You are a visual sociologist with a camera.
What is a street photographer? My idea: a street photographer is a sociologist with a camera.
Why shoot street photography?
For example, if you shoot street photography I assume you do it because you are drawn to people. You are drawn to capturing human beings, their souls, and the constructed man-made human environment.
What is “sociology”? To me it is the study of society, human beings, and communities. If you’re interested in understanding society, you’re a sociologist.
Your camera is your research tool
Therefore in the context of street photography, you’re using your camera as your research tool.
In sociology, we often go “into the field” with a notebook and sometimes voice recorder. But in street photography, we go into the streets with our camera and intuition. We record, document, and analyze what we find interesting in the streets.
What is “Visual Sociology?”
Visual sociology to me is the hybrid of street photography and sociology.
The cool thing of you considering yourself a “visual sociologist”– it isn’t just photography. It is studying, analyzing and seeking to understand anything visual.
Visual things: photos, videos, architecture, abstract images, etc.
Also, if you just see your camera as your sociology tool, you don’t fetishize the camera. The camera is just another research tool. Important, but not the most important thing.
As a visual sociologist, your most important tool: your analytical eye.
What do you find interesting, unique, absurd, or fascinating? What leads you down a certain road or path? That is what dictates who you are, and where your personal research goes.
Don’t take it too seriously.
Even sociology is a new field. And to be honest sociology isn’t really a “science” like physics. It is just a philosophical way of seeing the world, and having a hunger of curiosity for understanding other human beings better.
Sociology is just another tool, or lens of seeing the world.
Visual Sociology Assignment Ideas
So friend, as a visual sociologist, what are some things you can do?
1. Analyze your own neighborhood:
what is the income disparity in your neighborhood? What wealth, class, or differences exist in your own neighborhood, city, or town? Use your camera as a tool, and document these differences and similarities.
2 . Document gentrification:
Gentrification is rich folks that take over a neighborhood and kick out poor people. For example, I have the “taco test”– how much did a taco cost before and after over a period of a time? In the Mission in SF (24th and Mission) a taco used to cost $1.50. Now it is $4. You can do this also with the prices with a cup of coffee.
So with gentrification, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is just a change. And as philosopher Heraclitus says, “All is in a perpetual state of flux, or change.” But it is sad when a lady who has lived in a neighborhood for 40 years can no longer afford the rent, and has to move.
So ultimately, your photography project can document the gentrification change– and create your own opinion.
Do you see gentrification as good, bad, or something in-between and grey? Show it through your photos.
3. Urban landscapes
You can also document social change through urban landscapes. I know in Toronto, my friend Neil Ta is doing a good job of documenting changing neighborhoods, like Alexandria Park, and collaborating with the city of Toronto to archive his images of the changing neighborhoods.
If you live somewhere or near somewhere where you see a lot of construction and destruction, document that for 2-3 years. Then maybe publish a book, magazine of your 20 best images. Or have a small coffee shop exhibition with 7 images, and invite some folks from the neighborhood.
See yourself as a visual sociologist, and document your own world.
The best way to be a photographer is to photograph what is personal to you.
Don’t just go into a poor neighborhood and photograph the poor and sad people. Maybe the rich people in your own neighborhood are the most miserable of them all?
For more street photography assignments, pick up a copy of STREET NOTES for on-the-go inspiration and direction.
Street Photography 101
If you’re new to street photography, start here:
Street Photography Inspiration
Beginner Street Photography Articles
Get started in street photography:
Definitions in Street Photography
How to Shoot Street Photography
Street Photography Equipment
See all equipment articles >
How to Conquer Your Fears in Street Photography
See all articles to conquer your fears >
Intermediate Street Photography Articles
Take your street photography to the next level:
Advanced Street Photography Articles
Find deeper meaning in your street photography:
Street Photography Tips & Technique
Learn how to shoot on the streets:
See all street photography tips and techniques >
Street Photography Guides
In-depth guides on street photography:
Street Photography Equipment
The best equipment for street photography:
See all equipment articles >
Street Photography Editing and Workflow
How to Start a Street Photography Project
Learn From the Masters of Street Photography
1. SUPER EASY ASSIGNMENT FOR ANY COURSE
(written by Lisa Wade)
Spend a few minutes the blog Sociological Images (www.thesocietypages.org/socimages) to get a sense of how authors are choosing and analyzing visuals. Then, in the course of your daily life, look for an ad, photograph, short video, or graph that would be useful to analyze sociologically. Bring an image to class with a suggestion for analysis.
2. ASSIGNMENT FOR A LOWER-DIVISION COURSE: ANALYSIS OF A SINGLE AD
(written by Gwen Sharp and Lisa Wade)
Throughout this course we have investigated the ways in which sex, gender, race, class, and other social characteristics are used in “lifestyle-based” advertising. Marketers use these categories, and many others, in an effort to link their products with desirable lifestyles, social groups, or social characteristics, such as ideal masculinity or upper-class luxury.
Go to the blog Sociological Images (www.thesocietypages.org/socimages) and select an advertisement that you believe uses sex, race, gender, family roles, nationality, or class (alone or in combination) and discuss how those characteristics are used in the ad.
