Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Where Is Fort McMurray? the Camera as a Tool for Assembling "Community"

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Where Is Fort McMurray? the Camera as a Tool for Assembling "Community"

Article excerpt

Introduction

Community is a common reference in political and media discourses and a rallying point for responses to local issues. However, what "community" refers to, and what is at stake, is an open question. In the case of Fort McMurray, the reference is as much to collective affect (Davidson et al. 2011) as to an aspiration--a struggle to both build and imagine a community in what has been called the Canadian "resource hinterland" of boom and bust resource developments (White 1979; Hechter 1975). Of course, we assume that ideas of community are multiple and emergent; community appears through practices that establish insider status (Elias and Scotson 1994), performances of belonging (Cohen 1982), and experiences of communitas, the affect of togetherness (Turner 1974). If "community" is a thing, it is virtual in the sense of an intangible good known through its effects (Shields 2006). Our aim is to explore the unintended and diverse consequences of its invocation and the different regimes of practice and knowledge that constitute it (Creed 2006). More specifically, we consider the consequences and knowledges of community made possible when a camera is used--and when photography is made the central apparatus of research--by drawing on a project that invited youth to be collaborators and co-investigators in the search to "find" Fort McMurray as place, community, and conjuncture.

Previous work on image-based research, including photovoice and photonovellas (Wang 1999, 2001; Wang and Burris 1994), community-based participatory research (Lopez, Robinson, and Wang 2005), and reflective and interpretive collaborative participant-based projects (Berger 1982; Pink 2001; Rose 2001; Sontag 1977), helped us find our way to the question of community via the practice of photography and the "camera as tool." However, this is not, as in the tradition of photovoice, a matter of the camera as a device for empowering the lived authenticity of community voices (Wang et al. 2000:81-89); when deployed with youth, many such projects have explicit pedagogical goals such as activating citizenship or promoting safety, and/or they set out to document a specific process. Nor is it, as in some branches of visual sociology, a concern with the camera as a methodological tool for representing or capturing community life. Rather, our project came to be about the camera as an apparatus of community--itself a kind of organizing principle, a catalyst of people-place-research relations, and thus an aid in sensing some of the extant and possible meanings of community. Szeman and Whiteman (2012:48), in a photographic essay on Fort McMurray, draw on the work of Allan Sekula to explore "the possibilities of the photographic image--its almost unprecedented capacity to provoke conceptual, theoretical and political openings as a result of its relation to the real"; we step back to ask about the rich methodological possibilities for pursuing the idea and practice of community when the camera and the photograph are used to provoke such openings.

The ironic but provocative sociological insight is that any camera as a photograph-making technology assembles subjects, photographers, and viewers around it as social groups. Thus, the camera could serve as an "inward looking" organizing principle for our collaboration as well as an "outward looking" research medium asking after emplaced community. It was an active agent of creating, refracting, and reimagining "community" as it applied, in one and the same moment, to our research collaboration--which we take to include us and the youth--and to Fort McMurray (cf. Pink 2011:92-101). In short, the camera articulated us to the youth, the youth to Fort McMurray, and us to Fort McMurray in particular ways. That articulation was furthered as the images created by the youth made their way into formal spaces such as the public displays and Flickr.com site directly facilitated by the project, as well as informal, unanticipated spaces such as personal web sites and internet postcards. …

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