eight-year-old subjects at play in “the Addy” in an observational style, she noticed that they would—against her intentions—constantly perform to her camera, drawing on pop culture references and in fact using the camera as a “doorway into the world of ‘pop’ culture” (p. 79). After a period of inner resistance to this, she gave the children disposable cameras to represent their own lives and play. Upon looking at the composition of the photographs the children took, she learned that when they were performing to the camera, they were not trying to be someone “other” than their authentic selves, and that these performances were in fact ways of self-identifying in a contemporary, media-saturated cultural landscape, and of “forging relationships with their urban [play] environment” (p. 80).

In addition to the children’s unexpected response to her camera, Loescher’s choice to give them disposable cameras to record their own lives was driven by a discomfort with her own relative power to represent the subjects of her research, particularly given the substantial differences in age and class that she noted between them (p. 77). She reflects that giving the children disposable cameras did something to shift the power balance. Armed with cameras of their own, “[the children] are learning about [the camera] as much as it is learning about them.” This “disarms the camera as a force of categorization and potential oppression and pulls it into the children’s world. It becomes another thing which signifies them as social agents, like the television, the mobile telephones, the football ground and the pop-star poster [that feature] in the photographs taken by the children” (p. 84).

Loescher’s work also foregrounds the sometimes uneasy negotiation of knowledge and representation between researcher and subject, and provides an example of how this might occur “through the very grain of the filmmaking” (MacDougall, 1998, p. 76). At the beginning of her screen work she includes a recording of her initial interaction with one of her subjects, six-year-old Ainsley. She recalls that this meeting had “an air of uncertainty and mistrust” about it. “I am wondering what this boy is ‘about’. I want to know him and he wants to know me; but I am unsure on what basis we will be ‘knowing’ each other” (Loescher, 2003, p. 77). A negotiation of the terms on which subject and researcher would “know” each other was then undertaken with and through the camera, and included in public documentation of the research.

Loescher’s work provides a particularly vivid example of a process-driven methodology that is strongly influenced by the interpersonal and material process of recording still and moving images with her subjects. Cameras at the Addy reflects the ways that visual methods are both informed by, and constructive of, relational (and social, and therefore ethical) encounters. Knowledge emerges from these encounters, and resides in them as they unfold.

Event-Based Knowledge

Visual research methods, and screen-based research in particular, can constitute forms of knowing through events rather than through concepts. Addressing observational approaches to documentary and ethnographic filmmaking in particular, MacDougall (1998) writes:

By focusing on discrete events rather than abstract concepts . . . and by seeking to render faithfully the natural sounds, structure, and duration of events, filmmakers have hoped to provide the viewer with sufficient evidence to judge the film's larger analysis. . . . [These films] are essentially revelatory rather than illustrative, for they explore substance before theory. (p. 126)

MacDougall is here describing the ways in which screen media forms can capture and represent the inherent ambiguity of events and entities and resist clear-cut conclusions about them. MacDougall (2006) writes that “what we show in images . . . is a different knowledge, stubborn and opaque, but with a capacity for the finest detail. . . . This puts (film) at odds with most academic writing, which, despite its caution and qualifications, is a discourse that advances always toward conclusions” (p. 6).

While images may promise insight and overview (rendering their subjects legible and subject to interpretation), they may equally come with minimal guidelines for how they should be read, and may even resist interpretation—as Laura U. Marks (2002) has argued in her work on the “haptic” for example. This approach to rendering experience is evident in visual research works like Leviathan. It has been argued that this “different knowledge,” which is inherently subjective and events-based, also signals “a significant epistemological, philosophical, and aesthetic shift . . . founded in a new approach to the world that respect[s] its materiality, its continuity, and fundamental ambiguity” (Grimshaw, 2011, p. 255). It should be noted that the quality of being ambiguous—or “downright mysterious” as Catherine Russell’s (2005) critique of Leviathan describes it (p. 28)—is not universally appreciated. Some critics see in this work a conscious “disavowal” of meaning-making, and are concerned about the ethical implication of viewers left to make “sense of that world on their own terms” (Pavsek, 2015, pp. 8–9). What is certain is that a scholarship that foregrounds “revelation,” and embodied, affective, and sensory experience over discourses of explanation and illustration is unconventional and challenging to traditional scholarship.

