Public spaces and their daily use: an inquiry into visual research in urban areas


The paper presents a reflection on the use of visual ethnography applied to the study of daily use of public spaces in three urban areas in Italy: social housing complexes in the city of Livorno, a neighborhood in the city of Prato and a city block in the city of Florence.

Through the comparison of these three researches – which led to the constitution of the research group Project LuVi – Luoghi Visivi e Ricerca Sociale [1] , the paper reflects on the heuristic scope of combining images, sounds and words to conduct social research and to activate participatory interventions to improve the quality of life in urban areas.

The relationship between inhabitant and urban environment is complex and multifaceted and the ability to interpret it relies on the ability of researchers to find alternative, or rather additional, tools to verbal expression. This means, in the first place, that we need to observe closely, in order to identify the constituent elements of this relationship: practices, encounters, changes occurring more or less cyclically over time and across the day. Secondarily, it means extending the practice of observation and its tools to inhabitants: the predominance of perceptual and cultural components in the relationship between the individual and the space call for a participatory approach.

Where do Visual Spaces come from

The relationship between space, image, sound and word

In humans, the action of being alive – of existing – is intrinsically linked to that of being in a place – to be – [Turco 1988] because space is at the same time a contextual and a constitutive component of human actions [Bettanini 1976].

This puts us in a conceptually complex situation: space is not a predefined structure, a frame in which humans and communities set their actions. Rather, space is a dynamic social construction: ” society organizes itself – in the sense that take its shape – in space, and in doing so, society shapes the space itself “[Bagnasco, 2001].

If we accept the existence of an intrinsic relationship between the concept of space and that of being, we must do the same with that of space and of action, because “[…] you cannot perceive space, without accomplishing, seeing or imagining an action in it” [Bettanini 1976, 20]. Our very own posture – a dynamic model that we rationalize through the continuous change of our position in an ongoing relationship with the surrounding environment – is a requirement of spatiality. Hence, it is the oriented space that gives meaning to the Euclidean space and it is through the movement of our body, through our creative intentionality, that space takes its shape.

The interdependence between individual and environment [Augustoni in Augustoni, Giuntarelli and Veraldi 2007; Giumelli 2008], forces us to take into account all individual and social factors related to perception, the process through which a subject becomes aware of its surroundings [Agustoni in Agustoni, Giuntarelli and Veraldi 2007], and which allows the transition from experience to knowledge. Spatiality is experienced through the senses and elaborated through interactive mechanisms – both individual and collective – of memory and learning, which are themselves affected by filters operating at a socio-cultural level [Bettanini 1976].

The meaning of things is therefore never individual, but stems from an interpretative process, originating from interaction and taking place within the environment:

“For each situation – the objective condition – there is always a definition of the situation. This definition is of course an ongoing process: we never “define” once and for all, since any change in the situation has an effect on the definition of the situation itself. ” [Chiesi 2010, 29]

Chiesi encourages us to reflect on representation: space “is” in its being named, in its being “spoken” [Bettanini 1976], it is an abstract concept that solidifies through language, the cultural canvas of the process by which an individual perceives, deciphers and gives meaning to the environment in which he moves.

In the transition from perception to representation, the concept of image comes finally into play:

“Perception of space does not limit itself to reproducing the physical properties of the urban environment, but operates a mental construction that turns these physical properties in images of such space. ” [Tumminelli 2010, 29].

This image is inevitably personal: because the behavior of each individual in the urban environment is influenced by the ideas of distance, direction and orientation, which are subjective; and because each individual creates a mental representation of places, which is made not only of objective information, but also of emotions. This representation is known as the image of the city [Walmsley 1989]:

“[…] a mental representation which is partial (not covering the whole city), simplified (in the sense that omits a great deal of information also concerning the represented area), Idiosyncratic (every individual’s urban image being unique) and distorted (based on subjective, rather than real, distances and directions). (Pocock and Hudson 1978, 33).” [ibid, 44]

Drawing from Linde and Labov’s studies on the description of household spaces by their inhabitants [1975], De Certeau [1980/1984] highlights that in describing a space, we “[…] oscillate between alternatives: either to see (the knowledge of an order among different places) or to go (actions that create space). Either to describe ( “There is …”), or to guide movements ( “you enter, you go through, you turn …”) [ibid, 178]. The itinerary (a discursive series of actions) and the map (a flattening rendition of what can be observed), are two symbolic and anthropological languages, two sides of the experience. Despite interpenetrating one another, they are part of the daily tale of the street and of scientific discourse respectively. To use images together with words, while “verbalizing” a spatial experience, seems to be the most natural way to restore coordination between the ‘doing’ and the ‘seeing’ that connotes any oral description of places, any verbal construction of maps or paths.

