As I would assume many do, I found field research by far the most exciting part of the PhD experience. During the fieldwork stage not only was I released from the isolating process of reading, writing, and project planning, but I was able to watch theories, hunches, and answers come alive. It was the point where my relationship with the subject was most intimate and most revealing. The photographs that I took during fieldwork were a reflection of this intimacy, and were indeed the glue that held my data together. However snapping these images did not come without unexpected moments and a few lessons learnt, even in a location in which I could not have been more familiar. Here I reflect a bit on my time in Los Angeles making my way through the neighbourhood of Silver Lake with a camera in hand, and an open mind, writes Juliet Kahne.
I am often envious when I hear exciting ‘tales from the field’ from colleagues, especially when fieldwork has been conducted in areas foreign and exotic to the researcher. In the case of my PhD, the field research consisted of seven months in Los Angeles – a well-known, well-documented, and well-developed city, and a city I already knew extremely well given I that I grew up there. The fieldwork experience was very much as I expected it to be, and overall everything ran smoothly due to my familiarity with the location, its people, and a great deal of pre-planning. However as a participant observer who was highly dependent on the use of a camera as I made my way through the research area, there was indeed an element of surprise in my fieldwork, and I did have some unexpected encounters.
My PhD research investigated a historic neighbourhood in the eastern section of Los Angeles – Silver Lake – that appeared to be resisting mature gentrification despite being situated in a sea of re-development projects around Downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. Ostensibly, this was an investigation into ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ urban processes, and an attempt to identify the various physical characteristics of the gentrification process due to an influx of capital. Due to the socio-cultural nature of my research topic, fieldwork was based on people and their experiences, but also it was highly based on the changing physical state of the research area over time. I therefore used photographs to record much of what I was ‘seeing’. Photographs captured the setting of Silver Lake and the processes that were taking place within it, and a ‘photo diary’ became the foundation of ideas, thoughts, themes, knowledge, and observation shared throughout the final thesis. Using photography I was able to capture Silver Lake the ‘place’, rather than just the gentrified Silver Lake the media often described, and furthermore I was able to see, and show, the gentrification process in action.
Noting the participatory act of ‘doing’ cultural geography, as opposed to being a passive researcher, Shurmer-Smith (2002: 4-5) states that “Doing [cultural geography] includes looking, feeling, thinking, playing, talking, writing, photographing, drawing, assembling, collecting, recording and filming as well as the more familiar reading and listening”. I feel this very much applied to my PhD fieldwork and the photography that documented the entire experience (see also Deljana Iossifova’s earlier post, which explains the use of photography in fieldwork). As I wandered through Silver Lake taking photographs over the seven months I was there, I saw change as it was taking place – buildings changing from one use to another, shops changing hands, and new businesses popping up. In gentrification, there is typically an ‘aesthetic’ associated with this process (see Bridge, 2006), and this was something I tried to document since it is truly a visual change in the landscape. One day as I crossed into Silver Lake from neighbouring Los Feliz I noticed the final touches being put on a new coffee shop, clearly showing examples of this aesthetic. The building had held a variety of businesses over the years but remained a non-descript looking building without much character. It was receiving a make-over with a clean font title, style, and colour scheme that better represented the aesthetic of an up-and-coming neighbourhood – this is besides the fact that an abundance of coffee shops in a neighbourhood often signals gentrification in its early stages. This new establishment, and the abundance of similar ones in surrounding locations, became useful in photographs as I could track the visual changes taking place in the landscape that were representative of gentrification. Continue reading