Photo Essay Sociology

Urban spaces drive humankind

More than half of the world population live in cities and it will increase to 66% by 2050. However, living in an urban area and being happy don’t go hand in hand. Doubtless, (big) cities provide a
diverse range of opportunities for work but social isolation is also a too common consequence of living in a place where social contact depends greatly on spending power. Making friends, seeing family, even going to work is tied up with money and as research has shown, socioeconomic standing affects social isolation. It is therefore not surprising that infrastructures, transportation systems and city aesthetics play important roles in the happiness of city residents,
as a recent survey has revealed.

On the one hand, shared knowledge means less city unemployment and citizens making better use of social and cognitive skills. On the other, design impacts on the level of happiness of urban dwellers. The transition from space into place allows for suitable contexts for social and professional connections to emerge, but how are urban spaces transformed into places of interaction? Which factors underlie whether citizens perceive certain spaces as ugly,
inhuman and unhappy, or as beautiful, human and happy? And more importantly, what can we learn from the wisdom of communities to this respect?

From theory to practice

For the past six weeks, a group of six engaged students and myself have been developing our visual literacy skills through the axes of seeing, looking and perceiving. It is the first time that I have taught “Visual Sociology” in an adult education setting and I must admit that the level of commitment and the discussions generated in class have been both interesting as well as very critical.

Three weeks ago, we embarked ourselves in a little project. The initial task was to photograph happy/humane and unhappy/inhumane urban spaces. Each of us has a slightly different understanding of beauty and of humanity. However, when we brought our ideas together in the form of photographs, we realized that there were more commonalities than what perhaps each of us had expected.

All themes emerged during our discussions about the people/places project are collected on this word cloud.

Let’s try to group them a little further.

First we have some repetitions, spaces and space, as well as happy and happiness. We drop space and happy. Now, we can look at the verbs: to impact, to work, to live (living). So we are talking about how we work and live, which is in turn impacted by certain processes at play. Which ones? According to our word cloud, these are the ones: citizens, infrastructures, interaction, social-isolation, norms, deviance and happiness. And where? What is our context? Well, let’s look at the word cloud again. We see space, place, city and urban. Al right, our context is then urban spaces or cities, but more specifically we are looking at how we socialize (social is the last word standing) in urban spaces. Ok, let’s recap.

  • The process we are exploring is how we socialize (at work and other areas of our life) in urban spaces.
  • Infrastructures impact on how we do so.
    Tangible infrastructures, such as means of transportation (see below).
    Intangible infrastructures such as norms.
  • The outcomes we have seen so far are interaction, happiness and social-isolation.

We are ready now to look at some of the visual explorations of the topic. Keep in mind that the only guideline we had to take these photographs was following: take pictures of happy and humane, as well as unhappy and inhumane urban spaces.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.



PLACES OF INTERACTION – Living, working, travelling

A nice sunny day meeting friends at her favourite café. This annoying pigeon almost ruined the moment. Regina hates pigeons. She associates them with dirt and trash. Photograph by Regina Horváth. Taken in Galway city centre.

We transformed spaces into places. A park can be both a place of recreation or a place of isolation. On the image, a homeless man sleeps during the day in a centric park in Prague. Photograph by Brendan Dowling.

Places change their appearance and even their aroma over time. Since the smoking ban in Ireland, bars might smell like Guinness and Whiskey, but not like nicotine. Interestingly, this law-mandated change was energetically enforced much more by citizens than by authority forces. There was a social agreement underlying the legal change. On the photograph, a remnant of the smoking era. Photograph by Sean Kavanagh.




Social life is structured through norms, which often translate into symbols. Photo-collage by Anne Walsh. Photographs found on the Internet or taken in NUIG campus.

Norms are enforced in urban spaces. In the city we are often the role we play: citizens, forces of authority, deviants. Photograph by Brendan Dowling. Taken in Galway city centre.

Some people are within the norm, some people are outside of the norm. The latter have it harder because all their choices are subjected to social scrutiny. At the same time, our social norms have developed thanks to deviance. Think of the effect of protests, revolts and demonstrations. Photograph by Brendan Dowling. Taken at one of the housing states “set up” in Galway city for the traveller community.



Urban planning and aesthetics


Photography by Sean Kavanagh.

we all agree that

Trash is ugly. On display, a profitable scrapping business on the docks in Galway city. Photograph by Horváth Regina.