Since the invention of photography, we have wondered about the meaning of that closed horizon of elements that constitute each photographic image, and what relationship it holds with time and its continuity. It is widespread opinion that each photographic image confines, forcibly blocks the flow of time to freeze it in a unique instant. In a similar fashion, each image deprives space of its extension and its continuity. Each image appears as a cut, a slice of space and time:

“The photographer […] always works with the knife, at each shot, each frame, each zoom, going through the world around him with the blade of his razor.” [Dubois 1996, 149]

The practice of photography is therefore first and foremost a cut, an extraction of reality from reality itself.

By virtue of this cut (both spatial and temporal), each picture contains within itself two messages: one that relates to the event which has been photographed, the other concerning the extraction process of that event from its temporal and spatial continuity.

The massive amounts of photographs we are exposed to daily, prevent us from correctly receiving the second message, to the point that we forget about the existence of the discontinuity inherent in each photograph. The ambiguity of photography, says John Berger [2014], does not reside in the event that we see in the photograph, but in the temporal and spatial discontinuity that gives origin to the second photographic message. In other words, each photographic image holds a fragment of space and time, preventing it from getting lost in the continuum.

Therefore, each photograph represents something that once was and that “now” is no more, but that still exists because of it being shot and acknowledged. Precisely because of its stillness, because of its being “a presence representing an absence”, a photograph loses its original meaning and opens the door of ambiguity, to a plurality of messages.

This ambiguity is partly softened by the encounter of images with words. Together, they produce the perception of certainty, of attestation, of dogmatic assertion:

“In the relationship between photography and words, photos demand an interpretation and usually words provide it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given meaning by words. And words, which are by their very nature generalizing, receive specificity from the irrefutable nature of photography. Together, they become very powerful; an unresolved question seems to have finally received a comprehensive answer “[ibid, 89].

Similarly, recording a soundscape [2] contributes to softening the ambiguity of photography and to providing information surrounding an event which would otherwise be lost in the photographic stillness and “silence”.

The first Visual Spaces (Livorno, Prato, Firenze)

LuVi – Luoghi Visivi e Ricerca sociale is a research group established at the beginning of 2016 as a result of three research projects and action researches, begun in 2011 by four researchers with the collaboration of two research institutions: the Interuniversity Centre for Methodology of Social Sciences of the University of Florence and Sociolab, a multidisciplinary research center that operates in the field of social research and participatory practices.

Livorno – Ponec – Popolare non è un concetto (2011-2014) [3]

The aim of the project Popolare non è un concetto [4] was to study the quality of life in public housing facilities in Livorno, as well as to provide recommendations for public intervention. It was composed of a first research phase into the evolution of public housing and into the conservation state of buildings; the second phase was dedicated to ethnographic research, while the third phase to identifying interventions to increase the quality of life in the areas.

Ethnographic research focused on two areas, Barriera Garibaldi and La Leccia. These two are quite representative of public housing in Italy: one area was built during the fascist period to relocate working class communities away from the city center. Houses there have a stable population of residents. The other was built in a suburb during the last decades and has the characteristics of a prevalently commuter area.

A combination of participant observation, in depth interviews and desk analysis were used, together with visual tools thanks to the involvement of a researcher/photographer and to the engagement in the field of a photographer as a research “intermediary” [Gobo 2008, 121].

Prato – Trame di quartiere (2015) [5]

The research, part of the wider action research “Trame di Quartiere” [6] , was conducted in a district of Prato called San Paolo, an area marked by consistent population movements since the end of the Second World War [Bressan, 2012]. A succession of migratory waves – coming first from other parts of Tuscany, at a later stage from all over Italy, especially southern regions, and more recently from non-European countries – is to be accounted for the coexistence in the neighborhood of families residing there since generations, of those arrived during the first industrial boom and of a mix of newer communities of different nationalities, with the Chinese community outnumbering all others. In such an articulated demographic context, the issue of daily use of public spaces, of practices and relations, acquire a special relevance.

The aim of the research was that of understanding local residents’ representation of the neighborhood and of raising awareness on the complex and rich history of the area, as well as of stimulating professionals to reflect on participatory decision-making processes in urban policies.

