Making Places: Multiple Ways of Defining a City

Making Places: Multiple Ways of Defining a City

In my last few blog posts, I have described the ways in which I have begun to look at the connection between photography and a sense of place. Specifically, I wanted to explore how certain kinds of narrative about a particular location could be presented through images, online. These experiments feed back into my wider ethnographic project, by enabling me to observe these photographic practices from the inside. But also, by taking and sharing these photos, I have made contributions to the online spaces I have been observing, and added to the construction of what ‘Sheffield’ looks like on social media.

My three case studies look at various aspects of Sheffield that are emphasised by different groups of people, on different platforms, through photographs. These particular case studies have been chosen because they provide a variety of answers to the question: “What is Sheffield?”

Case study 1

Sheffield is: its industrial heritage.

This first case study looks at the way in which a local dairy uses photographs shared on Twitter to reference certain aspects of Sheffield’s past, in relation to the notion of things being ‘Made in Sheffield’. Rather than simply mention this legacy, this dairy reframes the notion of being ‘Made in Sheffield’ by extending beyond the heavy industries of steel and cutlery, in order to establish a sense of a Sheffield food network. Here, the virtues of Sheffield-based production are expanded to tie in with wider notions regarding the importance of being local, in which an emphasis is placed on fresh food and small scale production.

This utilisation of Sheffield’s industrial heritage provides an interesting point of departure from the way in which this legacy is usually presented, in the form of museum exhibits and time lines:

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  Display of metalwork in the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield

In this case study, I look at how the dairy uses images that depict both its location, and the other local food producers and stockists that comprise this particular aspect of ‘Made in Sheffield’. In combination, these photographs of place and produce reference and build upon the pre-existing self-image of Sheffield as a city where things are made – a self-image that I have explored myself in my earlier post about the place names that continue to reference forges, mesters and cutlers:

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Sign designating Sheffield city boundary

Case study 2

Sheffield is: Its countryside

Green spaces and open countryside play an important part in the first case study, as the dairy uses photographs to present themselves as not just Sheffield-based, but as located in a particularly rural and attractive area of the city. In this way, ideas of the ‘local’ are combined with notions of the ‘natural’, to create an appealing image of Sheffield-based production that is far removed from the factory and the forge.

For my second case study, I have chosen to look at a Facebook group that shares photographs of Sheffield. Although a range of themes are addressed in this group, images of green spaces, and nature more generally, dominate. This group provides an interesting example of a collective form of place-making, in which thousands of individual contributions create a complex representation of the city’s physical, and emotional, landscape. An offline example of this kind of multi-faceted visual representation comes in the form of postcards (see header image), whereby certain ‘views’ are produced as being the authorised version of a cityscape. The Facebook group is therefore an updated version of the postcard rack, in which the ability to produce authorised ‘views’ is made available to a much wider range of citizens.

The role of the physical landscape in the city’s self-image can even be observed in the kind of items that are sold in local museums. One such item, a fridge magnet, states that Sheffield is a city of rivers, trees and hills. Clearly, this is an image which the museum believes can be recognised and valued by its patrons:Sheffield - 1

Magnet from Museums Sheffield

In order to explore the motivations behind the sharing of images of parks, trees and hills, I went walking in the countryside just outside Sheffield, and looked at how photography enabled me to look at my surroundings anew, and in a way that sought out particular themes relating to the history inherent in the landscape.

Case study 3

Sheffield is: Its built environment

The last of my case studies considers the version of Sheffield that is promoted through the Instagram feed of a local university. Although parks and green spaces feature in this feed, it is the city’s buildings that dominate in this context, with places such as the Town Hall and the Winter Gardens regularly recurring. However, it is the university’s buildings in particular that take centre stage, with the Arts Tower and the newly-opened Diamond featuring in the majority of images. My analysis of this feed, and my interviews with those who create it, will consider not just why buildings feature so heavily in this vision of Sheffield, but why these buildings? What is it that they are felt to convey to the viewer – perhaps a sense of modernity, of progress and confidence? How do these views of Sheffield – as a place that is built – compare with those I examined above?

Buildings play an important role in the city’s visual imaginary, as is evident in the work of artists such as Jonathan Wilkinson and Joe Scarborough:

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Arts Tower, by Jonathan Wilkinson: image source
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HMS Sheffield, by Joe Scarborough: image source

To understand this way of looking at and representing the city, I used my camera to explore the built environment, and to record how photography enabled a new way of seeing, and being aware of, Sheffield.

In combination, these three case studies will develop three ways of looking at Sheffield: as its history, as its green spaces, and as its built environment. By taking this approach, I will show how images on social media are used to promote different narratives about place, and to reflect both the variety and the similarity in which diverse groups of people visually conceptualise the place in which they live.