A blog reflecting on our 2021 Festival of Social Science event in Glasgow, inviting people to consider the benefits and challenges of using photography to explore sensitive social issues.
In August 2021, I was successful in securing funding from the ESRC Festival of Social Science – an annual, UK-wide, celebration of the social sciences. I used my experience as the Research Associate on the Dying in the Margins project as the basis of the event. Attendees with an interest in photography were invited to explore and reflect on some of the issues faced when using visual methods to explore sensitive social issues.
While there is an established history of using photography to document and research social issues with marginalised populations, there is limited information available about how this is best achieved with people who are at the end of their life. In the six months I have spent helping to recruit for Dying in the Margins, I have learned many lessons about using visual methods and the barriers that can be posed by both a terminal diagnosis and the financial situation of our participants.
The FoSS event had two strands:
- A talk by renowned Scottish photographer Margaret Mitchell on 25th October. Margaret shared and reflected on a range of her works including with members of her own family, people experiencing homelessness and her recent work on Dying in the Margins.
- Our attendees were then invited to go and take photographs on the topic of ‘end of life’ or ‘financial hardship’. This formed the basis of a public exhibition in the University of Glasgow’s Chapel, November – December 2021.
Six photographers submitted 18 images to the exhibition, under the following titles:
|End of Life Theme||Financial Hardship Theme|
|The Circle of Life – Tasha Quinn |
Practicing Acceptance – Samuel Hawker
Reunited in Delivery – Dr Kate Reid
|Andy – Laura Jane Steven |
Shots from a Crawling Vehicle – Jegan N’Dow
Irvine Architecture – Jenn Mallon
Reflections on the Event
Margaret’s talk provided an informative and thought-provoking introduction to the project, which garnered a range of reactions. There was a lively debate on the challenges and ethics of doing photographic works with certain groups and seeing images from Dying in the Margins reinforced the importance of taking a participatory approach to photographic work with marginalised populations. As part of the evaluation of the event, one of the attendees offered their reflections:
I was very fortunate to be involved in this event and felt I learned a lot from the class and the practical assignment that followed. It was the general consensus of the class that we gained an improved understanding of how to approach difficult topics with due respect and consideration for the people involved. It also became clear that the discussion of these topics, while challenging, is extremely important.
During her class, the photographer Margaret Mitchell walked us through some of her work, explaining in great detail how she approached sensitive topics. She was particularly effective in her depiction of financial hardship and death in a manner that was humanising and respectful, depicting these issues as a part of the individual’s experience rather than the entirety of it. We were then invited to take photos ourselves, which challenged us to reflect on these new ideas and apply them in a practical way. – Samuel Hawker
Given the challenging topics and short timeframe that attendees were given to complete their images, I was really impressed by the response we had. The choice of subject and styles were hugely varied but all captured the emotive topics in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way. I would like to thank all of our photographers for their time and effort, Dr Naomi Richards and Margaret Mitchell for making this mini-project possible, and the chaplaincy team at the University of Glasgow for hosting the exhibition.
Dying in the Margins (@Dying_Margins): https://www.gla.ac.uk/research/az/endoflifestudies/projects/dyinginthemargins/
ESRC Festival of Social Science: https://festivalofsocialscience.com/
Margaret Mitchell: https://margaretmitchell.co.uk/