Chapter 46. Against Visual Research

Some time back a professor of design research Nigel Cross posed the question whether there was a such a thing as “designerly ways of knowing”. By that he meant to ask if designers had their own unique epistemology, and their own way of knowing and understanding the topics in their field. Such “designerly ways of knowing” would therefore be quite distinct ways of knowing compared with say, a scientist’s way of knowing, or the ways of knowing when one worked in the liberal arts.

It has been argued elsewhere argued (Chua, XXXX) that a fruitful answer to that question should not be about trying to discern by adduction whether there are common denominator cognitive experiences true of all designerly activities. Afterall, the things that are worth identifying in that designerly way of knowing may not be true of all designerly activity. Rather, what would be worth chracterizing as such designerly ways of knowing would be those very things we consider it worth idenitifying, rather selectively, from amonsgt the pool of knowings or other experiences that occur when people design.

Thus Nigel Cross’s own answer to that question in subsequent studies point his readers to knowings that good designers display, and disregards researching those ways of thinking of poor designers. Whether or not we agree with who he identifies as good or poor designers and whose ways of knowing deserves to be characterized as designerly ways of knowing, we can agree that his approach makes sense. Cross is here identifying what in Jurispridence has been described as the “central case” or “focal meaning” – in this case, the central case or focal meaning of design thinking. Meaning, Cross is interested to identify amonsgt all things that may be losely described as design thinking (which would include the thinking of poor designers as well as excellent designers) those and only those kinds of design thinking which is worth our while to examine and analyse, and for these we reserve the phrase “designerly ways of knowing”

But if it is the focal meaning or the central case of design thinking that we are keen to discern when discerning “designerly ways of knowing”, then it would also follow that we should not be trying to idenitify the ways of knowing in design that are unique or distinct in the sense that such ways of knowing, and its contents, find no other parallel in other disciplines or fields. For, at the least, the discernment of a central case supposes the application of a kind of evaluative criteria for selecting what is or is not worthwhile including under the focal meaning. Surely that normative criteria should be sound, or ethically defensible, or as some theorists have called it, practically reasonable. This means, amonsgt other things, that the discernment of the focal meaning of what are “designerly ways of knowing” would presuppose insights derived from what we might call ‘sound moral philosophy’.

It has been suggested that one plausiable “sound moral philosophy” for discerning focal meanings, and therefore the focal meaning of “designerly ways of knowing”, is new natural law theory. Defended by John Finnis as a kind of retrieval of the moral philosophy of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, new natural law theory argues that there are fundamental aspects of human well-being or flourshing that reason can identify. Amongst these are: life, friendship, truth, beauty, skillful play, religion, practical reasonableness……i.e., at least these 7 basic goods. Each of these precepts which identifies a basic good (e.g. “that truth is a basic good worth seeking and promoting” is called a precept of the natural law (as does Aquinas), or a first principle of practical reason (as does Aristotle). Since there are at least 7 basic goods, then there are a plurality of at least 7 precepts of the natural law. Already in Jurisprudence and its discernment of the focal meaning of “law”, these basic goods identified by natural law have been employed as the evaluative criteria for identifying what ought to come under “law’s” focal meaning. This is done by selecting phenomenon in law which relates with these basic goods. After all, since these basic goods are what in themselves really important to seek and to do, then also those things in law that in various ways support and aid our achievement of these goods become in turn important, and worthwhile identifying and discussing when thinking about an account of “law” that is important. From that account, one also is able to gain an insight into those things or states of affair within “law” that hinder or fail to support the achievement of the basic goods, given that they would be inconsistent with and contradict the focal meaning, and thus fall far in the periphery in relation to the central case. These would then be the object of criticism and of proposals for reforms.

