'We Are Watching You Too': Reflections on Doing Visual Research in a Contested City

by Milena Komarova and Martina McKnight
Queen's University Belfast; Queen's University Belfast

Sociological Research Online, 18 (1) 19

Received: 27 Feb 2012     Accepted: 20 Dec 2012    Published: 28 Feb 2013


This article focuses on our observations of two contentious Orange Order parades and nationalist protests that took place in an interface area in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in June 2011 and 2012. We apply a perspective of visual ethnography as place-making (Pink 2009) to our research experience in order to add to understandings of how a place of conflict is experienced, (re)produced or challenged through the use of photography and video by marchers, protesters and researchers alike. In doing so, we discuss not only the strengths of visual methods, (how they enable a greater understanding of adversarial perspectives, allow researchers to experience contestation emotionally and compel reflexivity), but also more controversial aspects of their use (the extent to which they limit what researchers notice or omit and legitimate particular versions of conflict). Last, but not least, we suggest that the ubiquitous use of ‘the digital eye’ in the contentious events we observed has a democratising influence over elements in the performance of conflict: challenging the presumed roles of performers and audiences; of researchers and researched; opening contentious events to a wider audience and facilitating the communication of competing narratives.

Keywords: Visual Methods, place-making, Contested Space, Conflict Management


1.1 This article explores the use of digital photography and video both in doing research in contested urban space and as a part of the process of collaborative production of place (Pink 2008a, 2008b, 2009). Drawing on observations and visual records of contentious events in Belfast in June 2011 and 2012 we reflect on how our use of visual methods drew us into a world of sensory and emotional experiences which produced a deeper understanding of how contested space is (re)produced through performance and prompted us to reflect on our participation in this process. We demonstrate how digital image technologies, incorporated in highly regulated and ritualised performances, play an integral part in the production of urban space. Serving as a medium through which people position themselves (signalling allegiances, distances, judgments or resistance), these digital gazes and glances draw participants into non-verbal interactions that become part of the repertoire of conflict and its management. In the instances observed the digital eye signalled territoriality and became, at some level, a proxy for dialogue. Moreover, the power of the digital to move beyond the spatial and temporal confines of the event potentially influences and mediates relationships and perceptions by widening access and channelling public attention to contestation and political violence.

1.2 The observations that ground this discussion are part of fieldwork undertaken for an ESRC-funded five-year research project, entitled Conflict in Cities and the Contested State, which began in 2007[1]. The project, focusing primarily on Belfast and Jerusalem, addresses the interaction between urban everyday life practices and ethno-national conflict and divisions. Although primarily using discursive data, from the early stages of the project we took photographs of a variety of spaces and events in Belfast. While we initially treated these as supplementary methods of data collection and ways of communicating research findings we gradually began to recognise their value as 'different and complementary ways of 'telling' and 'seeing' [that] can engender different ways of knowing and understanding' (Brown et al. 2008: 1.4). As our appreciation of 'the visual' grew we started making short videos. The present discussion arises from one element of the research, namely, the performance of contentious events and micro conflict management strategies and the opportunities these offer for constructive dialogue, mixing and transient productions of urban space.

Using Digital Photo and Video in Observation

2.1 There is a sophisticated and growing body of literature on the uses of visual research methods. Video in particular is appreciated as a method of field documentation which has the capacity to reveal elusive elements of events and behaviour and offers possibilities for (re)interpretation with each viewing (Murthy 2008, Garrett 2010). It is also valued for its ability to capture images in their social and spatial context over time, thereby providing an understanding of the mutual and fluid constitution of space and identity (Murray 2009: 473). Brown et al (2008: 5.11) suggest video facilitates exploration of 'the multi-dimensional, multi-sensory aspects of lifeworlds' prompting among researchers 'more immediate empathy for the experience than language alone'. More generally, the capacity of the visual to draw one into the production of place in new emotional and kinaesthetic, in addition to cognitive and discursive, ways is emphasised (Brown 2008, Murray 2009, Pink 2008a and 2008b). Underlying this argument is a conceptualisation of ethnographic methods as place-making practices which questions how both researchers and participants 'are emplaced in ethnographic contexts' (Pink 2008a: 179); how they create place 'in a phenomenological sense during the research encounter'; and constitute it through a 'range of "shared" multi-sensorial experiences and collaborative productions' (Pink 2008b: 2).

