Images are said to evoke deeper elements of awareness than words are because apparently the parts of the brain that process images are older than the parts that process verbal information (Harper, 2002). If you think about it, it does make some sense when you consider that we have been using symbols longer than language to communicate. I love words, sharing them, exchanging them and rearranging them. Everything about words excites me but images, photographs in particular, have the ability to seduce me. They can take me somewhere else entirely. Some images have made such a visceral impression on me over the years that I make time to recall them. Visual anthropologists and sociologists have used photo elicitation and production techniques in their research for a number of years. The former is the practice of inserting photographs into an interview or focus group in order to draw out different kinds of data whereas the latter is the collaborative practice of using (mainly) participant-generated photographs as a primary source of data collection.
My experience of Kari Soinio’s recent photo exhibit Athletic Hero/Private Hero was like a personal exercise in photo elicitation. It was a beautiful example of visual sociology that, in my opinion, eloquently expressed the uncertainty and fluidity of gender identity. The series comprises a number of nude, softly lit, somewhat grainy, self-portraits of Soinio representing himself as both masculine and feminine. Each of the photographs capture the resistance and receptivity between gender, power and vulnerability through use of bodily pose, stance and gaze. As a male artist with an interest in masculinity, identity and the body, Soinio is especially concerned with interrogating the paradox of masculine self-consciousness and self-importance through visual media. This comes through in Athletic Hero/Private Hero.
The abstract, sometimes slippery, nature of gender identity lends itself well to the use of visual methods like auto-portraiture. As with Soinio’s series, each photograph represents ‘a fragment of the context’ in which corporeal boundaries are tested and observed, given a voice and, in a sense, suspended in time just long enough to piece together a story. Alan Radley (2010) suggests that photographs are more than just depictions of the world at a given point in time; they’re also resources or mediators for communicating how it might have been and what it could be in the future…photographs give shape to our ideas.
Autobiographical accounts of personal identity, similar to Soinio’s, and group identity dynamics of young people, immigrant communities, and workplace environments have implemented photo elicitation techniques with success (see: Hethorn and Kaiser, 1999; Gold, 1991; Spence, 1986; Harper, 1987). Similarly, photo-production has been valuable in research that aims to capture and document first-hand impressions of critical environments like in-patient hospital wards and homeless communities (See: Radley, 2009; Radley et al, 2005). Visual social research methods like those discussed here and others like video diaries, documentaries and web-site analysis are being used more frequently in life history, archival, media and ethnographic social research. This seems like an appropriate and relevant turn considering the times we live in. Our reliance on media technology and fascination with visual culture is at an all-time high making visual data more abundant than ever. All the while, society and culture continue to be as diverse and interesting as ever. Harper (1988) and Degarrod (2013) more than twenty years apart acknowledged the social scientific importance of visual media. They’ve spoken about its potential to ‘expand the sociological vision’ and ‘make the unfamiliar personal’. I rather agree. Visual media, like Kari Soinio’s, is a socially relevant and accessible way to convey different interpretations and expression of identity, diversity, and inequality whereas visual sociology is the forum in which to represent this.
As for Soinio, much of his work is photography that concerns masculinity, identity, the body and subjectivity. He’s a resident artist at Station Independent Projects and his entire current series Athletic Hero/Private Hero is available for online viewing. It’s absolutely well worth a look.
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