A photon of light hits the rhodopsin in a retinal cone cell, is absorbed by the purple pigment, making the molecule change shape and sending a signal to the optic nerve. The signal passes along the nerve and through the idiosyncratic matrices of the brain while being checked against other bodily experiences and memory. The result is that, in the blink of an eye, we see. It is remarkably commonplace sequence of chemical and biological processes. This year’s conference of the International Visual Sociology Association, however, demonstrated the breathtaking number of social processes that this chain of events can be involved in. From the aestheticisation of sustainable farming, through the neo-colonial exploitation of Cambodian sex workers to the memorialization of forgotten armies, the global circulation of objects and the oxidization of the Rust Belt, the conference program demonstrated that nearly all aspects of the social world are mediated, at least in part, through the visual.
The sociological primacy of the visual is a belief that the delegates seemed to share, to the extent that they clearly drew solace from not having to explain the basics of visual methods as they might in other forums. Nevertheless, delegates assiduously argued for, and rigorously demonstrated the panoply of distinct ways in which they have grappled light to both record and analyze the visual world. Beyond recording and analyzing the visual world, the delegates also demonstrated a myriad of new (visual) ways of what Howard Becker (2007) refers to as “telling about society”. Diagrams, films, open circuit television, aerial photography all featured alongside more familiar forms of ethnographic reportage. This in particular, the ways in which social researchers rendered the social in new light and labored to open people’s eyes, is what resonated most with the theme of the conference, ‘The Public Image’. It was also an aspect of the conference that presented the best chance to bring something of the CUCR and Goldsmiths Sociology’s innovations in the fields of pedagogy and research to the conference. We, the hosts, lead delegates on a series of walks through exhibitions that, alongside workshops on drawing, methodological invention and photographic practice, demonstrated a range of both new ways of researching and telling about society.
Image by Jon Rainford
At the conference dinner, the president of the IVSA, Doug Harper, commented that the association had never looked so good. The fact that the conference was blessed by the delirious beauty of British summer certainly cast the event in great light and affected delegates in a number of positive ways. However, Doug’s remarks did not refer to the surface of the conference. Nor was he referring directly to what was going on away from the college green, in the seminar rooms, exhibition spaces and cinemas. He was, I think, referring to the way visual sociology looks to us, in our imaginations, which had been massively expanding in terms of scope and possibility, by the light that fell on the collective retina of this year’s #IVSA2013.
Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor is Deputy Director of Centre for Urban and Community Research
Becker, H.S., 2007. Telling About Society 1st ed., Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.