Photo/stories from the field: postcards and polaroids

At the end of the 18 months of fieldwork we ran a children’s workshop in each city. In these workshops we brought children in the study together for the first time. The workshop formed part of the project’s cultural work, and its purpose was to work with children to support them in creating their photo/story which were eventually exhibited in each city.  

In the run up to these workshops we had worked with children individually going through a process of photo selection. This involved sitting together, looking through all their photographs and selecting and discussing the 10 ‘most important’ ones for our interlocutors to bring to the workshops, where they were asked to select one photograph to turn into a photo/story of ‘what matters to me’.

These workshops, together with other practices (such as our internal newsletter), were part of a process of experimenting with creating a childhood publics. So we started to think of other artefacts that might contribute towards creating and sustaining a publics over time. To this effect we bought a box of postcards and asked children to pick five postcards, we provided them with stickers of our work addresses and stamps. We said that, if they wished, they could use the postcards to keep in touch with us over the summer.

I have always loved postcards: sending them and receiving them. In my second year as an undergraduate I did the obligatory backpacking across Europe, from Brighton to the north of Greece on my own. This was a time before smartphones, and I only opened my first hotmail email the following year. Postcards were a way of tracing my journey for loved ones, a message home that I’m okay and having fun (the one time I got into trouble being the only time I picked up the phone instead!): a postcard sent from each destination, a route through Europe. Postcards from friends and colleagues have also marked my arrival to and departure from various academic departments, and all those postcards have travelled with me across institutions making each a home, however temporary, the messages on the back of those little pieces of cardboard resonating across time and space.

There is something nostalgic about postcards, an engendering of temporality and an enmeshment of different imaginings of space and time (Varvantakis, 2009). There is also an intimacy to them, which, paradoxically, is also very public, the messages on their back open for all to read in transit.

The postcards we brought and used in Athens, in Hyderabad, and in London were a special edition publication celebrating 100 years of the photography agency, Magnum. Magnum photographers from Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson to contemporary photographers and artists Newsha Tavakolian, Alessandra Sanguinetti, and Susan Meiselas, are known for a documentary photography that is cutting-edge, intimate and powerful, arresting and haunting. Some of the images we put out for children to select depicted war scenes, others were of more intimate settings, while others still showed the lives of countercultures.

I remember feeling distinctly nervous about this cultural intervention into the lives of children we knew to a greater or lesser extent were protected from public life, through educational and parental practices (e.g. some parents in the study told us that they purposely did not turn on the radio or television news because they found it too harsh and didn’t want their children exposed to it). Nevertheless, we went ahead with the postcards, an intervention which fits with the study themes of exploring the relationship of childhood and public life.  We also, at this point, given that this aspect of the project can be described as cultural work and not pure research, gave ourselves permission to challenge the dominant cultural narratives of childhood, as innocent and in need of protection.

I have no idea how prevalent the practice of sending postcards is anymore. However, in the context of the children’s workshops we thought this somewhat old, maybe a bit antiquated practice might provide an intriguing and novel way for children and researchers to keep in touch over the summer on the one hand, and a way for children, who did not have their own phones or email addresses at this point, to make independent contact with the ethnographers, should they wish.

Children enjoyed selecting the postcards off the wall (in London) and off tables (in Athens and in Hyderabad). I got one postcard back from one child in London: a pop-art drawing of various old cars, the 2CV most lodged in my mind – the child’s own choice, not a postcard from the collection. Vinnarasan received one Magnum postcard by post, and Christos was shown a postcard one child intended to send him but decided to keep for herself instead.

The rest of the Magnum postcards have not made their way back to any of us. Strangely and touchingly, the five postcards that were left over from the London workshops are ones that I would have picked myself and so in some ways, I assume that the rest of the images that the children picked were ones that spoke to them in one way or another.

Similarly, in this playful inversion of time and technology, we brought Polaroid cameras to the workshop. Childhood anticipation and disappointment were the impetus behind the invention of the Polaroid camera – the inventor’s daughter, a three-year old in the mid-1940s, asking her father why she could not see the photograph he had just taken of her. The scientist/parent set off on the important work of righting his daughter’s disappointment while at the same time challenging the boundaries of the photographic possible of the period. The first Polaroid camera was created in 1948 and very quickly became an important and popular cultural artefact.

In the workshops, we gave a Polaroid camera to the children to take anonymous portraits of each other alongside a professional photographer. We had been working with digital cameras until then. While digital cameras offer a similar instantaneity and satisfaction of being able to see the image taken within seconds, they do not have the same materiality of a polaroid shot. Many digital photographs are no longer printed and practices such as family album making are on the decline, or have gone online in the guise of Facebook walls and Instagram feeds. The digital photograph remains just that: digital.

Meanwhile, there is something magical about watching the slow appearance of an image on the Polaroid paper, an apparition emerging from dark. There is also something tactile about the chemical process that breathes life into the initial faint tracing of a form: the photographic paper is variously fanned at a distance from or held close to the body in a embodied practice of photographic participation, a way of accelerating the arrival of the image.

I’m not sure how enchanted all this left the children. In London the anonymous portraits happened towards the end of the workshop, in a moment of maximum excitement and frenzy, ball games and rounds of ‘duck-duck-goose’ happening in the background. But all the children were able to take their Polaroids home with them in their goodie bags of analogue and yesteryear communication practices, and later in the year, during subsequent visits to family homes, I spotted a few of those Polaroids lingering on fridge doors, as Polaroid snaps sometimes do.