1. At what social group is the ad aimed? What social groups are represented in the ad? (Hint: They are not always the same.)
2. Does the advertisement reinforce or violate cultural norms? If it violates them, what purpose do you think the violation serves? (Hint: Consider humor, appealing to an often-ignored group, appealing to the idea of rebellion?
3. In addition to the product, what else is the ad selling? (Hint: Consider things like love, marriage, sex, individuality, freedom, sophistication, leisure and other desirables.)
Note to instructors:
This assignment encourages students to do the act of analysis themselves. Doing so will help bypass students’ initial resistance to the idea of “reading too much into” ads by asking them to take seriously the fact that an image must be interpreted.
3. ASSIGNMENT FOR A LOWER-DIVISION COURSE: SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGES AS A JUMPING OFF POINT
(written by Lisa Wade)
First, go to the blog Sociological Images (www.thesocietypages.org/socimages) and select an advertisement that you believe uses sex, race, gender, family roles, nationality, or class (alone or in combination). Consider how those characteristics are used in the ad (the commentary by Sociological Images bloggers may help here).
Second, look for four additional ads in your own environment (in magazines, on tv, on websites, etc) that complement the one you chose at Sociological Images. Hints: Look for (1) ads that use the same characteristics the same way (e.g., are Black men presented as violent frequently, or was the first ad just a fluke?); (2) ads that use the same characteristics different ways (e.g., when are women presented as sex objects and when are they not?); and (3) ads for the exact same product targeted to a different audience.
Considering all five ads together, what kind of messages about social groups are being sold to us alongside products?
Note to instructors:
This assignment is useful because it allows students to explore their own social world, instead of simply being told about it. Students who are suspicious about sociological observations on advertising may find this especially useful. First, they are required to grapple directly with the advertising to which they are exposed. They may learn more than thought they would. Second, even if they actively try to prove that sociological observations are false (which is just fine), they still must analyze ads. In the end, the assignment is to tell some sociological story about the ads. Often, I imagine, the stories told by students who really look to counter our more simple observations may be the most interesting stories of all.
4. ASSIGNMENT FOR AN UPPER-DIVISION COURSE
(written by Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp)
The images that we consume as members of U.S. culture send complicated and nuanced messages. Using the blog Sociological Images (www.thesocietypages.org/socimages), prepare a presentation that addresses one of the following:
Option One: While race, class, gender, and other axes of inequality are often discussed in isolation from one another, such inequalities interact. Prepare a presentation that illustrates how stereotypes related to race, ethnicity, national citizenship, immigrant status, sexual orientation, class, religion, or some other social category are not static, but interact with each other
Option Two: While many of us primarily consume media aimed at people like us, companies often target various groups very differently. Prepare a presentation that illustrates how a single product (i.e., Absolut vodka, Altoids, Coors, Trojan condoms, or Nike sportswear) is marketed differently to populations according to their gender, race, ethnicity, national citizenship, immigrant status, sexual orientation, class, religion, or some other characteristic.
Option Three: Oppression functions in part by creating a double bind for those in oppressed groups. To be in a double bind is to be disadvantaged no matter which choice you make, to be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Prepare a presentation that illustrates the way in which images in our society serve to create double binds for members of disadvantaged groups.
Note to instructors:
A student who chose Option One might show how stereotypes of masculinity vary across race and class. The student might note that white men are idealized, while black men are often hypersexualized or even dehumanized, and Asian men are portrayed as passive and feminine. Alternatively, a student might choose to look at how portrayals of African Americans changed according to their ascribed class status, such that upper-class blacks appear more “white” (and therefore fit in), whereas poor blacks are made to appear more “black” (and therefore more troublesome or deviant).
A student who chose Option Two might show how Nike sportswear, when advertising in women’s magazines, draws on feminist ideas to suggest that women are just as athletic as men, but when advertising in men’s magazines, reproduces the same notion that men are the true athletes. Or a student might look at how Coors beer produces a hypermasculine and homophobic ad for a men’s magazine, while simultaneously sexualizing the homosocial environment of a gay bar in a magazine aimed at gay men.
A student who chose Option Three might show how images aimed at women suggest that they should be sexy, but women are objectified when they attempt to meet that sexy ideal; that women should be feminine, but are denigrated when they are; should be strong and independent with a good career, but become bitches when they do so; or should be a completely devoted mother, when motherhood becomes the equivalent of “doing nothing.” Another option would be to show the ways in which images appropriate and glamorize stereotypes of urban African Americans, while penalizing black men and women who are believed to embody those stereotypes.
5. THE RHETORIC OF POP CULTURE
(An assignment for a lower-division course by Karryn Lintelman.
Reproduced by permission from here).
The purpose of this assignment is to think critically about the powerful and prevalent cultural texts that surround us in our daily lives, by working to better understand what our culture is saying to us through the cultural texts we consume, as well as what our cultural texts say about us as a society. You will accomplish this by writing a 4-6 page paper analyzing the rhetorical appeals inherent in a specific text in relation to the argument(s) the text makes as a whole.
