Rachel Taylor graduated from Royal Holloway’s research-based MA Cultural Geography last year. She is currently working for the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Her research interests include public engagement with academia, museums, identity politics and how we understand human remains. Here she reflects on online archives, particularly photographic ones, as a research method. The internet is not one of the first things that springs to mind when you think of archives, but it is a valuable resource for academics if we only made use of it. Follow Rachel on Twitter: @mereplacenames
In an age where the most popular ‘camera’ used by Flickr uploaders is the iPhone 4S, it’s time to reconsider photography, contemporary archival methods and move beyond the idea that dust – “the scholar’s choice of dirt” (Lorimer, 2009: 248) and tangibility are the only bedfellows of archival scholarship. Cultural geographers and non-geographers alike are beginning to consider the importance of the online archives that are increasingly playing an important role in our day to day life, and what follows are some brief reflections on the promise and pitfalls of working with these modern archives.
The field of online research is still in its infancy. Having conducted research on the place of Web 2.0 in understanding modern museum behaviour, I’m interested in the many ways in which this infancy provokes questions on the methodological difficulties of working with online archives.
While working with archives has often involved accessing material fiercely guarded by gatekeepers, with a strong emphasis on the physicality of the archive, contemporary visual archives such as Flickr and Instagram offer the chance to conduct research from any location and to gain an immediate appreciation of how the ‘photographers’ that use these sites articulate their social identities and make memories. Rather than delving into little seen and barely touched sources, the empirical data of online archives is generally available to anyone with an internet connection, with “the family photo album, once confined to living rooms…brought into the equivalent of the town square” (Kramer-Duffield and Hank, 2008: 1).
Despite online photographic repositories offering innovation in archival methodology, both Flickr and Instagram can be accused of hosting throwaway images, with each Instagram photograph “rapidly replaced by the next” (Champion, 2012: 86). Champion draws upon van Dijk in considering the disposability of Instagram images, suggesting they can be equated “to postcards which were meant to be thrown away” (2012: 87). While online visual archives act as a repository of memory, the very fact that they serve as repositories means permanence and importance are not privileged. In a world where some feel the need to photograph every morsel of food they eat, images are no longer confined to capturing the extraordinary. Rather, the banal, everyday moments of life take centre stage.
On a practical note, this disposable nature of the online world hinders attempts at locating images, often exponentially increasing the labour of data collection and encapsulates the difficulties of carrying out research on the Internet. Instagram’s web platform allows a maximum of twenty images to be viewed at any one time, with no means of viewing large amounts of images at once. Web platform such as spots.io and Websta do provide assistance, but issues with cached data and partial information ensure data collection remains a demanding task.
While paper may crumple and ink fade, webpages can be edited, deleted and moved. More traditional forms of archival scholarship are reliant upon gatekeepers’ superior knowledge of their collections to guide the researcher in knowing what to look for. In the online world, images are effectively lost if one does not know what they are looking for, with elements such as hashtags, captions and geotags all serving as digital clues to contextualise the images in the vast visual banks of photographic repositories. The wealth of information contained within these non-visual cues demonstrate that when carrying out archival research with online sources, visuality is only one element of the photographic archives.
Despite these challenges, platforms such as Instagram and Flickr offer the chance to engage with how users visually curate their lives. The act of photographing something denotes it as something ‘worth’ seeing. These images then are “increasingly active objects” (de Rijcke and Beaulieu, 2011: 665). These active objects shouldn’t be viewed as objective records, but rather seek to actively represent the person taking the photograph, “negotiated” with an audience in mind (Goffman, 1959 in Larsen, 2005: 419). Photographic practice acts as a form of memory making and establishing one’s presence, allowing content producers to self-curate their everyday life and activities. In an ever increasingly visual world, online archival work offers the ability to understand and interpret contemporary behaviour – sans dust.
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