I am in the ‘writing-up’ phase of my PhD, an academic euphemism for the inevitable flurry of activity which follows two years of leisurely indolence.
When not pounding absent-mindedly at my keyboard, I spend a lot of time searching for elegant ways of going from the specifics of my research to the general. Tiny details can seem irrelevant and abstract trends can seem meaningless unless they are connected to each other, but making connections with concision and grace is not easy. That’s why I was so impressed with the results of a joint project between PhD students in the Arts and Humanities Faculty (including our own dear SLC) and Andy Brown, a photographer based in Sheffield.
The Image Speaks is an exhibition currently showing in the Jessop West building, featuring displays based on the work of ten postgraduates from History, English, Germanic Studies, Hispanic Studies, Philosophy and Biblical Studies. Each student met with Andy Brown a number of times, to discuss their research and come up with an idea for an image or set of images which might best represent or express their findings. These were then taken at locations in and around Sheffield.
You can see the product of their labours here, alongside commentary written by the students. I will let the photos, and their creators, speak for themselves, except to say that each image is compelling and their range is striking, which is what you might expect when dealing with topics as diverse as the Spanish Second Republic, chronic illness and Chilean pedagogy. Some are recognizable buildings, places or events, others symbolic but no less evocative.
The nature of visual imagery forces us to dispense with details and embrace generalities, and this applies as much to British stately homes as it does to the work of Immanuel Kant. Rarely is it possible to impose specifics of time and space on an image without spoiling it with words, so historians have had to let go of these reassuring particularities. It would have been equally challenging, I imagine, for researchers who spend their time critically examining representations of gender to create their own representation. It doesn’t surprise me that one student claims that it helped them to ‘organise [their] thoughts’; it is hard to imagine two modes of expression more different than a thesis and a photo, and each necessitates a different way of thinking.
Participants I have spoken to were extremely positive about their experience and about working with Andy, and beyond the benefits it had for their research, the best sign of the project’s success is the creation of a great body of visual art still on display.
Nina: ‘I really enjoyed talking Andy through my research and the collaborative element of then deciding, together, which aspect to make the topic of the photos. Taking part in The Image Speaks was a great hands-on challenge – away from all those more theoretical challenges I am confronted with when drafting chapters for my thesis. The bit I now enjoy the most is that it’s a conversation-starter. People have seen the pictures displayed and want to talk to me about them. That’s more than I could have hoped for!’
Ángela: ‘The Image Speaks was a great initiative that enabled me to see my research from a different perspective – not only in terms of the co-creation of a picture but also in terms of trying to communicate certain aspects of my thesis to Andy and a wider audience. To be able to work with an image was great for a change. Visual representations are very immediate and powerful, and very effective because they offer more opportunities for people to engage with your research!’