To begin, consider cultural texts such as advertisements (print or video), brochures, websites, blogs, speeches, films, art, and songs, etc. After carefully choosing a particular text, consider it in relation to the rhetorical triangle, and decide on a specific audience you want to address in your analysis. You should also think about the claims your text makes by addressing points like: the ways its topic is shaped and represented through the medium, if and how it uses others (race, gender, groups), what or who it includes and excludes and why, and what the combined effect of such decisions has on the overall impact of its argument. Your analysis will also include two external sources that you find in relation to your text (they may be articles or reviews written about it, articles on the topic of your text that provide other perspectives, etc). We will be reading and conducting rhetorical analyses on various types of cultural texts to prepare you for this assignment throughout the sequence.
When writing your analysis, keep in mind the following questions:*Who created this text and why? What argument does it make?
*What kinds of images are used and why?
*What kinds of text (written or spoken) is used and why?
*Who is the intended audience?
*What is the intended purpose (to educate, alienate, entertain, etc.)?
*How does it use rhetorical appeals?
*How effective is this text in achieving its intended purpose, for its intended audience? *How do you interpret this text as a reader? Does this match with its intended effect?
*How does the layout, mixture of multimodal elements, narrative, use of metaphor, or other stylistic effects work in the text?
*Does the argument of the text include any logical fallacies?
*Is the title important? Why?
1. Brief description of selected text, short rationale explaining why you chose the text to analyze, and thesis sentence.
2. Two annotated sources (You must include the MLA citation for each source, and a few sentences explaining what each source is and how/why you plan to incorporate each source into your paper).
3. Initial Draft.
4. Revised Draft with Initial Draft and Writer’s Memo attached.
Good places to look for cultural texts:
www.americanrhetoric.com: Database of speech transcripts, often also has the audio or video of the speech being given as well.
www.projects.washingtonpost.com/politicalads/: Fabulous database of political ads that can be searched by year, by politician, by issues, etc.
www.thesocietypages.org/socimages/: Postings of various ads and other images that people think have sociological relevance. Many times a link to the larger ad campaign, or the company whom the ad is for, will be provided, and is probably a good thing to look at. If you chose an image from this site, try to find where it originally showed up, and do not simply copy what others have already said about it.
www.wordpress.com and www.blogsofnote.blogspot.com : Here, as well as at other blogging sites, you can search blogs according to topics or keywords, and find blogs that other people think are interesting.
www.artcyclopedia.com: searchable database of art and artists. To find more specifically argumentative art, you might try to search for political art.
Of course, you can also find cultural texts all around you, in magazines, newspapers, fliers, billboards, posters, music, etc, as well as the websites you use everyday!
*Overall, you will have at least three sources to cite—your cultural text, and at least two additional sources that provide more information about or other perspectives on your chosen text—these need to be cited on a ‘Works Cited’ page at the end of your paper, according to MLA style. Refer to The Everyday Writer for formatting.
6. ADVERTISING AND SOCIETY
(An assignment for a lower-division course by Alicia Revely.
Reproduced by permission from here.)
We know advertisements are geared toward specific demographics (age/race/gender/income/nationality/culture) but what happens when “outside” groups see these ads? I’ll give you examples of ads that have been considered problematic by people outside their intended audiences.
Choose one ad and analyze why you think people might find it offensive, disrespectful, or inappropriate. Could it be changed to be more sensitive? Does the outrage or worry about the ad’s message make sense to you? What less controversial approach could the company have taken to promote its product? Should the company have been able to foresee the impact the ad would have?
Also think of one commercial or ad campaign in your lifetime that you know caused backlash or that you thought was problematic. Describe what you remember of the ad and the criticisms of it. Was it appropriate for your social context or do you agree with its critics?
This Italian detergent commercial raised concerns about racial stereotyping.
So did this set of promotional photos by Spain’s Olympic basketball team.
When we look at advertisements from the past, we can often see problems that may or may not have been evident at that time. If you’d like to address this issue, you can look at either Marlboro ads targeting mothers in the ’50s or this Folgers ad from about the same time.
7. ESSAY QUESTION ON THE PROBLEM OF INFERENCE
(Written by Mark Stoddart. Reproduced by permission.)
One of the challenges of textual analysis of media representations is the ‘problem of inference.’ This means that the researcher analyzes the text without engaging with the media producers or audience members. The blog, Sociological Images, provides a sociologically-informed critique of mass media images. After reviewing several posts and their related comments, discuss whether or how the problem of inference is present in this blog. In other words, provide a critical review of the media analysis and comments on Sociological Images, based on your understanding of theory and research on media and society.
8. ANALYZING GENDER AND DISCOURSES ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT
(Written by Abby Kinchy)
For this question, you will consult an outside source, a blog called Sociological Images, which offers sociological analysis of advertisements and other aspects of visual culture. The authors of Sociological Images have commented frequently on the ways that ideas about masculinity and femininity are a part of historical and contemporary understandings of the environment. Select three of the blog posts listed below (a digital version of this exam is posted in Dropbox, for easy access to the links). Then write an essay that uses the examples in the blog posts (and your own examples, if you wish), in combination with course readings, to answer the following question: In what ways have patriarchal ideas influenced cultural representations of nature, past and present?Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.