Typically, when I tell people I'm doing research, they don't really have a sense of what it is I'm actually doing. For the most part, my work does not involve quantitative data collection or heavy stats analysis, and I suppose observation sounds fuzzy, and doing or making or even being with people sounds even fuzzier.
Yesterday, doing research meant gathering iPads and cameras and loading them into a brown paper box. It meant downloading images I searched for on Pinterest under the title documentary photography onto the devices. It meant thinking about how participants could look at images of everyday life- documentary images- that showed something new or interesting about the most common of everyday moments, and spin a story from that image. It meant then imagining how participants could take the cameras packed in the box, and venture out into their world and photograph something- anything, really- from their daily lives. It meant devising a writing prompt that could follow the capturing of images, hoping that they'd continue to engage enough to write something meaningful about the image they had taken.
And so we arrived, my postdoctoral supervisor and myself, to addiction and rehab support center yesterday, and we were greeted by folks at the steps of the building, lingering on the streets and having a smoke. Someone held the door for us- for our hands were full of digital devices and doughnuts and coffee, and we entered a big room with fluorescent lighting and lots of round tables that smelled faintly of elementary school cafeteria food and warm bodies. Men and women of all ages gathered at the tables, clutching paper cups of coffee and chatting. An art table in the corner was littered with plastic boxes of broken crayons and felt markers that I desperately wanted to organized into their proper bins. An older woman with a pair of glasses strung around her neck introduced herself, the director of the center.
I felt out of place, the way I often do in a new space. The difference between me and my pixie haircut and these people was wide. I desperately wished to make the difference disappear so that I could sit down with these folks and have a cup of what I was certain was bad, watery coffee, and talk about life. But of course the way I want to be easily accepted, the way I imagine the chumminess, the camaraderie- it's always all in my head.
This isn't exactly like most of my research, for I am stepping into my post-doc supervisor's project. She's been here, many times. People know her. Young adults greet her. They ask about previous projects. I am new here, and this is the only time I will visit. Typically, I spend lots of time with people I do research with, and time erodes the difference between me and my pixie haircut and the people with whom I work. But not this time. This time, I rely on the relationships built by other researchers to carry me through, to facilitate our research.
I meet some folks. We move downstairs, into a yellowed classroom-cubicle. We gather around a table, men and women of all ages joining us. I try not to stare at a man with a multi-pointed star tattoo adorning the skin around his eye, which, I imagine, was insanely painful to have done. A young woman who must be close to me in age slips into the chair next to him, her straight blond hair falling down her back. She folds her body up in the chair, nervously- incessantly- tapping her fingers on the table. She must be going through withdrawal.
The room fills and we begin. The iPads. The people sharing their opinions of the images. Scrolling through pictures and describing what they like as I silently wish I'd chosen images that more represented this group. My pinterest images- the ones that spoke to me, they are hopelessly tied to my middle class life, my new mom-ness, my academic nerdiness, my documentary photography obsession.
But there's no room to wonder what could have been, and soon everyone has shared and we talk about what makes a good photo and we traipse outside with cameras and iPads and phones and cell phones pulled from participant pockets and backpacks.
A man who was going to photograph characters at the centre as though they were Sesame Street characters takes pictures of leaves as well. Another man isn't sure what he's supposed to do. I explain again, trying to remove the metaphor from my language. The blonde woman has someone else hold her camera while she poses with a cigarette in her hand, and I'm drawn both to the flickering red light and the curve of smoke billowing into the wind. The guy with the eye tattoo searches for a spider. We find one, but it's shaking to much in the wind. We search for another, finding one in the rafters of an octagonal structure that seems out of place.
I wonder if this is going to work. If there will be something to write about. If this is good enough.
And then we head inside, and each participant writes about their image, and one woman narrates a story to me about where she used to play as a little girl around a totem pole that she photographed. She cannot read or write, and she seems embarrassed. She emphasizes the incredible blue sky of the images she took, proud of her pictures. She took them with her camera, and her camera takes amazing pictures, she explains.
People share. The blonde talks about routines and addiction and her smoking photo. The woman who shot the totem pole asks me to read the statement I wrote as she spoke. I do. The man with the eye tattoo uses an app to write something about not getting caught in the spiderweb of life directly onto his image, but then he emails me only the plain image. I want the other one, the one with the writing. A former Pakistani architect shares an angular photo, showing us patterns and how how the image radiates.
And then we are done. The people begin to drift away. We remind them to take the food. We gather the tech. We turn off the recordings. We say thank you. We go to a cafe, and over hot drinks in trendy cups we try to imagine what we will write about multimodality, how we will think about this time, which photographs embody theory. We do not yet know. We will write there, and then we will re-write, and maybe we will know some more, then, after we've had time to think with these images, to let them blur together with ideas.
That's research. That's what I mean, when I say, I'm doing research today.