Case Study: Leviathan

Leviathan presents events in a way that some have argued is “analogous to the experience of the filmmaker at the ethnographic site” with a seeming absence of contextualizing that might “clarify or conceptualize that experience” (Ungar, 2017, p. 14). The lack of obvious discursive strategies, and the “openness” (Russell, 2015, p. 28) of the authorial and narrative structure leads commentators such as Allan MacInnis to reflect that the film does not seem to have the same “polemical intent” as other films dealing with the suffering of animals in the meat industry. Rather, he feels that the film presents animal death and suffering with a “mixture of brutality and beauty,” which “opens [his] thoughts” (MacInnis, 2013, pp. 58–59), delaying moral judgement and emphasizing the complexity of its subject(s).

Indeed, in Leviathan, blood flies as marine animals are hacked unceremoniously to pieces, but the film does not seem to incriminate fishermen, or even make clear-cut judgements about fishing as an industry. This could be because the film’s composition frustrates attempts to extract messages or social/political meanings from it (Thain, 2015, p. 44). This is not only due to the absence of spoken or written guidelines for interpretation (for, as Russell [2015[ notes, “visual and audio material can also be textual” [p. 32]), but also due to the ways the moving images and sounds are assembled to create a landscape of “productive disorientation[s]” (Thain, 2015, p. 42). As viewers, we may be so consumed with the process of keeping ourselves afloat in the film’s immersive flood of sensory information, that the additional work of judging what we are sensing becomes a lesser priority. Or perhaps it is that the extended, intimate moments we have with the fishermen themselves “amplify” (Rutherford, 2006, p. 153) our sense of both their unknowability (or opacity), and their humanity.

In fact, the same might be said of the approach to filming the former Khmer Rouge guards in S-21. In both films, the choice to express (or preserve) the temporal dimension of specific concrete events (a fishing trawler at sea, re-enacted historical scenes) may allow subjects to transform under our sustained gaze. A significant knowledge-based implication of this strategy may be that this kind of scholarship “opens up” contemplative spaces regarding the subjects and “pro-filmic” world being represented to us, rather than configuring a form of knowledge that advances quickly “towards conclusions” (MacDougall, 2006, p. 6).

Future Developments, Remaining Questions

The final section of this article will make some brief propositions regarding future directions and remaining questions in the area of visual and screen-based research methods.

It seems to us that the ubiquity of screen-based knowledge delivery (despite the continuing dominance of textual discourse in the early 21st century), together with a growing confidence in the unique knowledge-creation capacities of visual screen-based media methods, as discussed in this article, will facilitate greater instances of audiovisual, nontextual knowledge production. Some of the forms this knowledge production will take are bound to challenge conventional ideas of what constitutes “scholarly knowledge.”

It may be that the knowledge contribution of research incorporating re-enacted, embodied, sensory, affective, and experiential concerns will be sufficiently discrete from existing research categories that new ones are demanded, such as Brad Haseman’s case for “performative” research methods (2006, p. 98), that would stand alongside quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Haseman defines “performative” research outputs as those that embody or enact the questions and concerns they are “about.” These do not need to be delivered in traditional textual form. Yet, much of this “knowledge” may just as easily fall into existing categories of discursive practice—for there is no reason that audiovisual texts be any less “discursive” (putting aside the specific merits and demerits of forms of “discourse”) than written ones.

