My research explores the experience of home, displacement and belonging of a group of Chilean exiles who have remained abroad, after the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship. I reflect on their changing fields of belonging by looking at a network of social scenes which have subsisted from the 1970s until today. I am developing an experimental ethnography which uses life story interviews, participant observation and photography to explore the memories of these social scenes as well as their current forms and meanings.
Among the personal collection of images which I am using, there is one which deserves some attention. This belongs to Raul (not his real name), a “serious amateur photographer” who came to the UK as a teenager in the 1970s. He describes himself as the “photographer of the community”. Made in 35mm, mostly during the 1970s and 1980s, his photographs have largely remained as film strips still waiting to be seen.
As my fieldwork evolved Raul lent me his archive. While scanning the film strips, I identified many spaces, people and performances which I was actually ‘visiting’ through my on-going fieldwork. This disregarded archive, unexpectedly, showed me how those spaces and scenes were more than thirty years ago.
I went back to the field, but this time with an analogue camera to photograph again different contexts. Raul enthusiastically lent me his equipment. With his mixers, thermometers, tanks and black bag –which had not been used for more than a decade – I developed my own black and white photographs at home.
Back to the field again, I took with me Raul’s and my own photographs to elicit reflections and feelings about ‘continuity and change’; a process in which memories and emotions acquire a tangible form and became easier to articulate for my research participants. This exercise enhanced my understanding of home, belonging and displacement, as well as place-making, in relation to the changing geo-political, social and physical environments which the Chilean diaspora navigates.
This visual collection has also led me to reflect on photography, beyond its content and ‘extractive’ utility. It has invited me to problematize the complex visuality/materiality interface. What do these visual materials ‘do’? What set of practices, dialogues and interchanges do they potentially enable? Moreover, as researchers, our potential role as “curators”, who can select, display and situate differently the work which others have done, has recently become an important concern for my current research and visual practice.
I will be happy to exchange ideas with scholars and practitioners whose work deal with similar themes, approaches and concerns.