Just as well, the approach towards developing an important or focal account of design thinking or the identification of “designerly ways of knowing” would be the same: the theorist would selectively identify those ways of thinking in design which relate positively with these basic goods, including the examples of ways of deliberating or planning that further our knowledge of or the real achievement of the basic goods, identified by new natural law theory. Just as well, when the central case is identified, then it is also possible to infer those peripheral cases of design or design thinking, which then can be criticised and rejected. Some of the latter have been listed as the lack of criticality in design in the unreflective service of market wants, for instance (see Chua XXXX) Thus the identification of the focal meaning of design and its designerly ways of knowings gives the theorist a pair of normative lenses withwhich to celebrate ideal instances of design and its knowings, and to recommend for avoidance the opposites.

My tedious foregoing discussion of designerly ways of knowing, and of the central case method in design for discerning that designerly way of knowing, as well as in jurisprudence, is not an end in itself. My purpose introducing that discussion has been to prepare the ground for asking a similar question, in this very sense, for a different field. What I wish to do is to pose that question for photography. Is there such a thing as “photographic ways of knowing“? I use the word “knowing” in its broadest and most possibly inclusive sense, to include ways of seeing, perceiving, feeling, thinking, understanding, etc…In this way the word knowing is not tethered to any kind of Platonic notion of knowledge defined as ‘justified true belief”. To ask if there are photographic ways of knowing is to simply ask if there are worthwhile ways of experiencing the photographic event that occurs within the field of a photographer’s experience as he practices his art. It is to ask what might be “photography” in its central case, or focal meaning, and what within that focal meaning are the select photographic knowings worthy of our theoretical attention. It is to ask whether when we peer at all the things we call photography there might be a selection of phenomenon that is especially worthwhile to theorise, and to which we might apply the label “photographic ways of knowing”. Of course, like the question posed for “design thinking” and for “law”, the quest for “worthwhile ways”of knowing in photography begs the question: how does one identify what is worthwhile, and what those things are which are worthwhile in themselves, so that relative to those things that are worthwhile in themselves, so also certain things in photography also become worthwhile, and become objects for theoretical identitification. Like our answer in these fields, so also for photography, we can apply as our evaluative criteria the basic goods identified by natural law theory. Hence whatever relates positively to the basic goods can be chosen for inclusion in a theory of photographic ways of knowing, or for the focal meaning of photography.

In so far as photography is concerned I think there are in fact some ways of knowing that are important to identify if any photographic knowing is to be included within the central case, because they have important forms of relations to the basic goods. These relations are epistemic. From my own practice of photography, I have come to notice that some forms of photographic exercises support the grasping of the basic goods. This I think is important to unpack, detail and discuss, and should be included as one, if not the only, form of thinking in photography that should constitute what can be collected under “photographic ways of knowing”. I have in mind a particular form of photography with a particular kind of camera, using a particular kind of recording medium. I am thinking of casual photography (i.e., photography done leisurely, without a kind of commissioned agenda or thematic topic), done with a rangefinder camera (say a Leica M or screwmount rangefinder), and shooting in monochrome/black and while (film ideally, or else digital by resisting the temptation to “chimp”). For convenience, let me refer to this manner of photography “rangefinder photography”

As I argue in greater detail elsewhere, there is at least one way in which the grasping of the basic goods positively relate with rangefinder photography (I argue for others elsewhere, but this is the one which is to my mind most important). I will come to it swiftly, but we need to understand that point of identifying any of these positive relations: Because if there are indeed these ways rangefinder photography relates positively with the precepts of the natural law identifying the basic goods, then rangefinder photography in the sense that I have described would be a kind of “photographic way of knowing”, and woud be a kind of photography that should belong to the central case of or focal meaning of “photography”, if we were to develop such a central case or focal meaning.

