We wanted to identify how our own approaches to the project – practice-led and academic – might cohere and inform one another. Here, I pick out and tentatively explore those areas from our exchange which have been particularly useful.
In clarifying my hopes for the work, I emphasised my interest in storytelling as a means of vocalising hitherto marginalised groups and individuals. In my work with mental health service users (and storytelling), I have seen how the act of creation and participation in the telling of a story, which perhaps emphasised routines and practices of everyday life over a larger (and hitherto) dominant narrative of deficit, can begin to foster a sense of empowerment. In this project, the structures of participation are very different , but I’m particularly interested in exploring the way in which photography – and, more broadly, visual narrative that uses mixed media – might help to both document and facilitate the construction and dissemination of stories that may otherwise be ignored.
Gemma’s interest in exploring the medium of photofilm (the editing a series of still images into a coherent narrative to accompany audio recordings) offers multiple routes of inquiry. Owing to my academic background in the textual analysis of film, I’m particularly interested in the way in which the editing of photographs and sound in this way might begin to break down traditional routes into the conceptualisation of moving images. In organising a series of photographs alongside audio, it might be suggested that a film is constructed in the process – if we are to understand movement (in the context of moving images) as a form editing. In beginning this work, we might start to see how film can be used (and is used) in everyday life; that the increasing availability of digital image capture devices, editing software and sound recording equipment may suggest a more democratic level of access to creativity and storytelling. Here, I am thinking about the uses of film beyond consumptive practice; about how people and communities can use images and sound to make something, rather than simply watching and receiving visual narratives in the traditional sense.
So, participation is equally important to my ideas on these subjects, and my conversation with Gemma moved towards the extent to which the photofilm mode suggested a loosening of authorial control and an increased level of narrative dispersal, in which the subject quite literally speaks through the image. This is undoubtedly a complex issue, and is one that is crucial to my aim of exploring the way visual stories can facilitate and support empowerment.
When we talked about Gemma’s interest in documenting the domestic routines of Chinese students, we reflected on the way in which this emphasis on everyday life might begin to communicate a kind of universality of experience that runs counter to the discourses of cultural difference that often underpin the representation of minority groups. Gemma talked about the idea of the ‘Dragon’ in a symbolic sense – pertaining to the discursive representation of China as a nation state. Indeed, we might think of China in terms of economic domiance; increasingly military power, and the key agent in the changing of the world order. Yet these anxious and fearful perception, are absent in the consideration of the Chinese student community: in what I had called the ‘paradoxical invisibility’ of student experience, there is a clear and profound deficit between the way in which China is understood as a nation and the way in which the Chinese residents of the UK are represented in British life. So, everyday life becomes a vital starting point for a more nuanced understanding and working through this paradox.
Ideas of belonging and displacement are obviously central to work which documents communities who are away from ‘home’. How narratives of belonging (albeit temporary) are fostered in a new country is, therefore, a central concern for this project, but to add to this, I was interested in the aspects of our initial reflections which looked at the role of the city (Sheffield) as a physical space in such a dynamic. I was particularly interested in the city as visual construction; how the spaces and landscapes of the students’ environments (fixed, but available for inscription, habitation and self-fashioning) might be either laid claim to, or may operate to underline feelings of alienation and dislocation. My insight into Gemma’s approaches to working with the participants is crucial here – where do they feel comfortable? Can the ‘homely’ be constructed in external spaces, or is it purely understood in the frame of the domestic? Moreover, in the process of aestheticisation that will underpin these representations, what kind of narrative function (if any) will the city take on?