Visual ethnography: Getting a sense of a place

Author: Anna Xambó //

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A little time ago, a speaker recommended a book to the audience during her talk. The book was passed around, and someone took a picture of it using his smartphone. Since then, when I want to remember a book reference, I do the same. This exemplifies how mobile devices may take the role of extending our memory, in this case visually.

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In the MIDAS project we aim to observe six different research sites during a full academic year, in particular we are interested in observing those situations related to methods and embodiment, which are meaningful to each site. In August, we made our first visit to the RCA site. Our goal was to get a sense of where the Information Experience Design (IED) programme takes place, a program led by Kevin Walker. The place was empty of students. During the visit, I took pictures of the different spaces: workshops, meeting rooms, exhibition spaces, or even corridors. “But why if they are just empty spaces!” Kevin might be thinking. My impression was that spaces were telling a number of details about the working processes of that place: materials and tools used, shared and private working areas, and collaborative and individual work processes.

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I finished the visit with a batch of pictures of empty spaces, which can be useful as a starting point to get a sense of the RCA’s ‘place’. As pointed out by Carey Jewitt, space, place and time is a theme of discussion in digital technologies research. Using visual ethnography to get a sense of a place also connects more broadly to the long tradition of using visual methodologies in social sciences, for example see Gillian Rose’s book on Visual Methodologies.

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