The Power of the Photographic Image
Photographs are generally used as unequivocal iconic testimonies of reality. We accept what is presented to us as a transparent representation of reality. We take note of everything through the photographic ‘lens based’ image. People, events, and landscapes appear in papers, on Internet, and television. These images do not only inform us, but they also determine the way in which we view the world. Images are like colored glasses distorting our vision. They become instilled into our consciousness and program the way we look without our being aware of it. In our travels to distant destinations we look for the images the brochures have promised us. When we hold a camera there, we most likely search our environment for these same promised pictures. Subsequently, we return home with pictures of sunsets, palm trees, white sandy beaches, and blue seas. This notion justifies the question of how the documentary and journalistic image continuously reconfirm an image of reality that has already been installed by previous pictures. War, for example, has a well known photographic appearance. The same is true for cities such as Paris, Istanbul, and Rio de Janeiro. This understanding of the social function of photographs serves as the starting point of the photo project of Het Blauwbörgje, an institute for people with dementia in Groningen, which is presented here. During the project we worked with an artistic research method that made it possible for photos to escape this vicious cycle of imaging.
Photography as an Artistic Research Method
It is the intention of most artists (not as a profession but as an attitude) to go against today’s continuously self-affirming society. At times this results in the development of artistic research methods that transcend a singular concrete practice and thus can also be used in other contexts. The research group Image in Context of Minerva Academy takes an inquiring approach towards these methods. In May 2013, the expertise platform PRICCAPractice was established with the purpose of bringing together artistic research methods in which photography specifically plays a role. During the Blauwbörgje project we worked with the methodology of one of the researchers affiliated with PRICCAPractice, visual artist Lino Hellings. She has developed a photographic method for taking pictures for journalism platform the Participating Artists Press Agency project (Papa). Through the so-called ‘open mind’ method photographers are able to let go and overcome their programmed view on the outside world created by preexisting photos. With the use of this method the obvious picture is being avoided. Instead, different photos are taken; photos in which reality is shown through image in other ways; photos that tell something different. In this manner people with a camera (artists, photographers, regular citizens) are not only able to imagine a reality that differentiates itself from the predictable one, but through these pictures they also gain a better understanding of, for example, the city they live in. Helling’s photographic method to bring cities into view is also used to depict Het Blauwbörgje. My question is, to what extent is it possible to use a method developed for the public space for a private institute such as Het Blauwbörgje? In the context of Het Blauwbörgje, Helling’s method is employed as an artistic research method in which the photographic image is used to investigate Het Blauwbörgje as a research object. The Papa-method is a method that could offer new insights. Thus, there are two different research questions:
1. Is the Papa-method applicable for a private institution such as Het Blauwbörgje?
2. Does the Papa-method indeed offer new insights?
In carrying this research into effect Lino Hellings was asked to guide a photo walk in Het Blauwbörgje with a group consisting of ten students and the photography teacher and visual artist Harold Koopmans. The students were able to register for the project as part of Minerva Academy’s electives, also known as the flexibele schil. As a teacher at Minerva Academy, Harold Koopmans was involved in the project in order to become familiar with the method, so that he will be able to use it in relation to future projects.
While in science it is no more than customary to implement established research methods in new contexts, this approach is not so accepted within the arts. The artistic product has a much stronger connection to its creator than scientific results that can be used in specifying various contexts and discourses. It characterizes Lino Hellings that precisely this transition and its implications aroused her interest and became her research question in the photo project.
Het Blauwbörgje was approached with the question of whether it wanted to participate in the investigation. Het Blauwbörgje itself recently opened a research laboratory, the Living Lab, where innovations in health care are examined regarding their usefulness and efficiency. Our research differed from the inquiries made in the lab, which are more an investigation into the usefulness of a method than that of a product, and was received with sympathy and curiosity. The management of Het Blauwbörgje and the researchers of the Living Lab were especially curious to see if the project would offer them new perspective of their familiar surroundings. In a meeting with the management we discussed the preconditions of the study. We would only shoot one of the housing units, and only in public areas. We also decided to open up the photo walks for Blauwbörgje’s employees. Two photo walks with an interdisciplinary group of Minerva Students and one member of the staff of Het Blauwbörgje would be organized.
Innovation Workshop ‘Health Space Design’
At an earlier stage the project was introduced in a different context: the innovation workshop Health Space Design led by the professorship of Facility Management of research center NoorderRuimte, Hanzehogeschool Groningen. In this workshop research projects are carried out in which the relationship between the space and the wellbeing of the people is primarily focused on. Also for the researches conducted within this workshop the method developed by Lino Hellings could offer an innovative approach. Within this context, the project could even lead to an innovation on the level of general research methodologies. Therefore, it was intended that the investigation would be carried out by an interdisciplinary group of students from both Minerva Academy and the academies of Health Studies, and the Institute for Facility Management. Due to the rapid start of the project we have not yet succeeded fully. Only a student from Facility Management has participated in this first pilot phase.
The Research Process
In May 2013, two photo walks took place. A walk led by Lino Helllings herself, with participants Harold Koopmans, four students from Minerva, a student of Facility Management, and an employee of Het Blauwbörgje. A week later Harold Koopmans led a walk, again with an interdisciplinary group of students and the same staff member of Het Blauwbörgje. Both walks followed the same three categories. I will describe the phases here briefly on the basis of the first route.
Phase 1: The Walk
The photo walk’s kick-off took place in the working space of the Living Lab in Het Blauwbörgje. Hellings explained that we would walk in pairs through the public inside- and outside spaces and the open housing unit. The walk would take around two hours and after that time we would meet again in the workspace. During the walk we would photograph wherever our gaze fell on, without thinking about their meaningfulness in the grand scheme of things. It would be no problem to also exchange ideas with the residents and the nurses. As long as we wouldn’t try to formalize a photographic plan or try to make “beautiful” pictures.