Much of the research discussed here, and the various “turns” of cultural and scholarly attention, point to a growing diversification of research methods. To take just one example only briefly discussed: the methods that might follow from the concept of knowing as something that emerges in a context-specific process of making (Smith & Dean, 2009). In relation to this idea, Tim Ingold (2011) suggests that in a world consisting of materials on the move—where things do not so much have properties as that they have histories (p. 30)—we can imagine that there will be new epistemological challenges to the things we know, and to our methods for coming to know them.

This article has highlighted research that invites ambiguity, heterogeneity, and uncertainty (Barrett & Bolt, 2010; Haseman, 2006; Nelson, 2013), and debates will certainly continue about the scholarly potential of this kind of research. Ross Gibson (2010), for example, has noted that responding to experimental and experiential research that often seeks to reveal “tacit” understandings (see Polanyi, 1966 for a description of “tacit knowledge”) of the kind that we have described, requires an “acknowledgement” (a shift in knowledge) that necessitates new critical and analytical strategies of comprehension. We must enable ourselves, he writes, to be “immersed and extracted, involved yet also critically distanced” (Gibson, 2010, p. 10). In other words, Gibson informs us, the consumption of this research requires both discipline and reflection, and sometimes contradictory processes of intuitive, affective, sober, embodied, and analytical comprehension. The challenge, both for researchers and for those seeking to gain access to the knowledge communicated in these forms of research, is to “entwine the insider’s embodied know-how with the outsider’s analytical precepts” (Gibson, 2010, p. 11). Paul Carter (2010), writing in response to claims of a lack of “rigor” in research he describes as “aleatory,” wonders if it is not, on the contrary, “a sign of its sophistication” that this work remains “constitutionally open” in comparison to scientific approaches that “identif[y] power with abstraction and the dematerialisation of thought from the matrix of its production” (p. 16).

As ever, much revolves around questions of support for such practices in a university context (Barrett & Bolt, 2010; Carter, 2010; Haseman, 2006; Nelson, 2013; Van Loon, 2014), and the ways in which academic cultures, institutions, and governments respond to the challenges of shifting epistemologies and methodologies that seek to investigate the world.

Finally, persistent questions about the ethics and politics of using images will continue to be important as image-making technologies and global political and media landscapes continue to evolve. The ethical dimensions of representation, and of what we do with visual technologies, must always remain integral to the contemplation and revision of visual and screen-based research methods.

Further Reading

  • Banks, M. (2001). Visual methods in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Barrett, E., & Bolt, B. (Eds.). (2010). Practice as research: Approaches to creative arts Enquiry. London, U.K.: I. B. Tauris.
  • Carter, P. (2004). Material thinking: The theory and practice of creative research. Carlton, Australia: Melbourne University Publishing.
  • Grimshaw, A., & Ravetz, A. (Eds.). (2005). Visualizing anthropology. Bristol, U.K.: Intellect Books.
  • Howes, D. (2003). Sensual relations: Engaging the senses in culture and social theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.
  • MacDougall, D. (2006). The corporeal image: Film, ethnography and the senses. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Margolis, E., & Pauwels, L. (Eds.). (2011). The SAGE handbook of visual research methods. London, U.K.: SAGE.
  • Marks, L. U. (2002). Touch: Sensuous theory and multisensory media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Morphy, H., & Banks, M. (Eds.). (1997). Rethinking visual anthropology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Nelson, R. (2013). Practice as research in the arts: Principles, protocols, pedagogies, resistances. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Oliver, J. (Ed.). (2018). Associations: Creative practice and research. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press.
  • Pink, S. (2009). Doing sensory ethnography, London, U.K.: SAGE.
  • Prosser, J. (Ed.). (1998). Image based research: A sourcebook for qualitative researchers. London, U.K.: Falmer Press.
  • Ruby, J. (2000). Picturing culture: An exploration of film and anthropology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Smith, H., & Dean, R. T. (2009). Practice-led research, research-led practice in the creative arts. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Sobchack, V. (1992). The address of the eye: A phenomenology of film experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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