Now, the positive relationship between rangefinder photography and the grasp of the basic goods have to do with the peculiar epistemology of the natural law, which are the precepts identifying these basic goods. One of the major insights into ethics under John Finnis’ new natural law theory is that ethics is practical. This means to say that, alongside employing ideas taken from our theoretical description of the world, one needs to access the insights given in the mode of thinking when one inquires after what ought to be sought and done, over and above our enquiries into what is the case. Practical thinking (by contast with theoretical thinking) is about what one needs to do before available options, and about asking oneself what in the end really matters to achieve and secure. It is during this kind of enquiring that the set of first or fundamental principles which identify the basic goods operate and guide. This kind of enquiry is by and large evaluative. It asks and enquires after what, amonst the possibilities, should one selectively consider choice-worthy, or important, or signficant. However, we have in mind the evaluative thinking that seeks after the norms that identify what in the end matters, and not merely what matters instrumentally. Only the latter tagets the grasping of the basic goods. Afterall, thinking merely about means is in final analysis a kind of technical, theoretical judgment, and does not require the probing which elcits a response from practical reasoning about what matters. For regardless of what ultimately matters, one can technically work out best or suitable means for given ends. Whereas questions about final ends, or what ultimately matters cannot be worked out technically; theoretical reason is forced to take a back seat, and practical reason can and is being pressured to rise to the occasion, to show what it knows and can offer to guide. Now rangefinder photography is just like that: rangefinder photography done with an agenda, but leisurely, is evaluative in precisely this desirable sense. Because there is no agenda, one does not focus on capturing what is instrumentally relevant for the agenda’s given end. Instead, leisurely, it considers what amonsg the field of possibilities should be placed within the framelines of its viewfinder, and captured on film. The evaluative nature of this photographic experience is further heightened by the use of film cameras, for which there is just a limited number of frames in each roll of film, and therefore choices cannot afford to be whimsical (as might be for some digital photography, since “tries” can always be cheaply and easily deleted). This kind of rangefinder photography therefore enquires after what is choice-worthy, and what is significant (to capture). During the photographic exercise, the natural law “shows” – one finds that images one captures relate meaningfully (for the photographer) with some of these basic goods. In other words, rangefinder photography has the ability to support the ethical consciousness raising of the photographer by aiding his grasp of the natural law, precisely by foregrounding the basic goods as major themes based on which he or she meaningfully selects his or her frames, and develops his or her photographic compositions.

If so, then rangefinder photography, done without thematic direction and done casually, could be a style of photography that one situates at the center of the focal meaning of “photography”, and of the central case of a photographic way of knowing. Whereas by contrasting comparison, visual methods that employ photography for certain forms of research becomes peripheral – specifically photography that has a kind of question in mind, a kind of hypothesis to corroborate, and for which the researcher has a certain topic or theme to investigate. When doing photography this way, one’s mind has a sense of what is or is not relevant with respect one’s hypothesis. So for instance, as a crude example, one might simply use photography as a means to collect images of how many persons in a community like to wear red on a certain day of the week, in order to corroborate the hypothesis that more men than women typically wear red on Mondays. This kind of photography is less emergent, and supposes that the photographer’s evaluative criteria is determined more by his or her theoretical research question, and less by the criteria that practical reason shows. There is a kind of scientistic “violence” in that photography in the sense that, like the observational style of the scientific method, the phenomenon is grasped in a fully utilitarian manner, waiting to be exploited or not depending on its relevance for the research question or research hypothesis; other valuable ideas or data within the phenomenon are disregarded if they have no relevance to that hypothesis. This means that the visual field before the photographer cannot fully “show” or give of itself all that it can give, since these givings can be screened off as irrelevant and unreceived.

Of course different visual research methods will replicate this kind of thinking to different degrees, and my example is likely a kind of extreme example. Yet even literature on the visual in ethnography suggests that certain scientistic cultures persist. For example Sarah Pink’s (2001 in Hamilton, ed. 2006, pp 285…) discussion of visual methodologies continue to betray a primary concern with non-subjective, non-selective, descriptive observation, even though she makes a compelling case for the relevance and validity of the visual in anthropology. Her discussion of the subjective in anthropology argues that the subjective, the selective, the constructive and the evaluative are in fact unavoidable in that field, and any pointing of fingers at the visual research for being subjective is open to a charge of the tu quoque. But this is not so much a celebration of the subjective, as much as it is a kind of resignation towards the inevitable invasion of the unfilterable subjective. Whereas, photography is full of the subjective and ought given my discussion above, fully celebrate the subjective, because that kind of evaluative judgment by the subject, the photographing agent, is precisely that disposition or comportment that allows one to enter into practical reasoning, and therefore for the natural law to show. The subjective is not that which we hope we could have gotten rid of but cannot and so have to live with, but it is rather that by which we can allow the truths to show. However the research mindset, even as it steers in the direction of welcoming the visual in qualitative studies, still is first and foremost concerned with containing the subjective to the extent possible.

