Sociology and photography

Structure, agency and meaning in the sociological interpretation of photographs.  This is the provisional title of a project and a paper. What follows is based on a post I made to Facebook seeking ideas and suggestions:

After many years of a passing interest in photography as both a sociological resource, an object of sociological interest in its own right, and as a possible activity in retirement, I have just begun to immerse myself in the reading of texts that might help figure out what I’ll do, photographically, and to what purpose. For a kick off I have read Peter Berger’s ‘Uses of Photography’ and am reading Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ (to which Berger’s essay is a response) and have just ordered Roland Barthes’ ‘Camera Lucida’ (thanks to Max Farrar for this). For those interested the link below is to a Guardian review of the latter. I think Howard Becker also wrote something on the sociology of photography.

Berger’s essays on photography, ‘The Uses of Photography’ are on-line at:

Max is currently giving a lecture in the US entitled: “Working from the Heart: Photography and the Sociological Imagination” – He suggested in a comment to the above FB post also to look at Sontag’s  ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ (2000), “described somewhere as a retraction of ‘On Photography’ though I don’t see it as such, is also an excellent read. Maybe we should start a visual sociology lab in Leeds”?

I have approached colleagues at Leeds Uni to see if anyone is interested in inviting Max along to give his lecture at the Uni and explore the idea of a visual sociology lab or group of some sort. Zygmunt Bauman was a very keen photographer and I am looking for anything he wrote on the subject. Some of his photographs were displayed at the 2001 conference to launch the Bauman Institute –

There is another note in this blog that is relevant to the interpretation of photographs – The Realism of the Abstract: an encounter with Sekula. The relevant text is:

A key topic of debate was how to interpret photographic images from a critical realist perspective. We no longer assume that a photograph is an objective and neutral record of what simply ‘is’. We are aware of how the photographer’s point of view and selection of subject constructs a photo before the process of cropping and post production manipulation. And, in any case, as one of our speakers said, “pictures know more than their authors”. The content of a picture is not bent entirely to the photographer’s will or subconscious framing. It is a representation of a reality that is initially autonomous with respect to the representation’s author. In documentary photography the reality pre-exists the photographer’s interest and intent and was already there to be found. Critical realism is based upon the idea that the reality available to the camera’s lens and our direct perception is the surface of underlying processes and mechanisms that are not immediately apparent in the visible aspect of the images projected onto our retinas or the photographic medium behind the lens. From a critical realist perspective the underlying processes and mechanisms are fundamentally those of the workings and logic of the globalising capitalist economy. It is this that prompts the (re)turn to Marx.

Marxist ideas also talk about hidden processes that need to be excavated so that what is apparent and visible can be understood as the product of the underlying processes. This structure of argument is explicit in Marx’s notions of reification, ideology, abstract labour and so on. The implication is that the photographic image can be unpacked in terms of the labour relations under the conditions of global capitalism that constructed the surface reality depicted in the image. The underlying process is what Marx tries to get at with his concepts of the labour process, use value, exchange value, surplus value, commodification, the ‘dead’ labour embedded in commodities, commodities as ‘abstract reality’ –  abstract ‘reality’ because it is the product of social relations.

I am also thinking of how photographs and their initial and re- interpretation, based on the accumulation of contextual knowledge of various sorts as the research into family background, contexts and personalities are central to the narrative of the family history programme on the BBC ‘Who do you think you are’. Initially pictures of distant relatives could be anyone but develop layers of meaning as the history and context are uncovered.

Additional resources:

Towards a Sociology of Photography Pierre Bourdieu (Slideshare)
Towards a Sociology of Photography Pierre Bourdieu (Scribd)

Update 27/03/2014
Portrayal and betrayal: Bourdieu,photography and sociological life Les Back, 2009. Portrayal and betrayal: Bourdieu, photography and sociological life. The Sociological Review, 57(3), pp. 471-490.

Update 29/03/2014
Sensuous Sociology This is a post by Max Farrar on the lecture he gave mentioned at the beginning of this post ‘Working from the Heart: Photography and the Sociological Imagination’. It contains links to the video of an interview of Stuart Hall on photography ( I think the Les Back article mentioned is the one linked to above.

Photography: Making and Breaking Racialised Boundaries: an Essay in Reflexive, Radical, Visual Sociology Max Farrar Sociological Research Online Volume 10, Issue 1, 2005

Old sociologists as outsiders

I’m feeling a bit guilty as I haven’t posted here since November last year. My intention, on retirement, was to do the sort of sociological research and writing I had been unable to do in my role of Principal Teaching Fellow at Leeds University. To this end I was appointed as a visiting research fellow for a year, due to end this coming July. Now I have just received a letter extending the fellowship until July 2016. In practice since retirement last July I have been mostly concerned in losing weight, getting fit, walking, cycling, racketball and reading novels. All of this of course may not be unconnected to a continuing career as sociologist. As Zygmunt Bauman has shown, literature is, to some degree or another, a combination of sociology and sociological material. Reading literature can be a conscious sociological enterprise. And of course getting fitter and healthier extends my opportunity to still do some interesting and, perhaps, useful work in my later years.

baumanThere is the possibility that doing sociology in one’s twilight years, assuming reasonable retention of cognitive faculties and a continuing lively interest in the world and affairs, has some benefits for the nature and quality of the work. I am reading again David Frisby’s Fragments of Modernity in which he attempts to construct more explicitly the theories of modernity that are less systematically rendered or implicit in the writings of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin. At the end of his introduction Frisby says “all three, as outsiders, could experience modernity in a critical manner, they could all view their society as strangers”. The fact that many of the most original and productive sociologists have been outsiders to some extent, perhaps straddling two or more cultural borders, émigrés, exiles, is well known. One can think of Bauman, Elias, or Marx for instance. Other sociologist have detached perspectives on their society due to unconventional biographies of one sort or another. I think the ageing process can confer this state of outsiderness and stranger-hood on some sociologists too. In many respects we die alone, even if surrounded by loved ones. We can see the world through the eyes of someone with no axes to grind, no psychological investment in self delusion, with a degree of detached realism. Outsiders are more able to see the curtains that obscure the hidden mechanisms and processes of manifest reality and begin to pull them apart. We are able to reflect upon our own (witting and unwitting) complicity in maintaining the curtains and keeping them closed to others and to ourselves. In some respects ageing and a growing awareness of the imminence of death reintroduces a child like aspect to the experience of life. In an interview a few weeks before his death from pancreatic cancer, Dennis Potter attested to taking an intense delight in the ordinary and mundane aspects of life. Everything was intensified and imbued with a renewed sense of wonder describing, for instance, the spring blossom he sees from his study window as the most blossomest of blossom he had ever seen. Like a child, the dying can be keenly aware of and interested in the details and features of life that, by the involved and less reflective adult, are largely taken for granted or ignored. Like the child, the elderly in the shadow of the imminence of oblivion, can possess the highest degree  of interest and appreciation of their social and physical surroundings. To some extent old age potentially for some, is the recovery of childhood but with the adult capacity for reflection, expression and the power of analysis.

They say that mathematicians and similar scientists do their best work in their comparative youth. Perhaps, for some sociologists with the continuing interest and stamina, they may do their best work towards the end of their careers as their biographical trajectories propel them into the critical and creative role of detached outsider