‘Diversity’ as a concept was used in the research to look at the different uses of space by local residents. By focusing on a vision of urban space “centered on its use” [Gans 2002], by taking into account the different practices and uses and the different actors involved, we explored the ways in which residents transform the physical space of a neighborhood into a social space.

Ethnographic research saw the presence of researchers on the field from the beginning, and was followed by direct involvement of the community through in-depth interviews: with young people, old time residents, both living or working in the area, key informants with recognized roles within the community. The ethnographic phase as well as the collection of interviews saw the collaboration between a researcher and a local photographer resident in a neighboring area.

Florence – Piazza Libera Tutti, a participatory process [7] (2015)

The participatory process Piazza Libera Tutti [8] was aimed at involving and engaging local residents in a co-design effort to rethink Piazza Pier Vettori in Florence, a large square with a strategic relevance for its pivotal position between the historical center and Isolotto, an important suburb at the periphery of the city. The square is located in a densely populated area in dire need of public spaces, but has gradually degraded to a non-place, underutilized and losing the social function it was created to serve. All local residents seem to perceive the need for a change in the area.

The process took place between April and November 2015 and was divided into three phases: during the first phase, that of ‘observation’, an ethnographic-participatory approach and visual sociology techniques allowed the engagement of residents in the analysis of the area, in understanding the underlying causes of problems and in starting the design of shared solutions; with the second phase, that of ’imagination’, through the co-design tool, planning for real, residents identified new features, imagined new solutions and worked with designers and planners to draw up a masterplan. The third phase, that of ‘animation’, had different actors and stakeholders (shop owners in the area, grass roots organizations, teachers and students from the nearby school, the parish and its community) work together to decide how to collaboratively take care of the square and collectively “make the space happen”.


Field experience carried out in the course of these projects not only exposed us to the complexity and polysemy of public urban spaces, but it also made us fully aware of the role of visual and multimedia materials as research tools.

This lead us to conceptualize Visual Spaces as those spaces – physical, representative, and dialogic – where local residents and researchers meet through mixed media – pictures, words, sounds, music – to create a dynamic and mutually comprehensible definition of the public space and of its perception.

In this sense, Visual Spaces are a research approach integrating observation (synchronic and diachronic), acoustic analysis (sounds and voices) and direct engagement with locals. This approach, on one hand, can help researchers to perceive the distinctive elements of the space – practices, relations, changes, more or less cyclical, over time – while allowing continuous change to be factored in; on the other, it facilitates the development of a shared language between different actors involved in the physical and social construction of space, allowing them to take an active role in systematising it and to work together to redesign the space collectively. Because the concept of “the public”, as pointed out by Dewey, is born when a group perceives that some consequences of social life are “problematic” and together with this perception, the group develops the intention to “do something about that problem.” [Crosta in Frongia 2000, 14]

2.3. Public space in Visual Spaces

‘Public space’ is an expression rooted in the dialogue between the physical dimension – the body and shape of the city – and the social and relational dimensions, that bring each space to life. Before being an expression in its own right, public space is in fact the sum of two words: public, which beyond the immediate reference to formal institutions, in this context is tied to a conceptual category in constant evolution as is society itself; and space, which although an abstract term, retains a physical quality that is immediately intelligible.

“To explore the dimension of the public, according to common sense, requires asking at the same time what is public, and who is public (and for whom). In other words, common sense does not isolate the public from the relations that create it, that put it into being (“build it”) as public. Common sense, that is, does not give abstract definitions of what is public, rather, it takes it for granted. More or less implicitly, common sense sees the public not as a thing, but as a process, or as “that which happens” through a series of interactions that unfold over time, among different actors, interacting (dealing) with one another and with the results of specific actions, thus giving birth to an outcome that is acknowledged (“learned”) as “public” by all those involved. There is no particular category of things which is specifically (intrinsically) public; things become public because of the use we make of them. ” [Crosta 2009, 10]

In Prato, for instance, field research focused on open spaces serving as meeting points and public parks, but also on shops and on the local chapters of national organizations such as Circoli Arci and Acli, that are important social gathering places in the neighborhood. The area has a dense fabric of shops, some of which have been there since the 1970s and are managed by the same owners, while others were opened recently. In this context, the shop has a socialization function, becoming, as we were told by one of the owners, a “café under disguise”, where people meet to spend time together, play cards and exchange. Retailers and shop owners are well aware of the central role that this network of stores plays in the life of the neighborhood, and state that: “If we close the stores, this place becomes a ghetto.” Through their function and use, these semi-private spaces become therefore public spaces.