Now, when such forms of research mindset lurks in visual methodologies, they are in danger of displacing the affordance that photography can have for showing the natural law. And if photography that shows the natural law belong more centrally to photography in its focal sense or to”photographic ways of knowing”, then the forms of photography intended for research in the sense I have been talking about above, will shift the photographer’s knowing towards the periphery.

This means that doing that kind of research photography, one still is doing “photography” but one would be doing “photography” in its peripheral sense. Whereas when doing street rangefinder photography, one would be doing photography in its focal sense. I don’t think photographers typically really worry that much about what people call what they are doing, whether it is photography or not, or whether it is focal or central or not. They more or less just get along with the business of shooting their pictures. If anything they quarrel about their gears and whether some gear deserves to be a product of some brand, or the like, say Canon or Leica.

It would be unfortunate, however, if photographers do not ask it, because it is not at all an easy question to ask, in the sense that not everyone can come into that comportment in order to ask it. Whereas it could be asked, if it is asked, by photographers because it is something that can be asked – really rhetorically – only by photographers qua photographers. Contrastingly, a photographer qua researcher could not ask such a question because this question would never arise for him or her being completely irrelevant as it is for his or her interests; the researcher’s very point of departure is to not ask that question. Rather the researcher is interested, immediately and automatically, in how the camera and photography can be useful to his or her research, and not what the camera’s affordances can show, or unconceal of the camera’s “being”, or its “nature”, to adopt a Heideggerian phrase. The researcher’s starting point is to disregard and obscure what the camera can give fully; instead he or she is interested to zoom into what he or she judges as having relevant utility for research, thus blinkering himself or herself to what other affordances might be interesting for knowledge that is unrelated to his or her research question. Again, Pink’s (ibid., p. 296) otherwise thoughtful chapter demonstrates this. Her discussion of the video camera celebrates first and foremost how useful it is for her research, which was an ethnographic study on Home Life; she defends its utility for her research. She says cannot imagine how she could have collected the kinds of data she did were it not for the visual technology she has. You can agree with her. But you can also quickly grasp how utilitarian her ontology of the video camera is – the essence of the camera, its “whatness” which she celebrates is constituted primarily by the aspects of that thing which she finds useful. Her account of its “being” or its “nature” is tethered to and thus conditioned by her goals, and in relation to those goals, parts of the camera that service those goals. Whereas the other aspects or face of the thing, that phenomenon we have signed a “camera”, are blind to her because not relevant to her goal. There is nothing wrong with that of course – after all how else can it be? One thinks of those affordances that serve one’s pre-determined goals. But there then lies that point of departure which blinkers us to what else that “being” has to show but which is nonetheless irrelavant to the goals one have. A non-researcher rangefinder photographer, on the other hand, as no such pre-determined goals, and therefore will not employ that as a filtering criteria for thinking and sorting what amongst the phenomenon we call a camera are relevant or are not. Instead, everything is a possibility, and potentially relevant. There is no artificial filter, save the natural filter one calls the principles of practical reason. [Because not speculative? Needs further discussion]

Of course just because you can does not mean you ought to ask. The reason I think photographers, who can ask it, should ask it is because of the following. The discrimination of different practices of photography into their focal and peripheral senses is however I think very important for thinking through trends in “visual research”, and for thinking through whether such practices are properly “research”. This is I think somethign worth asking on behalf of social science, and social theorists. It is especially important to the identification of what are possibly incommensurably different forms of “visual research methodology”, useful for discerning whether there can be a type of visual research methodology that is essentially against dominant research attitudes. It invites us to ask if therecan plausibly be a research method that achieves research insights only to the extent that it rejects that kind of say positive, non-emergent hypothesizing in research when doing visual research, and/or its related cultures, such as for instance its primary interest in arriving at a descriptive account of reality. Thinking through these questions further invite the consideration of whether one needs to safeguard this kinds or modes of investigations from unfriendly pressures.

