Chris Leffler on ‘The Image Speaks’

Through the course of the last academic year, I had the privilege of being involved in ‘The Image Speaks‘. Collaborating with photographer Andy Brown, myself and nine other PhD students from across the Faculty of Arts and Humanities produced a series of original images that visually depicted an aspect of our research. These were curated in an exhibition in the foyer of Jessop West (opened on 22 February 2016) alongside short captions explaining their significance, and this was accompanied by a brochure containing lengthier essays on our chosen subjects.

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In my contribution, Andy and I decided to create a triptych of images based on Castle Square in central Sheffield. Our intention was to demonstrate that a diversity of memories underpin what appears to be an unremarkable tram stop; presenting the contemporary location alongside archival images of the Hole in the Road and Hyde Park flats, we sought to illustrate how multiple times and spaces are interwoven within the single site. This was expanded upon in my essay and caption, in which I used archival research and information from a local historian to complicate this story further.

I found the experience of the ‘The Image Speaks’ project highly rewarding, and not simply because of the quality of the output, for which I cannot thank Andy enough. The process of the project challenged me to work in ways that were new to me, and to present them in a medium other than the academic writing I am used to. In this blog, therefore, I want to focus less on my contribution to the exhibition (which you can see for yourself in the brochure), and more on how it has benefited my wider work.

A particular challenge of the remit of ‘The Image Speaks’ is that it is aimed, not just at academic observers, but at a non-specialist audience who might just be passing by. I am used to a sizeable word count in which I can thrash out ideas at length, and my reader is usually a supervisor or fellow PhD student, who will take the time to understand complex terms and arguments. Presenting my research to a far more diverse audience forced me to distil my ideas down to their fundamentals, and to present them in both images and language that would be accessible at a glance. This has had a knock-on effect on my academic work, in which I realised that complexity often disguised a lack of understanding, and thus the project taught me to always seek clarity in my writing.

One of the major revelations of ‘The Image Speaks’ was perhaps one of the most surprising. I am used to discovering the places I study almost second-hand, through books, photographs or films; by contrast, working with Andy forced me to engage my site on the ground. This allowed me to observe details in I might otherwise have missed; lines in the brickwork and views from the platform were as crucial to understanding the memories entangled within the square as the popular myths and historical writing surrounding it. Thus, when my research so often takes place at a distance, engaging with the concrete and bricks of Castle Square itself was refreshing and insightful.

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Yet perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of my involvement in the project was the opportunity, not just to research the culture of the urban, but to participate in its production. My work focuses on the depiction of cities and places in sources that range from novels to bandes dessinées, and I am therefore used to examining photographs as an object of study. Being on the other side of the photograph, involved in its production, was a major shift in viewpoint. Choices regarding the composition of the images (selecting the originals, placing them in relation to one another, and playing with their framing and focus) positioned me on the flip side of the process I ordinarily scrutinise; I was not looking for meaning, but instead producing it. This was extremely enjoyable as a creative exercise, but it also offered me a valuable insight into an aspect of my work that I often take for granted, and has encouraged me to re-think my assumptions about how both to carry out and present research on the city and its culture.

Chris Leffler is a PhD student in French Studies at the University of Sheffield.

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