No specific element can determine ex ante the public dimension of a good, of a service, and much less of a space. Simmel [1908] defines space as the possibility of being together, because it is through interaction that space – until then void and null – becomes ‘something’ for those who experiences it; action fills the space because the space makes it possible for action to happen. Space does not become “public” in antithesis to “private”, but becomes public because of the relations it hosts and the uses made of it; when these cease, space is no longer perceived as public and, once this meaning is lost, it disappears.

This is illustrated clearly by the case of Piazza Pier Vettori in Florence. The square is undisputedly a wide space, but it is practically impossible to access due to heavy traffic flows around it – making the space resemble a junction – its grass, seats and benches are in poor shape and its main users are homeless and other beneficiaries of the nearby day shelter.

“My relationship with this square is necessarily that of a passer-by, of someone passing through, nothing more. There is no way for this square to be more, being in the state that it is. I mean, it’s too messy, too unpleasant, there is too much noise and not a single reason for me to stop and spend time in it.” [M. Resident in the neighborhood]

However, in the course of the participatory process, it emerged how the square had been, up to 20 years before, an important public space for families and children in the neighborhood, despite its shape and urban elements being more or less the same of today. The process of abandoning the square, to which residents today feel they don’t belong anymore, and its subsequent change and gradual deterioration, seem therefore to originate more from perceptive and narrative factors tied to the social dimension of the space than to actual physical changes.

A space ecompasses at the same time functions, uses and practices. Functions – mostly ideated by urban planners – are the roles that different spaces play in the overall organization of the neighborhood and the city; uses, that inhabitants make of the space, relate to the physical and practical aspects of living; practices connect the physical and material dimensions to the cultural and the symbolic [Cellamare 2011]. The fact that a space is conceived and designed to perform a specific function can sometimes becomes of secondary importance if the meaning that people give to that space suggest alternative uses or even no uses at all.

In public housing complexes – such as in Livorno – spaces originate from the dialectic between material forces that built them and individuals which give meaning and change them through constant use. Public housing residents live – even more than other types of residents – in a frame which is set [Goffman 1974] in an urban “strategy” forced upon them by others, with special codes and specific uses; functions are decided by public institutions and spaces are assigned. In this context, residents can devise special “tactics”, to own the spaces, changing them through use and through individual and collective practices [De Certeau 1980], albeit within limitations: renovations, for instance, are decided and executed by institutions, often without any involvement of residents.

In Livorno, Piazza Barriera Garibaldi is the node, [9] a central point defining the way locals use space. The square is the place where relationships are represented both verbally and physically. Its landmarks are “the tree of the dead birds” [10] and the obelisk – for the old inhabitants, those that have been living in the neighborhood, in the same house assigned to the family, since the war or before, the so-called established; palm trees “and the corner in front of the bar” – for foreigners, for the families that we have come to define as “pluri-problematic”, and for drug users, the so-called outsiders, using the established-outsiders conceptual dichotomy [Elias and Scotson 1994].

The Guglia [11] is the place of denser relations, of solidarity and also of “resistance” to a difficult existence and to the disintegrating forces of mass culture. It is the place where to find help, both emotional and practical, the place of identity, of rootedness, of belonging, of memory, of shared social norms. The function given by designers to “ the tree of the dead birds” is that of an aesthetic element; the obelisk is a monument and a traffic island, but the locals use it as a bench. Through use, these spaces have become the places where friends meet, exchange, share, help each other, keep memories alive and keep an eye on the neighborhood and its residents. Along with the rooms of the local Circolo Arci “Divo Demi”, another place dense with relations located at the heart of the square, these spaces acquire more importance as the established grow older and as proximity becomes a central attribute of the sphere in which their lives and their relationships unfold [Authier et al. 2007].

Multimedia and Visual Spaces

Visual Spaces as an approach accepts the complexities of the process – perceptive, relational and emotional – through which public space is continuously redefined; a process which evolves together with its representation. While for the viewer the experience of space translates into the production of images, for the researcher photography is an effective tool to detect narratives and self-narratives around space, because it allows to share more easily a meaning which, for its complexity, multiplicity and fractality, cannot be expressed in words.