To put it in another way, what I suggest the above says to us is that there is a type of researching or strategy for discovery which is actually focally photographic, and which yields by affording through photography the showing of normative truths, viz. the natural law. This kind of visual research methodology (I prefer methodology rather than method because it supposes and thus has the epistemology, ontology and axiology of new natural law theory) is therefore better represented as a “visual research methodology” (with the “strikethrough” across the word, research) and needs to be sharply distinguished from the mere introduction of photography for data gathering in research. This kind of “visual research methodology” is really, in its essential intention and in the photographer’s agency and lifeworld, non-researching photography. At least, the “researching” intention is suspended or bracketed. In other words the researcher is not a kind of participant photographer/researcher., i.e., a participant photographer and research at the same time. He needs instead to adopt, as if a schizophernia, two identities – first the non-investigative street photographer, and then only later, the researcher mindset. The overlapping one over the other, esp. with the latter researcher mindset dominating and steering the photographic mindset would constrain and bridle the affordance of the matter for showing these valuable practical truths. There must therefore be a kind of psychological gap or epistemological distance between the two modes of thinking – one photographic, and the other researching, and never both at once.

Of course, being so emergent and so centrally photography, the question arises whether it still can be “research”, since it steers quite a distance from positivist and scientistic definitions of what is research, including amonsgt other things the formulation of a hypothesis, and indeed the formulation of a hypothesis that is structured in such a way that it can be falsified, and not just broadly or willy nilly. Yet clearly, as said above, it is precisely through moving away from that kind of “research” thinking, that the truth about the normative principles of the natural law can show, and thus be discovered. In this way “photography” because a valued form of research, a way – even if not entirely systematic or organised – of attaining truths worth knowing, and which we have an interest to know. But we would risk re-introducing the conflations that I have been keen to avoid if we simply spoke of this way of inquiring or investigating as another visual research methodology. What occurs is in fact a distinct photographic way of knowing, very different from the positivist, scientific, and descriptively non-evaluative ways of knowing that research tends to gravitate towards. Hence really it is about doing photography which leads to results that are interesting for the researcher, and who qua researcher reflects on the insights that arrive in the past fully photographic exercises.

It is important to anticipate the objection taht we are merely playing with words. This is not just a study of what best word it is to name what we are doing, a mere taxonomy. The point in insisting that under this “visual research methodology” the such “visual methodology” is really the doing of photography in its focal sense is to drive home the important message that there are two distinct epistemological cultures here, and that the photographic epistemological culture needs to be highlighted and idenitified as different and unique, with its own peculiar gifts of (practical) knowledge, but at the same time fragile and easily slighted, so that we can warrant resisting any kind of positivism and its dominating and terrorizing expansion in what has come to be collected under “visual research methods”, less “photography” be displaced, and we end up dismantling the very affordance which can help us grasp the truths we seek.

Of course a suggestion may be made that another way to think about this is instead to suggest that: we need to relocate “research” in this scientistic sense and welcome or accept that anti-positivist, fully subjective/evaluative emergent research strategies belong just as much to the focal meaning of what “research” in its focal sense ought to mean, by virtue of the fact that these emergent and visual research methods are more clearly positively related to what truly are significant to know and pursue, viz the basic goods of natural law. But I do not think that would be a good solution. The fact remains that the agency of the photographer and the life-world of the photographer whilst doing photography is precisely as a non-researcher. What it rather implies then is that the label “research” is really of very little semiotic use, and really does not do the good semiotic job of pointing to or signing, as we might imagine, ways of investigating that ought to be recognized as valuable. By not aspiring to “research” and by maintaining that this is focally “photography” more courageously affirms the truth that the mere fact that something is called research does not quite mean it is ipso facto well ordained towards the truth, and conversely, the mere fact that something, say “photography” is not easily characterized as “research” does not mean that it fails to afford our grasp of very significant truths.