And that nature, naturally brings out the best of us as it soothes us, relaxes us and lets us connect primordially.  Photography by Regina Horváth. Taken in Oranmore, Galway.

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Mission Statement

Writing with Light is an initiative to bolster the place of the photo-essay—and, by extension, formal experimentation—within international anthropological scholarship. As a collaboration between two journals published by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), Cultural Anthropology and Visual Anthropology Review, Writing with Light is led by a curatorial collective that aims to address urgent and important concerns about the sustained prominence of multimodal scholarship. Anthropological projects based in video, installation, performance, etc. take as a given that multimodality changes what anthropologists can and should see as productive knowledge. Such projects compel anthropologists to begin rethinking our intellectual endeavors through an engagement with various media, addressing the particular affordances and insights that each new form of scholarship offers. How, for example, does photography produce different types of knowledge than text and/or film? What criteria might we need to interrogate and evaluate each of these forms of multimodal scholarship? As part of a broader set of questions about the relationship between forms of scholarly work and knowledge production, we explore the ongoing relevance of the photo-essay.

The Writing with Light collective focuses on the photo-essay in the belief that multimodal (or visual) forms are not a singular paradigm and that a consideration of a singular research form might help us to rethink a broader array of anthropological questions. How does the photo-essay configure our engagement through its unique form of mediation and composition? We believe that the photo-essay provides a critical opportunity for reevaluating the word–image relationship. Conventionally known for its narrative qualities, the photo-essay is especially useful in reconsidering the relationship between words and images in photographic storytelling, as well as efforts to generate innovative anthropological knowledge with the capacity to go beyond storytelling. For example, we are especially interested in the photo-essay’s potential to generate insights focused on issues of mediation and representation, as well as methodological questions with the potential to shift how anthropologists conceive of the discipline itself.

This initiative is unique in that it draws on Cultural Anthropology’s wider view of emerging trends in anthropology, while foregrounding the particular concerns of Visual Anthropology Review as far as theorizing and critiquing practice-based modes of ethnographic scholarship. By relaunching the existing Cultural Anthropology Photo Essays section as a collaboration with Visual Anthropology Review, the initiative aims to open new spaces for interaction between sections of the AAA and corners of the discipline. By merging the literary and epistemological critiques of an earlier generation with the formal and aesthetic critiques driving visual anthropology today, we draw on the etymology of the word photograph for inspiration: thus, writing with light.

Submission Guidelines

  1. All submissions must be submitted through the Cultural AnthropologyOJS submission system. Submissions sent directly to the curatorial collective will not be considered for review.
  2. Please submit all of your images, with captions, in a single PDF file. Images and captions should be arranged in the intended order for publication.
  3. There is no minimum or maximum number of images for submissions. Each photo-essay needs to be evaluated on its own terms, whether it is comprised of a single photograph or many. However, we find that photo-essays with more than fifteen photos are less compelling. Submissions that exceed this number should have strong justification.
  4. Captions are limited to 200 words each, and the introductory text should not exceed 1500 words, including notes and references.

Reviewer Rubric

Conceptual Guidelines

  1. What is the contribution to scholarly knowledge?
  2. Is there a strong argument and narrative?
  3. Is there a theory of the image deployed?
  4. Do text and image work as accomplices?
  5. Does the photo-essay show a keen understanding of image ethics?

Categories of Evaluation

Contribution to Anthropological Knowledge: What is the contribution to anthropological theory and/or ethnographic knowledge? Does the author make reference to and build upon broader discourses in text, photography, and/or film? Does the author show an explicitly anthropological understanding of images, text, representation, and the cultural context under consideration? Does the use of the photo-essay format allow for theoretical discussions that would otherwise be neglected?

Argument and Narrative: Does the photo-essay build a clear, compelling, and original argument? Is their argument appropriately conveyed through the image–text configuration provided?

Production Quality and Theory of the Image: This criterion is intended to challenge notions of the photograph as mere description, i.e., an unmediated look into a given social world. Photographs require technical skills and artistic ability and, as such, the author should show a strong understanding of the photograph as an aesthetico-political form. Are the photographs compelling as independent productions? Do they show a cognizance of framing, lighting, and color? Does the photographer articulate his or her technical approach in a way that might compellingly challenge a viewer’s way of seeing?

