Seeing ourselves, darkly
"Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." (Carl Jung)
It has taken me quite some time to start to understand the meaning of the images that I make with my camera.
My day-to-day passion is to work with the way we conceptualise the future and the 'Photo-Dialogues' are an attempt to express that inquiry. I'm not too worried about whether we call that future view our vision, purpose, intention or plan; my work is to understand the relationship between how we think and what we do,
But recently, I've been reflecting on the nature of the images that I make when I am out 'wandering and wondering.' An easy categorisation of the images could be 'street photography' but images like the one above, made way out in the countryside, aren't an easy match for the 'street' label.
Rather than anything especially visual, I know that I'm reacting to a 'felt sense', a particular aesthetic, a discrepancy of some sort, and an urge to bring something to wider attention. I guess the well known Isadora Duncan quote fits here, "If I could tell you what I meant, there would be no point in dancing it." I don't have the words either and I'm using photography to draw attention to a particular quality that I see in the world.
But why does any of this matter?
Action Researchers refer to "first person" research; the reflexive look inwards that helps us understand what we bring to our work. In essence we are saying that no research, no framing of an issue, no approach gaining knowledge is ever neutral. We each see through our own 'filters' and so we would do well know what they might be! The images I make tell me something about what I find worthy of attention and, in turn, the kind of thing (from the infinite range of potential issues), that I might act upon.
So, what am I learning? As the 'Bold Explorations' book went to print, I found myself apologising to the authors, James Traeger and Rob Warwick, for offering them a fairly bleak selection of photographs. My work tends to be stark, discomforting, alienating. What does this mean for a book on Organisational Development and why did Rob and James choose them?
"We were deliberate in asking you to be the photographer," said James, "We do share a slightly dark view of the world."
"There is the essence of edginess," offered Rob, "which is always quite important."
James continued, "In the book we were trying to disrupt this idea that there is a simplistically knowable way to change organisations - but we didn't want to leave people without the hope that there is anything worthwhile trying. We are seeing the book as an intervention in itself; it's doing organisation development on the OD community - it invites a response."
As I continue to reflect, I see that I'm drawn to the complexity of organisations and the idea that, while we might viscerally feel their quality, for good or worse, there is always much more going on than we can individually know. Rob offered a note of insight, "In all of the pictures there is a conversation between what is clear and what is unclear. Like the picture of the industrial building (above). It's clearly an industrial building but it's also unclear... What is it? You can't see what it is..."
As we try to change organisations, being clear about our start point, even if (paradoxically) we are unclear, brings integrity to our consulting approach. Both Rob and James take the view that we are working in a 'post-truth' age, that knowledge is subjective and contested, and they are wary of the 'false harmony' that many organisational change approaches assume.
I'm in a similar place with all that.
My pictures are helping me learn tell that I look for incongruity as my starting point for change, that I attend to difference, the little 'snags' in our experience, drawing energy and creativity from the disillusionment and disenfranchisement that percolates through our lives. It would be easy to ignore that aesthetic, and work from a blind-spot where I was uncritical about what I 'see'. But that rather dark 'knowing' offers a spur for practice development, both as a photographer and a consultant who seeks to 'witness' our experience of organisations.
Like James and Rob, I use my work to support an aspiration for something more generative in our organisations. I know we can do better...
But, in these moments, as words begin to fail me, I hope you'll allow the pictures to do their work...
James' and Rob's book, 'Organisation Development, a Bold Explorer's Guide' is an essential text book for the OD community - not only does it have some curious photographs, it even has an exciting ending!
We pay especial interest to artful knowing, first person research and reflexivity throughout the Ashridge Executive Doctorate in Organisational Change. In essence we are bringing doctoral level quality to our inquiry into our own 'practice' as we try to intervene in organisations. If a PhD might be your thing, take a look (I'm the academic director - drop me a line...).
Here is a short article on first, second and third person action research by Jordi Tullen and Bill Torbert.