I enjoyed the Gillian Wearing show at The Whitechapel Gallery. I liked her sense of fun and her explorations of identity through her use of masks; her invocation of Goffman and ‘the presentation of self in everyday life; and her crazy dance in Peckham.
I have been thinking for a while about the relationship between photography and research. I have written before about the ubiquity of digital photography and the auto-ethnographic disposition that this seems to foster in many people. I think that the affordability of cameras and the ensuing low/no-cost production of images means that many people nowadays continually photograph their lives and view images of their daily experiences even as they live them. This gives individuals multiple ways of viewing, reviewing and reflecting on themselves and their lives in ways unknown before the digital age. This ethnographic aspect however, is a kind of by-product of photographic behaviour; most people with digital cameras do not probably intend to carry out auto-ethnographies! They just like taking photos of what they are doing and sharing them.
In the case of professional photographers, most obviously photo journalists, their work researches issues of a social, political or even cultural nature. And we often see how ethical considerations become quite a poignant aspect of their work.
Art photographers also explore issues with their cameras and many are undoubtedly carrying out research through their photography. For example the work of Lewis Hine and Daniel Meadows; two exhibitions I really enjoyed. I loved Briony Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project‘; Briony was interviewed and filmed for the OCA’s blog – which included a reference to how Briony dealt with some of the ethical issues involved in this work.
There were all sorts of things I was intrigued by with Gillian Wearing’s exhibition and I may post about this on my other blog, but here I want to just say something brief about ethics. One aspect of her exhibition featured a series of ‘confessional’ type videos where individuals had volunteered to talk about traumatic incidences in their lives. In doing so they were asked to wear masks and to be filmed. Some of the stories were shocking; the people spoke of sexual abuse; emotional abuse; other types of physical abuse and so on.All kinds of stories from all kinds of people, who had been at the mercy of others. Some of them were very moving and it was also awe inspiring how some of the people seemed to have moved on in their lives. It was astonishing how outspoken people were, how frank. I have frequently been surprised how willing some people seem, to talk in front of a camera – and maybe they are excited by the idea of film and the sense of being a kind of celebrity because of this. In agreeing to be filmed, and perhaps even being told a bit about GW’s work, I still wonder how much informed consent these indviduals were able to give. Did they know how many people would listen to them and in so many places and situations? Were they given support after their confessional filming? Did they regret taking part?
Where I work, in a School of Education in a University, any research we carry out must first be cleared by going through an ethical review procedure. This is the case for all University research. I believe this is a good thing, not just because it ensures we do not exploit research participants (note I do not refer to research ‘subjects’ here) but also because it leads to better quality research in my view. The re-positioning of people from subjects to participants means that not only do we acquire properly informed consent, but also an additional angle is introduced into the work. Perhaps this is why Helen Rosmier’s image of The Chair is so effective (as Clive describes in this video).
I worry that in taking a glimpse of people’s lives in order to explore the affect of masks and to produce an interesting project for display, some damage may have been done to individuals. I have no idea if this is the case, but I think that ethical procedures should be transparent – for journalists and artists as well as for university and clinical researchers. As a visitor to a museum, I want to know that no one came to any harm because of their involvement in the making of exhibits. I think that information about the ethical process should be shared so that participants are always protected.
I could not help seeing the similarity between Victorian peepshows and the confessional boxes of the Wearing exhibition: