Ethnography: who’s watching who?

It’s about 6pm on a Thursday evening.

The area I’m studying is a collision between the fringes of Newcastle. The neon lights and smells of cooking from the edge of Chinatown are juxtaposed with the old Newcastle city walls. There’s a severe-looking block of social housing alongside a pedestrian walkway with neatly-bordered grass. Towards the road, the walkway is dominated by a large chrome statue.

I pass some time taking pictures of the space and the groups that walk by, but I feel terribly awkward, like I’m invading their privacy by taking their picture – even though I must have accidentally captured strangers in personal photos in the past.

Somehow this time it feels different.

I figure that in this case, the people are the subjects of my photos and now capturing their pictures seem weirdly like I’m examining them as an experiment under the microscope lens. Perhaps my solution should be to wear a neon jacket and sign printed with “I’m a researcher, come ask me what I’m doing!”. But would people still act the same in their environment, or would they be even more aware of the researcher scribbling away into their notebook, wondering what they had done that warranted being noted down?

When I go back the following lunchtime, it’s an entirely different atmosphere. A group of young people are sat on the curb in a group, and they closely watch whoever is walking nearby. Suddenly it feels so much more like ‘their space’ instead of the transitory no-mans-land it had been the evening before.

The public space, with no benches or seating, had become their own personal space.

It made me wonder why there was no public seating to begin with, was it to stop people from gathering? How did this make the group feel? I didn’t have the confidence to go and ask them, but I could hardly imagine it made them feel wanted or welcome. Perhaps it was the reason they seemed so territorial over the curbs they’d appropriated.

Ethnography of this space made me realise the great variety in which different people use different spaces, at different times and for different reasons. Whereas the walkway was ‘nice’ for commuters to pass through, it hadn’t been made for those who wanted to stop and gather – had their point of view been considered in the development of the area?

It also made me aware of the ‘voyeuristic’ nature of purposefully studying people without their consent, which wasn’t an experience I enjoyed. They had no control over what I thought, or wrote down, and there was danger that I could misrepresent their own reasons for using the space by viewing their actions through my own lens. It seemed like I was removing their agency from their actions, just by noting them down and trying to rationalise them. Instead I feel like I would prefer a more collaborative approach, ensuring that people had the ability to consent and participate in a study, rather than study them from afar.

Author: Megan Venn-Wycherley

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