Re-visiting the Field Through Old Fieldwork Photos

One of the joys of geography, for me, has always been its invitation to get out and see the world “as it really is.” This has meant, in my case, visiting sites across China to conduct fieldwork activities like interviews, compile field notes, and collect primary materials. Though arduous at times, field visits are always the highlight of my year. But, as my colleague Kendra McSweeney has noted in this blog, international travel for immersive fieldwork is neither advisable nor ethically justifiable in light of the novel coronavirus. For the foreseeable future, we will need to blaze new trails for our research, ones that don’t involve travel that could endanger oneself and those with whom one comes into contact.

In response to this new reality, I’ve turned my attention to something that was always right under my nose: the enormous trove of photographs that I’ve taken over the past decade or so of research on urbanization in China. I have hundreds of digital photos of buildings, streets, alleys, skylines, demolition sites, encampments of migrant laborers, monuments, squares, gated communities, public art – in short, all the elements of urban landscapes that have drawn my intellectual interest and are at the heart of my research. The photos were taken with a basic point-and-shoot camera or with my phone as complements to my field notes, and they have served that purpose fine. And now they also permit me to re-encounter my field sites from a safe distance health-wise.

The revealing and sometimes unsettling experience of seeing my research sites anew through my own photographs has compelled me to engage some old and new questions. For decades, scholars of photography have grappled with the slipperiness of the image and its various collusions with power. Some years ago, Gillian Rose brought these concerns to fore in our own discipline by asking “How, exactly, is geography visual?” Her point was to highlight the frequently unacknowledged power of visual tools, such as photographs, in our published work and teaching. With all the critical voices directed at photographs over the years, a significant strain of skepticism has encrusted itself around images as a communicative media. But what about photos taken during fieldwork? How are they, as Peturdottir and Olsen suggest, a form of material engagement, rather than merely representation? What should we make of our own photos, even the unremarkable ones? While we might classify fieldwork photos in any number of ways, I’d like to simply highlight two types of fieldwork images in my own archive that I’ve found especially challenging to think through and with.

The first sort are photos that I staged but might appear randomly shot. These are photos I took to which I ascribed special significance at the time I took them. They were intended as claims that I sought in trying to make sense of my field subject, whatever it may have been at the time. In the moment, I was careful to center the subject, to frame it a certain way, to aestheticize it in order to sear its impression in my mind. Ironically, for this very reason, the photographs are somewhat opaque to other viewers, as they tend to condense a number of themes circulating in my own mind and that are evoked whenever I return to the images and use them to elaborate textually during the process referred to as “drafting one’s findings” (a term that affirms the priority given to the textual form of research dissemination). Here I include one such image, taken in Ordos, China, which brings to my mind the vast and socially ruinous system of informal finance that triggered a severe but localized financial crisis during my fieldwork. If you don’t see informal finance in the image, it’s because it’s not visible and you weren’t there. But to me, images like this are too pregnant with symbolism to submit to a journal to illustrate an article that the images helped inform, while at the same time quite meaningless to others. The caption, if I were to write one, would be too long, my communication of the image’s meaning would seem hopelessly partial, and it would seem redundant to make a claim through the image that I had rendered in words. And since the images were purposely made to craft an argument still germinating in my mind at the time, it would quash the resonance of the image were I to include it in my findings as mere documentary illustration, as most journals expect photographs to be outside of the occasional “photo essay.”

Photo Credit: Max Woodworth

The second kind of image is the offhand shot that might appear staged. These might easily be mistaken for an attempt at a claim that I did not intend to make, and so I tend to not like these images. For instance, the image below was taken in the small Chinese mining town of Daliuta as I took a shortcut through an empty lot behind a restaurant on my way to the bus station. In a trash heap I saw the broken plastic bust of Mao Zedong at the center of the image. This was the world “as it really is,” according to one way of understanding that phrase. I did not stage or crop this image, much less attempt to aestheticize the subject. But, seconds after I took the photograph with my phone, I recognized in the image a heavy-handed cliché of post-socialist China – that paradoxical country led by a Communist Party, yet unabashedly striding into a capitalist future – and therefore I filed it away and have never published it with a scholarly article. What strikes me most directly about this image now is its easy slippage from offhand photo taken as part of my quotidian data collection in the field to something that I regarded as potentially and undeservedly totemic, with symbolisms that are so obvious that I find it strips me of any control over the image’s meanings. An image of this kind is so nakedly unoriginal, I strain to imagine how it can inform discussions about today’s China. And yet, there was the bust of Mao on the trash heap.

Photo Credit: Max Woodworth

As mentioned, there are hundreds more such photos to comb through. It might seem self-indulgent in such urgent times to retreat into digital archives stored on one’s hard drive. But such a detour might actually serve a useful purpose if it provides a moment to reflect on the degree to which we rely on visual media not just to show what we find during research, but to craft what we have assessed the world to be. Geographers have long been sensitive to the ways images we share from our research, including maps and charts and graphs, are never innocent of social content. But what about those images we keep to ourselves? How can we make use of their various and unruly afterlives?

Max Woodworth, Associate Professor

Department of Geography,

The Ohio State University

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