Photography in particular, can be the gateway to understanding places as generators of perceptions and as holders of social and spatial multilayered relations – between individual and space, between individuals in the space, of the community with the space – relationships that are in fact conditioned by perceptions. The recomposition of the user’s’ point of view, which is necessarily plural, is the first step to design analytical categories that are shared and understandable. Within this approach, the tool box that we use to explore/recompose the Visual Spaces we investigate has two main components: the photocamera, to collect images of the city and/or encourage residents to share them with us; the microphone, to collect sounds, noises and voices.

In the case of Livorno, observation in the neighborhood was accompanied by dedicated photoshooting sessions. Pictures were taken of buildings, courtyards, streets and squares, focusing primarily on their architectural and urban aspects, as well as on uses and practices of space and how these uses and practices marked and changed the area.

During field research, we decided to exhibit these photos and to screen a time-lapse video of the material. The intent of this public exhibition was twofold: we wanted to keep locals interested in the ongoing project and we wanted key social actors to trust us, in view of the participatory process which was to be facilitated soon and which was aimed at identifying shared solution to improve life in the neighborhood. Far from serving the purpose of an end of project show, the photo exhibition was a way to express our gratitude to residents for the help they were giving us, and to involve them as active agents in the project. The choice of holding the exhibition in the rooms of the local Circolo Arci was also an attempt to give centre stage to the dense relations inhabiting the place, so that it could play a central role in the life of the community. We believe the exhibition did help us to achieve these goals, and that residents did feel actively engaged in the research, thus taking part in the participatory workshops with us.

In Prato, both immersion in the district and collection of interviews were carried out with the help of a local photographer, who knew the history of the area very well, as her family had lived for generations in a neighborhood nearby. Interviews were held while she took pictures of people and places. Visual analysis was also used to stimulate interactions with interviewees: during interviews, residents were given maps of the neighborhood, on which they could mark routes and daily paths. Finally, wanting to experiment with mixed media and photography to share project results with all actors involved, the research team produced a multimedia product combining images, sound bites and interviews’ excerpts to showcase at the end of the process.

In both Livorno and Prato, photography played a crucial role in allowing access to the field, while multimedia served multiple purposes in connecting residents with the project results.

In Florence, photography was used during participant observation and was an essential tool for researchers to connect with the environment and unearth some key aspects that had not emerged during project design. While observing, researchers interviewed a sample of users (residents, passers-by, merchants, homeless), shot a timelapse video of the area and recorded the sound of the square, the chaotic nature of which later appeared to be one of the key components of the space negative perception among residents. Furthermore, with the twofold objective of understanding expectations of different users and of arousing their interest in the re-appropriation of the square, the researchers engaged a heterogeneous sample of residents in a visual analysis workshop, inviting them to produce photographic images that could describe their vision of a “good public space.” This approach proved to be very effective in “breaking the ice” with locals; enabled the establishment of collaborative relationships with residents who were to take part in the co-design phase and raised interest in the process among neighbors and acquaintances of those involved in the photographic workshop. Above all, by analyzing the photographs produced by the participants through semi-structured interviews, the researchers managed to explore some of the most complex and sensitive issues surrounding the space and its representation.

In all three cases, information about the research was disseminated using mixed media. In this respect, the cinematic time-lapse technique proved particularly valuable. The technique allows to collate together different frames to create a longer interval than the one that any individual shot would create. Time-lapse allowed us to capture events that usually escape our eyes and our understanding, because of the slow pace at which they occur over time. This is how phenomena such as traffic flows at a road junction, the bustle of a local market, cards falling on the table at the Circolo Arci, all became part of our analysis.

Some preliminary reflections on Visual Spaces

Relations and multimedia

One of the issues we discussed while comparing the three experiences, was the role that relations played in our studies, meaning both relationships between the research team and social actors, and relationships among different members of the research group.

We asked ourselves whether and how collecting images and creating multimedia products combining photo, video, text and sound could influence the quality of these relationships. We also asked ourselves what were the differences with researches not using images.

A theme underlying our studies and more generally researches using visual tools, is that of the manifestation of a stronger emotional dimension within the relationship. In other words, the use of images and multimedia help more complex feelings to emerge, both within the research team and between the team and social actors in the observed context.

Emotions in qualitative research have gained over the last years a growing interest [Campbell, 2002; Carter and Delamont, 1996; Gilbert, 2001; Goodrum and Keys, 2006], the work of a qualitative researcher has been defined “emotional work” [Dikson-Swift et al. 2009], requiring the management of emotions during and after observation on the field.

