Doing Sociology with Photography

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Beyond the Border, a photography exhibition at the Granary Gallery in Berwick Upon Tweed. In particular, I made the trip to see the work of Sophie Gerrardwhich documents female farmers to challenge the rose-tinted and male-centric view of the Scottish landscape and its people. Similarly, the aim of my own research is to examine the identity of farmers and their connection to land and livestock. This led me to question the value of my work if art can tell us about society better than sociology can.

Drawn to the Land by Sophie Gerrard

Gerrard's series of photographs depict the land that women farm, the homes they inhabit and the women themselves to capture the interconnectedness of individual, place and practice in daily life as a farmer. Most strikingly, you get a sense of the sensory and embodied nature of their identities as seasons and spaces are negotiated. Akin to the data that I'll collect, these photographs are the product of building relationships with farmers, following their lives and questioning how they perceive themselves. The collection of 'data' is similar to that of a sociologist, but what about the interpretation of it?

In the case of Gerrard's work, the context is implicit, yet knowledge that female farmers remain numerically and normatively hidden in the UK, may shape its reading. The interpretation is left to the audience which may be emancipatory in allowing different ways of seeing and making meaning. But, photography can be subject to a selection process of what is displayed and how it is displayed. Like academic analysis, the outcome is the telling of a particular story in light of the aims. 

As above

In Telling about Society, Becker (2007) notes the different ways that sociology can be done, not only through academia but in the representations posed in cultural forms. A critical sensibility can be curated in film, art or photography. Arguably the visual is a powerful tool inciting emotion and meaning-making in an accessible way. Social issues become alive and digestible by the public; impact academics constantly strive for. However, there are questions left unanswered by the photographs which are hard to piece together in a rigorous fashion. Why are only livestock farmers shown? Do these represent a 'typical' day for the women involved?

My engagement with the exhibition proved a reflexive exercise to enliven my research commitments to academic knowledge and the farming communities I'm researching. Perhaps rather than deeming them as competing paradigms, art and sociology can engage in similar intellectual concerns and learn from each other about the subjectivities of topic selection, process and impact.


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