People and places – A collective photo essay

Urban spaces drive humankind

More than half of the world population live in cities and it will increase to 66% by 2050. However, living in an urban area and being happy don’t go hand in hand. Doubtless, (big) cities provide a
diverse range of opportunities for work but social isolation is also a too common consequence of living in a place where social contact depends greatly on spending power. Making friends, seeing family, even going to work is tied up with money and as research has shown, socioeconomic standing affects social isolation. It is therefore not surprising that infrastructures, transportation systems and city aesthetics play important roles in the happiness of city residents,
as a recent survey has revealed.

On the one hand, shared knowledge means less city unemployment and citizens making better use of social and cognitive skills. On the other, design impacts on the level of happiness of urban dwellers. The transition from space into place allows for suitable contexts for social and professional connections to emerge, but how are urban spaces transformed into places of interaction? Which factors underlie whether citizens perceive certain spaces as ugly,
inhuman and unhappy, or as beautiful, human and happy? And more importantly, what can we learn from the wisdom of communities to this respect?

From theory to practice

For the past six weeks, a group of six engaged students and myself have been developing our visual literacy skills through the axes of seeing, looking and perceiving. It is the first time that I have taught “Visual Sociology” in an adult education setting and I must admit that the level of commitment and the discussions generated in class have been both interesting as well as very critical.

Three weeks ago, we embarked ourselves in a little project. The initial task was to photograph happy/humane and unhappy/inhumane urban spaces. Each of us has a slightly different understanding of beauty and of humanity. However, when we brought our ideas together in the form of photographs, we realized that there were more commonalities than what perhaps each of us had expected.

All themes emerged during our discussions about the people/places project are collected on this word cloud.

All themes emerged during our discussions about the people/places project are collected on this word cloud.

Let’s try to group them a little further.

First we have some repetitions, spaces and space, as well as happy and happiness. We drop space and happy. Now, we can look at the verbs: to impact, to work, to live (living). So we are talking about how we work and live, which is in turn impacted by certain processes at play. Which ones? According to our word cloud, these are the ones: citizens, infrastructures, interaction, social-isolation, norms, deviance and happiness. And where? What is our context? Well, let’s look at the word cloud again. We see space, place, city and urban. Al right, our context is then urban spaces or cities, but more specifically we are looking at how we socialize (social is the last word standing) in urban spaces. Ok, let’s recap.

  • The process we are exploring is how we socialize (at work and other areas of our life) in urban spaces.
  • Infrastructures impact on how we do so.
    Tangible infrastructures, such as means of transportation (see below).
    Intangible infrastructures such as norms.
  • The outcomes we have seen so far are interaction, happiness and social-isolation.

We are ready now to look at some of the visual explorations of the topic. Keep in mind that the only guideline we had to take these photographs was following: take pictures of happy and humane, as well as unhappy and inhumane urban spaces.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.

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PLACES OF INTERACTION – Living, working, travelling

A nice sunny day meeting friends at her favourite café. This annoying pigeon almost ruined the moment. Regina hates pigeons. She associates them with dirt and trash.

A nice sunny day meeting friends at her favourite café. This annoying pigeon almost ruined the moment. Regina hates pigeons. She associates them with dirt and trash. Photograph by Regina Horváth. Taken in Galway city centre.

We transformed spaces into places. A park can be both a place of recreation or a place of isolation. On the image, a homeless man sleeps during the day in a centric park in Prague. Photograph by Brendan Dowling.

We transformed spaces into places. A park can be both a place of recreation or a place of isolation. On the image, a homeless man sleeps during the day in a centric park in Prague. Photograph by Brendan Dowling.

Places change their appearance and even their aroma over time. Since the smoking ban in Ireland, bars might smell like Guinness and Whiskey, but not like nicotine. Interestingly, this law-mandated change was energetically enforced much more by citizens than by authority forces. There was a social agreement underlying the legal change. On the photograph, a remnant of the smoking era. Photograph by Sean Kavanagh.

Places change their appearance and even their aroma over time. Since the smoking ban in Ireland, bars might smell like Guinness and Whiskey, but not like nicotine. Interestingly, this law-mandated change was energetically enforced much more by citizens than by authority forces. There was a social agreement underlying the legal change. On the photograph, a remnant of the smoking era. Photograph by Sean Kavanagh.

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SOCIAL NORMS

Social life is structured through norms, which often translate into symbols. Photograph by Anne Walsh.

Social life is structured through norms, which often translate into symbols. Photo-collage by Anne Walsh. Photographs found on the Internet or taken in NUIG campus.

Norms are enforced in urban spaces. In the city we are often the role we play: citizens, forces of authority, deviants. Photograph by Brendan Dowling. Taken in Galway city centre.

Some people are within the norm, some people are outside of the norm. The latter have it harder because all their choices are subjected to social scrutiny. At the same time, our social norms have developed thanks to deviance. Think of the effect of protests, revolts and demonstrations. Photograph by Brendan Dowling.

Some people are within the norm, some people are outside of the norm. The latter have it harder because all their choices are subjected to social scrutiny. At the same time, our social norms have developed thanks to deviance. Think of the effect of protests, revolts and demonstrations. Photograph by Brendan Dowling. Taken at one of the housing states “set up” in Galway city for the traveller community.

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Urban planning and aesthetics

Although…

Photography by Sean Kavanagh.

Photography by Sean Kavanagh.

we all agree that

Trash is ugly. On display, a profitable scrapping business on the docks in Galway city. Photograph by Horváth Regina.

Trash is ugly. On display, a profitable scrapping business on the docks in Galway city. Photograph by Horváth Regina.

And that nature, naturally brings out the best of us as it soothes us, relaxes us and lets us connect primordially. Photography by Regina Horváth.

And that nature, naturally brings out the best of us as it soothes us, relaxes us and lets us connect primordially.  Photography by Regina Horváth. Taken in Oranmore, Galway.

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