Ethnography update: Walking with my camera

Ethnography update: Walking with my camera

As I walked down off the ridge, on open moorland just outside Sheffield, I passed a man leaning on a stick. We said hello, and remarked on the unseasonably sunny weather that day, and the beauty of the landscape. After a few minutes chatting, I moved to leave, and he asked whether I was from Sheffield originally. I said I was, and he paused, before saying ‘We’re favoured, aren’t we?’ He gestured around us, adding ‘only a few miles from the city…’ I smiled and agreed with him, and we said goodbye.

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about the ethnography I’m writing, so I thought I’d write a bit of an update, as well as explain the significance of that encounter on the moor. As a recap, the ethnography is about Sheffield, and the practices of people sharing photographs of the city online. In the last few months, I’ve honed down the vast amount of possible field sites to select three main case studies: a local dairy, a local University Instagram feed, and a Facebook group that shares images of Sheffield. These examples all discuss and share images of Sheffield, but in different ways, and for different reasons. Taken together, I hope that they will form an interesting account of the relationship between social media photography, and ideas of local identity, heritage and pride.

In particular, the Facebook group is very active, with sometimes dozens of images uploaded per day. Having looked over the last few months of these images I was struck by one very strong theme — the presence of open countryside and green spaces. After a quick count, I noted that one in five images was related to this theme. Having grown up in Sheffield, I knew that the countryside was a source of pride for the city, which has sometimes been referred to as ‘a dirty picture in a golden frame’. Obviously I would need to ask the members of this group themselves why they choose to photograph this landscape and share the images on the Facebook group. But I also wanted to know what doing this felt like, so as a form of participant observation I put on my boots and went for a walk. Here are some of my notes, and photos, that I took that day.

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This seems like an empty place but there is evidence of people everywhere, from the worn paths, the walls, and the occasional piece of litter, to the graffiti etched into a rock. ‘Lee’ was here in 1975. I stand and look at his name and wonder if Lee is still alive. I take a picture, and it occurs to me the differences and similarities between photography and graffiti. The photo I take away with me to show that I have been there; the etched name is left in place to show that someone has been there. It is a different kind of making the visit permanent —instead of taking photos, ‘Lee’ leaves himself, for each passerby to see. But both eventually form a kind of memento mori. As Susan Sontag argued:

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

Similarly, the graffiti that originally shows “I was once here” eventually testifies that “I was, once”. As I turned, I noticed another name: Glen, etched onto a rock nearby. Lee and Glen are here, together, for as long as it takes for their names to erode.

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I walk on, noticing that a sense of time’s passage is all around me, from the formation of the rocks — with their stratified lines showing their movement upwards as the ground shifted — to the crumbling of the walls, built who knows when?

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A series of large millstones lie around the path. When were they made? How were they moved? I stand looking at them for a minute, and glance around me at the moor, wondering where the people lived who used them. I try to imagine what the world was like when they were being carved, and long before them, when the hillfort in the distance was being used, and when the burial chamber over the hill was made. Being in the landscape makes me think of time, as well as the space that I’m in. Everything seems bigger, wider.

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I take a few photos of the millstones. Someone has scratched a smiley face into one, and I photograph that. What does taking pictures mean here, in this context? I feel a heightened sense of looking, an awareness of what is here around me and what might make an interesting photograph. But taking a picture is not the only way I interact with things — I scramble around, I touch rocks and plants, I climb and sit for a while, I stop and look, and look.

Taking a photo enables me to focus for a little longer on something, to know that I can enjoy this day, and these views again. It allows me to slow my pace of looking, and notice the details of the things around me: the shape of the land, rock formations, the path, trees, rivers, the shadows cast by the clouds as they moved overhead, and gentle changes in colour across the long view into the distance — burned orange, gold, brown, yellow.

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There are contrasts, between the valley to my left, and the wide expanse of moorland to my right. I encounter another woman taking photos, with a much bigger camera than mine. Another photographer stands down in the valley with a tripod, his camera pointed up towards the ridge.

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Why do I feel this kind of picture, of moorland and rocks, can be used to represent Sheffield? Perhaps because so many people are using this landscape — from the dog walker, the rambler, the fell runner, to the man with a stick, the photographer with a tripod, the group of rock climbers just visible as coloured dots down to my left. This is where people come to think, or to not think at all. To be alone, and also to encounter a new kind of sociability where people say hello to each other. I say hello to 17 people that day.20151125_103540_Richtone(HDR) (2)

Also, this is Sheffield just because of proximity: as the man with the stick observed, we are not far from town. My comprehensive school is only a ten minute drive away. But this all seems so different from the city centre, the noise, the traffic. You can sit here and do nothing but look. It seems a normal thing to do here, but in town that is suspect, rude or idle. Taking a photo of this moorland is different from photographing the city. In town, there are particular areas for doing things, for shops, or houses, everything seems to belong to someone and control you in some way. The same processes are of course in the countryside, but they are less overt — the signs asking you to keep to the path, the styles, the fences, the notices of public access — these delineate ownership and rights, but at least no one wants you to buy anything out there. There is no security guard to tell you not to take pictures. Taking a photo seems less suspicious — it seems obvious to want to photograph the countryside. It takes less explanation, less permission. You can take your time.

To photograph this is to take it back with you into the town, to share it is to remind each other that it is there, that it is close, that Sheffield is many things — and maybe to long-term residents is a series of disappointments— but it is also this, and that this is done very well indeed.

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How did it feel to take these photos? I felt lucky to be there on such a beautiful day — such a photographable day, a day worthy of being remembered and shown to others. But although I shared an image on Instagram, I did not photograph my lunch on a windy, exposed rock. I did not photograph how muddy I was when I slipped and fell bottom first onto the ground. Instead, I photographed thoughtfully composed scenes that showed off the area to its best.

I photographed things I found interesting — mushrooms, sheep’s horn etc, so that I can remember the whole sense of the journey, and the little discoveries and interests I had along the way.

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I also photographed something that has long been just an image in my mind. When people speak of ‘beautiful countryside’, the picture I have in my head is of this:

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For this is where I went for my first walks into the countryside, and where I began to understand why people came here rather than go to the shopping centre, or to the museum, or the library. So for people who grew up around here, or who came to love the woods and the moors later on in their life, these green, open spaces are part of the experience of living in Sheffield.

I look forward to hearing what other people have to say on this subject, about their own practices of taking and sharing photographs of this kind of landscape.