Visual meaning: Reflections from our Amsterdam meeting

This guest post comes from Aline Bauwens (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Andrea Donker (Hogeschool Utrecht), who reflect on their recent meeting (with other colleagues from the Practising Supervision working group) in Amsterdam.

On 18th and 19th August 2014 the sub-group ‘Visual Methodology’ of Working Group 3 (Practising Supervision) met in Amsterdam. Andrea had made sure that the meeting could take place in an old traditional Dutch house, located in the heart of the famous and notorious ‘Red Light District’ in the city centre of Amsterdam. The hospitality of Andrea was very much appreciated by all. The choice for this lively city/place has undoubtedly created an enjoyable and inspiring working environment

The focus of our one and a half-day meeting was to refine the methodological research questions which were put together at the Malta meeting, to describe in detail the data analysis process (including ethics and consent, gaining access and cooperation, sample, instructions given to research participants, translations of information sheets, data collection) and to start analysing the images of the five jurisdictions involved in the sub-group (Belgium, Croatia, England and Wales, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands).

Prior to this meeting, it was proposed that the sub-group members read some articles on visual analysis (e.g. articles from the recent special issue of Theoretical Criminology on ‘Visual Culture and the Iconography of Crime and Punishment’ see: http://tcr.sagepub.com/content/18/2.toc) and to bring the pictures which were taken by the research participants.

Whilst recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the use of visual research methods throughout the social sciences (e.g. media and cultural studies, educational studies, criminology, human geography, etc.), it is not always as straightforward and unproblematic how to analyse visual data.

More specifically, our sub-group has to study the analysis of pictures specially produced for research purposes. Such images are produced to serve as records for reality. The reality of the research participants; not necessarily the reality of us, the researchers. Jenkings et al. (in Knoblauch et al., 2008: 5) note from their visual research that while ‘the majority of the participants do not tend to have an analytic view of their photographs, they do have an “account”’. In other words, the participants do have a story to tell us and provide us with windows on their practice. For all of us, it was after the telephone/face-to-face interview with the participant, discussing the pictures, that an initial version of their meaning(s) of the picture was co-produced. We all felt that this interview was extremely useful as it limited the risk of misinterpretation as well as over-interpretation.

This brings us to the issues of representation and the importance of the relationship between content and context. Although the Belgian participants mentioned that the pictures illuminated the geography and spaces of probation practice, they felt that the context of their work got lost in their pictures. Not being able to take pictures including people (NB given the instruction on ethics provided), they felt hampered in trying to show the fundamentals of their work. They work daily with people. Some Dutch photographs did include people (professionals from the Dutch probation service) and it must be said that the presence of people brought the pictures to life, as is the case with this blog.

In the place where we met, there was no Internet access, preventing us from being distracted by emails, updates and other social media messages, and creating a great atmosphere for talking and discussing. The discussions we had offered us insight in the wide range of questions that were triggered by looking at all the pictures, not in the least caused by our own cultural bias but also by the way things are done differently in different jurisdictions and in different probation services. It quickly became obvious that discussing the pictures of our two non-present members would raise too many questions; questions we felt that we were not able to answer correctly. In the end, we decided to create a new categorisation for visual data analysis and made an attempt to re-code some photographs accordingly. Furthermore, we agreed that we would each create an inventory of the pictures of our research respondents, and recode our pictures into the new categories prior to the next meeting in Belfast in October 2014.

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