This emotional dimension has had an influence also on methodological aspects of, for instance, ethnographic research, and has led to the use of specific ethnographic notes, the so-called “emotional notes”, that allow researchers to explicitate and share their feelings during and after observation. [Gobo 1999]

Relations between the research team and social actors taking part in the research

The first aspect to evaluate in assessing how the relationship between researchers and residents is shaped by visual media is during initial access to the field.

Like any other tool, the camera carries what has been defined a “disturbance”, meaning the change in the observed situation induced by the presence of the researcher itself (the so-called Hawthorne effect). All investigative conditions in which the researcher is in the field, are potentially perturbative situations, but in the case of photography (and film) this condition is almost unavoidable because of the instrumentation employed [Chiozzi 1993] and because photos, which are traces of the observed context, are much more recognizable and visible than any interview excerpt.

In all three locations (Livorno, Prato, Florence) in the initial phases of research, observation was paired with photoshooting sessions. While in our very first approaches there were instances (such as in the case of Livorno) in which it was clear that interaction with the community was going to be easier without the presence of the camera, the photographic medium was in general very useful to help us access the field.

The presence of the camera was especially useful when first accessing the field in various everyday situations, because the curiosity surrounding it, allowed researchers to explain the research and its goals in much greater detail to people approaching them to ask about the camera. In both Livorno and Prato we perceived this positive aspect from the presence of photographers in the research group.

A key strategy that allowed photographers to be accepted in the community while entering the field, was that of showing since the beginning the pictures taken during observation. Let’s take Livorno as an example of this: all coop meetings, games of card at the Circolo Arci, daily gatherings on the main square benches. Being able to see the printed photos of these spaces and events, as they were produced day by day during observation, reassured photographic subjects about the presence of researchers and had a beneficial effect on the research itself. These photos and the continuous presence of researchers helped the subjects to better understand the aims and objectives of the research and allowed them to be more open to investigation.

This brings us to the second aspect, which is that of the emotional impact of showcasing research results to participants. Emotions played a significant role in shaping the relationship between researchers and social actors at this stage. In Livorno, for example, at an intermediary stage of our research, we decided to showcase an exhibition of 60 images called “Giants and Barriers: life stories”, which was for about a month at the Circolo Arci and later in other locations in the neighborhood.

In this case, the decision to showcase frontal portraits, thus giving centre stage to the subjects of our investigation, reflected the “methodological” approach behind the photographic work and behind observation in general. But each portrait was also the result of negotiations with the subject and the product of a specific relationship developed with him or her.

As Pierre Bourdieu states [1965; 2004], photographs are the visible trace of an empirical learning strategy. Photography, in fact, embodies the distance of the observer in the process of recording […]; at the same time, it requires the proximity of the familiar [Schulteis 2003, tr. en. Faeta in 2011, 41]. In other words, photographs are a tangible (and visible) record of the field of relations that is formed within a social research investigation.

The symbolic value of a space can be traced back to social and interpersonal relationships, to the history of the group and of the individual, to the stratification of culturally interpreted and emotionally experienced events [Gasparini 2000]. Urban symbolism initiates the process through which a sense of belonging takes hold of those that inhabit a place [Mela 1999].

Events such as the photo and video exhibitions in Livorno, Prato and Florence allow participants to share emotions: residents, local policy makers and researchers experienced emotional connections around memories, the history of the neighborhood, its change over time, the relations between inhabitants and the space. The showcasing of results was in all three instances an emotionally charged event strengthening the community.

Social research is emotional work, not only because it allows to share emotions between researcher and respondent during the kind of face to face interaction typical of qualitative research, such as while building a life story together with the interviewee. It is “emotional work” also because it supports the expression of emotions in social groups, such as while showcasing research results to the community. Using not only photos but mixed media, including sound, music, texts, can further contribute to the deepening of this emotional dimension.

Thus the research itself and its results (especially if having a visual component) become part of the process through which people give meaning to places and spaces in the neighborhood, process that starts from the act of sharing emotionally charged events.

Relations within the research group

As for emotions and relations within the multidisciplinary research group, we found that photographs as well as working together on the final outputs (multimedia and time-lapse) helped the group to enter the emotional dimension of the relationship. Ultimately, this process was also helpful in the development of the research itself and in interpreting the information collected.

During research, sharing emotions while reviewing printed photos from the field (such as those focusing on the day to day activities of locals) helped us exchange ideas and hypotheses on how to advance in our work. Images stimulated and strengthened our exchanges, the visual component making the exchange much richer than the use of only written or spoken words would ever manage to do.

