On Friday 11 January 2019, the ERC Connectors Study team held the project closing event ‘Exploring childhood publics’. In this blog post Melissa Nolas and Christos Varvantakis reflect on the crossroads that are endings and beginnings, and talk about future plans in the form of the Children’s Photography Archive, an unintended outcome of the Connectors Study.
On Friday last (11/01/2019) we ran our closing event for the ERC Connectors Study. The event was held at Amnesty International UK in London.
The event was an opportunity for us to showcase and celebrate five years worth of work on childhood publics, and the relationship between childhood and public life. We were joined by our advisory group and a number of colleagues who have walked alongside us, and who have been important interlocutors for us over the last five years.
The discussions were stimulating, critical and generous, and have already helped shape our thinking as we move on to the final activity, book writing, that will occupy us until the project finishes on 30 September 2019.
So a massive thank you to everyone there for all your fantastic contributions. To reiterate what we said in the introduction, these things ‘take a village’, and in the spirit of much of what we’ve done over the last five years, insight is often found in conversation and the company of others, as much as, if not more so, in the solitary activities of sitting at desks, reading, and writing.
The programme for the event, as well as some photographs and tweets can be browsed on our events page.
There had been quite a bit of ambivalence for us, even mourning, in the run up to the event, it was an end of sorts to what has been an incredibly creative, stimulating, productive and fun five years in which a lot of experience, learning, growth and transformation has taken place both professionally and personally, and so it is really hard to describe the various emotions Friday’s ‘closing’ event stirred in all of us.
But as our advisor Gina Crivello put it, on a different occasion, endings are really just transitions to other things; or in the words of T.S.Elliott (who keeps cropping up in our writing!) quoted by our other advisor, Thalia Dragona, on Friday, ‘to make an end is to make a beginning’.
And so, to a new beginning!
Friday was special for many, many reasons but probably the most tangible was that we were able to present the children’s photography archive to colleagues. The archive is a completely unintended outcome from the Connectors Study, something that was not in the original bid and which we could not have envisioned back in March 2014 when the project started. It is as such, a real testament to the power of ‘curiosity-led’ research that is promoted by the European Research Council, our funder, and we are really rather proud and excited about it!
Representations of childhood are prolific and have been such since the advent of the camera. Our interest however, given our work on the relationship between childhood and public life and children’s role therein, is in the child as a producer of culture, and in this case in the role of photographer.
Back in April as we were writing an encyclopedia entry on ‘children as photographers’, we started searching for examples (outside of research contexts) in which children could be found and valued in the role of photographer.
We argued that children were only recognised in the role of photographer in very defined contexts such as ‘competitions’, educational project settings, and emancipatory research settings. Furthermore, we could find no repositories for these images – making them rather ephemeral and personal (to the children and those adults working with them, photographers, youth workers, teachers etc).
We found (though we continue to look for it) little evidence of children being publicly recognised for everyday photographic practices, which is fair to assume that, historically and internationally, are increasingly more prolific, especially with the advent of digital photography and the inclusion of photography in mobile devices that children have ready access to. We have in mind practices of family photography at home and on holiday, as well as children taking photographs of their friends, leisure pursuits, and things they care about. We also imagine that there are children with a serious interest in photography as well, who are taking photographs in order to intentionally communicate with others.
It was at this point that we realised that the archive we were searching for and wanting to write about was right under our noses!
At the moment, the children’s photography archive consists of around 800 or so photographs taken by children on the Connectors Study, the archive’s first collection. The photographs in the archive include selections from the study children themselves which emerged through the research, photographs they considered to best capture what mattered to them. Children’s own categories is one of the filters in the archive. The other search filter speaks to recognisable photographic genres that were also found in the photographs we collected. A free downloadable catalogue with a selection of images from the archive is also available.
The archive is an important cultural and political intervention because it prompts us to think seriously about the child’s gaze. The gaze is central to our understanding of ourselves, of identity and of difference and, it is argued, shapes the way we interact with the world around us. In other words, the gaze is political: it shapes ontologies, it creates publics (Warner, 2005) and, through photography, can become a way of reclaiming citizenship and communicating civil and political knowingness (Azoulay, 2012; see also Pinney, 2016).
The current version of the children’s photography archive is a ‘beta’ version housing one collection. We are in the process of drawing up funding applications and making plans for its future. As such, we would welcome any feedback you might have on usefulness (for teaching, research or other not-for-profit activities), usability (how easy/difficult it is to navigate), and futurity (what do you imagine this archive being in the future).
All materials in the archive are strictly licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives licence. Please do let us know of any ways in which you have used the archive. We would also welcome blog posts about the archive’s use in various contexts (for an example of how our earliest political memories archive was used in the past, see here).