© Laurens Nijzink
On 5 November, a Training for Impact was organised by LeidenGlobal, the Taalmuseum, and Voice4Thought. A day full of workshops to equip young researchers with ideas and tools to think creatively about ways to share their research findings with a broader audience. I followed the photography workshop organised by Laurens Nijzink (journalist and anthropologist), and Rachel Corner (photographer).
Due to new measures to curb the spread of covid-19 we could not meet in person at the Leids Volkshuis, and the training was organised online. This made it hardly less engaging. In a thought-provoking way, Laurens and Rachel guided us past the ins and outs of telling stories with photography.
Four participants from different academic backgrounds joined the workshop. In an introduction of our own research projects and the added value we see for photography and multi-media publications in our projects, different challenges came to the fore. Whatever the exact challenge, the guiding question of today’s workshop was: how do we translate the stories we collect into visual stories? From this general question, a number of other questions followed, such as: what parts of your research make for compelling photo stories? Where do you position photography in the context of other ways of publishing (written texts, audio)? And increasingly important in our digital age: how do we remain accountable to the people whose lives we document?
When thinking through the possibilities of translating research into a visual story, it is important, Laurens emphasised, to select a part of your research – a particularly moving story, an intriguing person, or a game-changing event. Or in photography terms: zoom in to specific people and specific details, carefully choose your composition, and think about the perspective for your story. And so we got to the ins and outs of photographic narration. How do you tell a story that involves layered characters, whose lives contain tensions and moving scenes of action?
In terms of techniques to be considered in your photography, we discussed how you can translate dialogue, character development, and personal reflection into visual stories. Again, zooming in and zooming out at the right moment seems crucial. Not with the zoom function of your camera per se, but in terms of being present as a photographer at pivotal moments in your subject’s life, by playing with focus, and through setting the right scene that puts people and objects in their relevant social and natural environment.
Inevitably some time was spent discussing the impact of covid-19 on our possibilities for working through photography. At this moment, it is virtually impossible to go out into the world, to our research settings, to take photos. What does this mean for the projects we can realise in the coming months? To some challenges there may be no solutions, and we will have to be upfront about the changes covid-19 forces us to make to our research projects. However, in some cases, you could ask your interlocutors to take photos of their daily lives for you. They could keep a photo diary with their phone, or capture important events that you exchange on via the phone. The imperfect photos this yields tells the story of how lives and projects are affected. This results in different publications: an artistically high-standing photo series may not be attainable in this way, but the photos may figure in a multi-media publication that includes a note on the practical challenges covid-19 brings to your research project.
On the basis of a number of examples of photo stories, some shot by Rachel herself, Rachel and Laurens made insightful how documentary photography is a continuous process of adapting photographic techniques to narratives and research context. Both on the micro-level of individual photos: what moment do you want co capture, and from what angle will you capture your subject/object? What other objects/subjects do you show in your photo? But also on a more macro-level of the dissemination your research findings: what place do the visuals get in your research projects?
Golden rules do not exist for narrative photography, and photography, like other art forms, is partly also a matter of taste. Thus we did not end the workshop with conclusive statements as to how to implement photography in our research projects, but we do have a whole lot of questions and ideas to think about. And with the intention to share with each other the outcomes of our projects, I think this training facilitates meaningful cross-disciplinary exchange about innovative research methods among early-career scholars.
For the opening of the Training for Impact day, Mirjam de Bruijn (Voice4Thought) spoke with prof Remco Breuker (Korean Studies at Leiden University) on using innovative methods to reach a broader public with your research and why this is important.
Loes is a PhD candidate at the African Studies Center at Leiden University. She researches historical transformations and continuations in gender norms in Senegal, through a focus on the social positioning of sexually dissident women in society. Loes is actively involved in Voice4Thought, currently writing about women and the emergence of a slam poetry movement in Africa.