Theories and assumptions around Visual Spaces

Performance ethnography, as in ethnographic research without photos, presupposes the deconstruction over time of one’s own conceptual categories in order to understand, through a series of continuous interactions, those of the social actors.

For Suchar [1997], the use of images in research helps researchers expand their research questions. During immersion, researcher and photographer are engaged in an interactive process in which images dialogue with the rest of the collected data. Research thus becomes: “an interactive process whereby photographs are used as a way of answering or expanding on questions about a particular subject” [ibid, 33].

Based on the concept of cyclic research drawn from grounded theory [Glaser and Strauss 1967] , images and information collected by researchers, interact with one another in a process that increasingly clarifies the research questions. Techniques such as that of the shooting script can be used – a photographic or film script based on a lists of questions that can be answered through photo and/or video shoots [Suchar 1997, 35]. A risk underlying the use of photos and videos could be that of fixing the researcher’s initial assumptions. However, if photographs are taken in the same way as ethnographic notes, throughout the research period, they can help develop research questions and move away from these assumptions. The researcher’s initial mindset and questions gradually change and evolve while analysing images. To avoid any risk of rigidity, it is important for the researcher to discuss photos and images with social actors, involving them in the choice of subjects and contexts to shoot. In Livorno, in several photos for the exhibition, the subjects themselves chose the setting for their portrait. Subjects were chosen by the research group but many residents volunteered: the researchers entered in a continuous negotiation with local residents, about their interpretations and their representations of themselves and of the space.


In Prato’s neighborhood, taking pictures of daily interactions in public spaces contributed to progressively put research questions into focus, as the following two examples can illustrate.

The first photo, taken in one of the most popular parks in the neighborhood, documents the ways in which different groups compete in and for public space.

As one of the interviewees told us, the picture illustrates conflicts between different groups in the process of sharing neighborhood spaces:


“There are only two swings and as you can see they are for small children, aged 0 to 3. Then various quarrels happen. Maybe the Chinese come, bring the kids and leave them there. Then it all gets messy. […] The police got called.”

[Resident, mother, user of the park].

In this specific case, conflicts about coexistence of different groups in public spaces, increase the perception of scarcity of resources in the neighborhood. The space is divided by internal borders, spaces where other users are, cannot be used, swings and benches are perceived as ‘occupied’ by others.

The discovery that parks were not spaces where new and old residents built relationships, led researchers to expand the research questions to include other spaces in the neighborhood in which these relationships would develop.

The second photo documents interaction in one of the neighborhood bars, where Italian and Chinese customers meet every day.


Residents showed us a space used by old and new residents alike: a bar opened a few years ago by a member of the Chinese community. The owner is perceived in the neighborhood as a mixture of Sicilian and Chinese, or “Moroccan-Chinese”, as immigrants from southern Italy were once called.

“I was lucky, I opened the bar and customers arrived, and then stayed. Good customers, too: Italian, Chinese, Albanians, Moroccans, very good customers. They say: you’re Moroccan-Chinese, Chinese-Sicilian.” [Bar owner]

In this case, a theoretical assumption of the researcher, assuming that parks would be the meeting point of the community, was questioned not only by the story told by interviewees and by observation, but also by the photo material collected.

Researcher has to work around its assumptions, but also around the camera, which has its own features and limitations and which can be adapted to the researcher’s aims only up to a certain point. As stated by Vilem Flusser [2006], the freedom of the photographer is a kind of set freedom, where choices are limited by the necessarily finite possibilities allowed by the tool.

Telling the story of Visual Spaces

Developing complex media products combining different media, can facilitate ethnographic research in narrating the different facets of life in a given social context. Multimedia products such as those developed in our three studies, illustrate complexity by mixing information coming from different sources (photos, sounds, noises, words, texts), each source clarifying the other.

In our projects, multimedia products were showcased during events attended by a composite public: residents of the area, local politicians, researchers.

Multimedia were also the product of co-construction involving researchers and photographers. In Prato, researcher and photographer edited the material together, writing a script for interviews, photos, sound, soundbites, music. They worked together on a shared representation of the history of the neighborhood and of its current social dynamics. This co-construction, which is also a process of co-interpretation, can give origin to a very complex and dense product, made even richer by the interdisciplinary nature of the team involved. Our impression is that the density of this product, combining different sources and media simultaneously, offers viewers an experience which is emotionally more charged and complex than the one offered by video.

