Bordeaux, France. Unlocking Visual Codes

This visual ethnographic immersive research trip was an opportunity to spend three days in the field applying participatory observational techniques.  Wanting to test two theories examining cultural identity and interactivity through sound and vision, this research visit specifically addressed what a person might learn through participation and production. This ethnographic fieldwork translated experiences into two outcomes, firstly a set of photographic images shot on 35mm film by my daughter and secondly a series of sound bites by participants who were engaging with the research while skating at local spots.

The first of the two experiments involved my daughter.  Aged eight, she has grown up around skateboarding, has watched her parents both in the studio and on location shooting images on digital and film cameras. While she is apt at using a digital camera on automatic, the Nikon FM2 35mm camera is completely manual. During our three days in Bordeaux we stayed with professional skateboarder Leo Valls. Each day we would head out to a number of skate spots in and around the city. My daughter would move around the city with us and was at ease in the company of a new group skateboarders. As part of this experience I observed what happened when you stripped away camera control features leaving all of the decisions to the child. I wanted to explore two questions,

  1. How might she approach documenting the field in comparison to my own approach?
  2. How would she visualise skateboarding through the lens?

Apart from setting the ISO all other choices were left up to her. She was given one role of film 36 in total knowing that this camera would not provide instant imagery. Unable to react to the previous image she had just taken her choices would not be based on what she could see in the screen but on her instinct in the field. I also carried with me a 35 mm camera and shot one roll of film as a comparison.


Observing my daughter in the field, it was apparent that a collaborative element grew between the ethnographer and the community being represented.  My daughter would sit and talk to the skateboarders asking them what they were doing and they in turn would talk to her about what they trying to achieve at that particular location. They would often walk her through the area explaining where they might try to launch in an out of the trick and in some cases popped her on the board and reenacted the moves. They would recommend to her locations where she might be best stood to capture the action but being quite strong willed she would not always take their advise, choosing to shot from a space she felt was best. On the first day she shot over half a roll of film at three locations. On the second and third day she shot the other half at four locations but realised that she would soon be out of film so became more precious about how many she took. She often sat next to me and would explain what she was doing. I had not told her of my experiment rather than just asked her if she would like to try and take some photographs of what she saw so that she could see what it was like to be a research like her mother.

As I watched her taking pictures I recognised that unlike both her parents she approached her photographic experience in two very fundamentally different ways. Firstly she did not pan with the action. As photographers who shoot action, working in natural light with no flash to freeze the person we often pan with the movement to frame a person in the shot. This requires the photographer to move in sync with the person undertaking the action. In my daughters case she had observed where the action was going to happen and focused on that one spot and only shooting within that limited range. Secondly she never changed the settings on her camera the whole time we shot in Bordeaux. Either it was blind luck or the settings on camera previously had matched the conditions that weekend but she was able to capture twenty three images on her roll of film. As I discussed with her what she liked to photograph she explained that she like the speed and the way the skateboarders moved. She enjoyed when the skateboarders talked to her about what they were doing but also she noted that she enjoyed the times when she was just watching what they did and when they would take her on their board and in one instance bomb hills.

As part of the experiment I developed and scanned the rolls of film presenting the images in a small exhibition and as part of my supervisory exam. I did not enter into any conversation over who had shot the images nor did I title them. I just explained that they had been shot as part of an ethnographic study in Bordeaux. It was obvious from the feedback I gathered that my daughters images were well received. A number of people commented on the energy and the pace of the works. One person highly praised her set of images explaining that they felt the photographs captured, ‘An unfamiliar electricity within the setting’.  This visual ethnographic study has now become part of the wider conversation surrounding the embodiment of documentation, providing further analysis on the handling of devices and verbal interaction between participant and researcher based on photographs, and the researcher’s annotation of action in the field.