Phase 2: Uploading
After the photo walks Hellings explained the next step. She had created space for the project on her digital platform Papa. The participants had to upload two pictures on Papa every day, and accompany each image with a short text explaining its importance and what the photographer thought was interesting about the selected photo. This continued for six days, allowing each participant a total of twelve photos on the platform. During the uploading process the participants received the occasional reaction of Hellings, in which she complimented and encouraged them to write more and write more concrete.
Phase 3: Joint Reflection
After a week the group met again in the workspace of the Living Lab in Het Blauwbörgje. One by one the participants were placed next to his or her selected images. The participant then had to explain what was exceptional about the photos, while the rest of the group responded to this and joined in the thought process. This was the moment in which the new insights arose in relation to Het Blauwbörgje. This was also the time when it became clear that a mixed group is a group with different perspectives. The insights thus resulted from the open discussion as well as from the presence of these different perspectives, stemming from the visual arts, graphic design, spatial design, and from internal (staff) and external (students) influences.
As said before Harold Koopmans took the role of Lino Hellings during the second photo walk, but the next stages were carried out in the same way.
Phase 4: Transfer
In the fourth phase, the project was transferred to the management of Het Blauwbörgje and the researchers of the Living Lab. Based on the idea that rather than the views themselves, the way in which the insights arose from communal observations is important, we repeated the reflections of the participants regarding the pictures they made. In this manner, the management of Het Blauwbörgje was involved in the same process as the participants. As a result, instead of a mere transfer of conclusions, the same conclusions were drawn. The people of Het Blauwbörgje thus changed from being outsiders to being participants in the process in which we all tried to formulate the value of the results of the research project, and what could be a next step or process.
The Open View
Although interesting, the process that followed did not so much concern the insights the photos put forward in relation to the spaces of Het Blauwbörgje, but more the way in which the pictures brought about a different way of looking whereby everyone was able to develop a fresh vision. We did not merely transfer the results based on the images, but instead presented an experience that we wanted the management to be part of. In the same way the management asked us to extend this experience to the other people connected to Het Blauwbörgje; the staff and family of the clients. The individual observation, the re-examination, and the development of an open view are the transferred results of the research project.
In a next project we therefore want to focus on walks in which the staff has even a greater role, and we want to carry out the walks in an audit context. However, the exchange of insights based on the pictures continues to take place in a context of multiple views: those of the students (outsiders’ view) as well as those of the staff (insiders’ view) remain equally important in order to allow for the creation of new insights. In addition, we will look for a way of how to allow the staff and the relatives of the residents to share in the experience. How do you look at things? How do you change cliché imagery, so that people, like it has been said at the beginning of this text, not only recognize the image as they have remembered it, but have to look again because the picture just doesn’t match the familiar image? It can be concluded that the two research questions are both answered positively: yes, the Papa-method can be used within an institution such as Het Blauwbörgje, and can even be used by someone other than the creator herself. And yes: the Papa-method was indeed able to provide new insights on the space of Het Blauwbörgje. Now that these questions have been answered, it should be possible to apply the method in a context in which an actual demand is made with respect to improving the space. When that time comes, the method could become included in the research phase of a Health Space Design project. Then, the newly found insights that spawned from the pictures could be studied again as important research material. This knowledge could be a starting point for developing a clear design plan. In that case, the strong separation that was emphasized by the pictures between the private spaces of the people with dementia, and the open areas where staff and visitors can walk freely, could be a motivator to formulate a design challenge.
Moreover, the project has yet to reveal its last positive result. This concerns the way in which we worked together with many parties, of which each had their own questions they wanted to be answered in the project. Not only is it important to identify the different ways in which all that were involved have learned from the project, but also it is crucial to emphasize that the value of a project lies exactly in the fact that everyone has learned in the process. This is not just a lucky side effect of the project; it is the way in which I, as professor of Image in Context, believe that all projects should be carried out. Nobody is watching on the side or is merely the executor, instead everyone has their own perspective on research, everybody is brought there by a clear question, and everyone can in the end explain what the project has brought him or her. I have found that this method works, and that it can lead to wonderful processes of learning and great insights. It has helped me to instigate projects in which the client, experts, teachers, and students can work together in a similar manner. Lino Hellings has discovered that by letting her research methods go and by allowing us to manage the process, a development is possible that might enrich her as well. She continues to act as an expert in similar connecting projects, but her role has become more that of a monitor. Harold has discovered what it means for an artist/photographer to work with the research method of someone else. Furthermore, he can apply this method a place in relation to other projects and in education, allowing larger groups of students to implement it. The students have learned to use this method as a tool that can serve them in their future professional practice. In addition, they took part in an experience in an existing context outside of the academy. Het Blauwbörgje received a critical look from the outside and recognized that this is of great value.
When I look back on the whole process, the negotiations with Lino Hellings, the involvement of Harold Koopmans, the talks with Het Blauwbörgje, the first interviews with the students about the project and the last in which we evaluated it, I am impressed by the manner in which this has all taken place. I am particularly amazed by the respectful manner in which we jointly sought through open discussions for the best solutions or approaches during all phases, by the equivalence between all parties, and by the lack of hierarchy and working with roles and perspectives. Sometimes the project gets carried out precisely as you hoped it would. I cannot quite put my finger on the reason for this success. Was it the process? Was it the method? Was it the lucky chemistry of the right people being in the right place at the right time? Everyone has been able to invest from his or her own position and develop as such. Perhaps that is the most important outcome of this project.