Image–Text Relationship: What is the relationship between text and image? Is this relationship generative? Primarily, we are concerned as to whether the author recognizes that images and text convey different kinds of information and that they have sought to maximize the affordances of each media in their photo-essay. Submissions should not rely on either media, but especially text, in order to make their arguments. Instead, the juxtaposition of text and photographs—and therefore the photo-essay itself—should be greater than the sum of its parts.

Ethics and Politics of Representation: Ethics and the politics of representation are guiding principles for any anthropological work. We intend to consider if and how the media-maker understands power relationships and inequities in the production and dissemination of images. An ethically and representationally sophisticated approach needs to show knowledge of how images are likely to be read. Photo-essayists should show that they have considered reflexivity, positionality, rapport, the building of trust, and consent as part of their methodology.

Overall Review

Each category is reviewed on a four-point scale (1-4), with 1 representing a weak score and 4 as very strong or excellent. The collective acknowledges that these categories, unavoidably, have limitations. Therefore, aside from a numerical evaluation, we ask for reviewer comments as an essential part of our qualitative understanding of each submission.

Review Process

Each submission will go through an internal review, in which the collective will assess its potential contribution to the photo-essay genre. After this review, the collective will decide whether to reject the submission outright, request that an author revise and resubmit before further consideration, or recommend that the submission be sent out for external peer review. If the external reviewer indicates that the submission is strong enough to publish, the collective will work with the author on any necessary revisions.

Curatorial Collective (2016–2019)

Craig Campbell ( is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his PhD in Sociology (Theory and Culture) from the University of Alberta in 2009. Campbell is actively involved in producing works that span the range of expository writing, art exhibition, and curation. These function as companion works to a thematic interest in archives, photography, documents, and the anxious territory of actuality. Campbell’s ethnographic, historical, and regional interests include: Siberia, Indigenous Siberians, Evenki, Evenkiia, reindeer hunting and herding, travel and mobility, socialist colonialism, early forms of Sovietization, and the circumpolar North. He publishes widely in journals including Space and Culture, Geographical Review, Sibirica, and Visual Anthropology Review.  His book Agitating Images: Photography against History in Indigenous Siberia was published by University of Minnesota Press in 2014.

Vivian Choi is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at St. Olaf College. She received her PhD in Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. With Michelle Stewart, she was a cofounder of the Cultural Anthropology Photo Essays section. Her current book project, Disaster Nationalism: Tsunami and Civil War in Sri Lanka, examines the social, political, and technological intersections of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka, paying particular attention to disaster and risk management, conflict, and national security. As a part of this project, she examines a range of experiences and representations of disaster, including digital maps, videos, and photographs. Her next project examines sea-surface warming in the Indian Ocean basin. As a slow-moving disaster situated within broader concerns about anthropogenic climate change, sea-surface warming poses questions about the modes and infrastructures of institutional, scientific, and international collaboration required to approach a phenomenon taking place on so grand a scale.

Arjun Shankar is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. His work brings together theories of globalization and development, literary and visual ethnography, affect theory, and curiosity studies. His current book project, How Development Feels, retheorizes the concept of development given the emergence of transnational diasporic networks, the increased use of digital technologies, and human rights discourses that, together, influence how social change can and should occur. In representing the experiences of those in his study, his monograph is broken down into sixty “frames,” each of which includes an image that drives the discussion. The writing of this ethnography is thus also an attempt to textualize the digital. Shankar is also working on a documentary film about the history of scientific racism, based on a critical re-excavation of the Morton Skull Collection. One of the largest collections in the United States, it became the basis for racial categorization and racist ideologies. Shankar is a board member of the Society for Visual Anthropology. As a media maker as well as a dedicated pedagogue, he encourages teachers and researchers to think with multimodality, making the audiovisual part of research design as well as classroom instruction.

Mark Westmoreland is Director of the Leiden School of Visual Ethnography at Leiden University, and previously served as coeditor of Visual Anthropology Review. With particular research interests in the interface between sensory embodiment and media aesthetics in ongoing legacies of contentious politics, his work explores the epistemological possibilities and productive frictions at the intersection between art, activism, and ethnography. His current book project, Catastrophic Images, shows how experimental documentary practices play a crucial role in addressing recurrent political violence in Lebanon. As a corecipient of a research grant from the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences, another new project focuses on the cultivation of radical political aesthetics and the generative potential of video activism in the wake of the Arab uprisings. His work explores the production of alternative visualities in the contemporary Middle East as crucial and generative sites for addressing recurrent political violence and enacting new conceptual frameworks for understanding the region.

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