In Livorno, one of the final multimedia products was a time-lapse video. The purpose of the time-lapse was to show a segment of the observation phase conducted by researchers, adopting the point of view of locals living the neighborhood in different times of the day: the view from the window of the Circolo Arci, from the balcony of one of our key informants, from the obelisk “benches” in the main square, where people spend time during their spare hours.

Along with images, we also collected sounds, all those events that compose what Raymond M. Schafer [1985] defines soundscape: sounds of natural, human or mechanical origin in a given environment, occupying the foreground and the background of a composition, where the subject is at the same time “composer, performer and listener.”

By uniting acoustic and visual events, we attempt to recreate the “shape” of the neighborhood, of its daily life, mediating between the researcher’s point of view, his “being there”, and that of the people living in it.

In addition, images and sounds were accompanied by excerpts of interviews collected by researchers. Like images and sounds, interview excerpts narrate life in the neighborhood, show the evolution of the area, what is was and what it is, the hardships that people lived through and the relationships that they built over time.

This triad of images-sounds-words, was presented to residents, to local policy makers and to the general public during the exhibition. On one hand, residents found in the multimedia product their own point of observation, in the soundscape they recognized the sounds in which they are constantly immersed, in the stories they saw themselves as actors. On the other, through multimedia, local policy makers could access a representation of life in the neighborhood, as perceived by researchers and local residents. Multimedia allowed us to explore the reactions of locals to the representation of the neighborhood we produced, and allowed us to share the observation with decision makers, opening the door to the following intervention phase.

In addition to multimedia, in all three cases, photo exhibitions were organized, showcasing photographs taken by photographers (in the case of Livorno and Prato), and by inhabitants themselves (in the case of Florence).

These exhibitions represented important moments of exchange and reflection: residents, researchers and other participants coming from outside (such as other researchers and students) contributed to this reflection. Locations for the exhibitions were not chosen randomly: the Circoli Arci in Prato, Livorno and Florence were already important places for the neighborhood, and hosting the photo exhibitions further reinforced their function as meeting spaces for a wide range of users. Neighborhoods perceived as marginal – such as those of Livorno and Prato – became the centre of attention for people converging there from outside to see the exhibition.


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[1] TN. Visual Spaces and Social Research.

[2] All sound events of natural and technological origin that are part of a particular environment and of a particular scene.

[3] The research “Ponec” was made possible thanks to the support of the Regional Government of Tuscany in partnership with CIMESS – University of Florence, Municipality of Livorno, CasaLP. It was funded through a 2009 Regional Programme funding interdisciplinary research projects aimed at identifying and addressing issues and problems affecting the quality of life in public housing areas (Funding Decree n. 5206 of 22 September 2010).

[4] TN. Popular – as in ‘edilizia popolare’ – public housing – is not a concept.

[5] “Trame di Quartiere”, was conducted by Iris ricerche as part of the “Inclusive Districts” components of the “Progetto Prato”, a project funded by the Regional Government of Tuscany, and took place in the multicultural districts of San Paolo and Macrolotto 0, focusing on the issue of diversity. Progetto Prato is Progetto Integrato per lo Sviluppo (PIS) and was initiated by the Regional Government of Tuscany to respond to the challenges faced by the city of Prato and the surrounding areas.

[6] TN. A District’s Canvas.

[7] The participatory process “Piazza Libera Tutti – together for PIazza Pier Vettori” was promoted by the civil society organization Save the City, was designed and conducted by Sociolab with the architecture firm Projekto Architetture e was funded by the Regional Authority for Participation of the Regional Government of Tuscany. Aim of the process was to engage local residents and stakeholders in defining and implementing collaborative management strategies of the square. More information is available on the project webpage:

[8] TN The Square Frees Us All.

[9] According to Lynch [1960] mental maps of the city rotate around five key pillars: “paths”, the daily itineraries of residents; “nodes”, the points of convergence, such as squares or public transport exchange areas and intersections; “edges”, the barriers that mark borders; “landmarks”, reference points that are highly identifiable; “districts”, the neighborhoods that have distinct characters. .

[10] “Out of nowhere, they start telling us that the tree over there is called “the tree of the dead birds”. And they start giggling and sniggering. I ask them to tell us why and they start talking about how old they are and how close they feel death. What they were really talking about were their genitals, which were not working anymore. But I didn’t get it on the spot…” [Ethnographic note by Erika, 22.09.2011].

[11] The official name of the district and of the central square is Barriera Garibaldi, but locals use the expression “La Guglia” [The Spire] – which is the name of the obelisk in the centre of the square – to identify where they come from.

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