2.2 In this article we build on Pink's (2009) theorisation of visual ethnography as place-making applying it to the empirical case of researching contentious events in ethno-nationally contested urban space. In doing so, we aim to add to understandings of how a place of conflict is experienced, (re)produced or challenged through embodied performances. A pervasive element in the embodied performances we observed was the taking of photographs and video footage. This constituted an unplanned for common experience between researchers and researched and in our analysis was an important tool in the collaborative production of place and a main generator of our reflections. In order to contextualise our thoughts and experiences we first turn to the spatial and social context of Belfast as a 'post-conflict' city; we then present our field notes before drawing together our analyses in the discussion and conclusion.

Belfast: The Production of Conflict Space in the Everyday

3.1 As has been exhaustively recounted (Whyte 1990, McGarry and O'Leary 1995, Coulter 1999, Tonge 2002), Northern Ireland has a long history of political and religious discord. The resultant conflict is often portrayed as being between Catholics/nationalists and Protestants/unionists, as these labels are generally conflated. The most recent and prolonged period of violence, (late 1960s to mid 1990s), commonly referred to as 'The Troubles', resulted in over 3600 (Fitzduff and O'Hagan 2009) deaths and solidified and extended the ethno-religious segregation already in existence.

3.2 As a result of the ceasefires negotiated in the mid 1990s and the political Agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland, including its regional capital Belfast, has made undeniable progress towards a non-violent and more diverse society. Significant rebranding and regeneration of parts of Belfast are evident, yet many areas remain politically divided, economically and socially deprived, and physically depressed (Murtagh 2011). Territoriality continues to define the city (Neill 2004, Shirlow and Murtagh 2006) with more than half of its population living in wards that are 90% Catholic or Protestant community background (Belfast City Council 2007). More than fourteen years after the signing of the Agreement physical barriers (known as interface walls or 'peacewalls') still mark the boundaries between many working class Protestant and Catholic communities in the city[2].

3.3 The continued importance of territoriality is most clearly seen in everyday life at 'interface' areas and in periodic contentious events. In such areas a variety of everyday practices from kerb painting, flag flying and murals to vandalism and anti-social behaviour result in territorial demarcation that effectively restricts access and use. In addition to the 'chill factor' that these create, someone who is not a resident of a local community can feel visible as 'not belonging'. This experience of visibility is central to the legacies of conflict in the city (Lysaght and Basten 2003, Σ Dochartaigh 2007), and is a result of the physical layout of such areas and the ability of local residents to recognise many of their community, exercising de facto constant surveillance over the spaces they inhabit. Zurawski (2005: 499) describes this 'people watching' as a common cultural practice of non-technological surveillance - a consequence of 'The Troubles', where survival could depend on knowing 'who somebody is and what side he or she may possibly belong to'. While anonymity may be seen as a common characteristic of urban living, in Belfast communal and political affiliations are regularly ascribed to others on the basis of where they live and how they are seen to use the city spatially with direct consequences for their experiences of safety, fear and threat (Shirlow 2008).

Contentious Events: Parades and Protests

4.1 Conflict in Belfast is also performed through periodic contentious events, such as parades, protests and riots. The summer months are known, somewhat euphemistically, as 'the marching season' and with over 3000 annual commemorative parades, mostly organised by the Protestant and unionist Loyal Orders, the tradition remains important for this community. Although the vast majority of these parades pass off peacefully they engender varying levels of resentment among Catholic/nationalist communities. A small number, remain highly contentious, generally, because their route passes through predominantly Catholic/nationalist residential areas, which can lead to increased tensions and rioting.  The significance of parades is differently understood by nationalists and unionists: the former tend to see Loyal Order parades as 'sectarian' and 'triumphalist'; the latter tend to see nationalist protests as 'disrespectful' of their cultural tradition and a denial of their rights to march down a public road 'in a peaceful and dignified way' (interviews with community workers, March - June 2011).

4.2 Urban space and claiming territory are central to the symbolism of parades. Individual parades are highly ritualised performances of the traditional 'custom and practice' of marching along clearly defined routes. Unionists' assertion of the right to parade and nationalists' contestation of a parade's route represent and perform a power struggle over territory (Bryan 2006, Cohen 2007). The enactment of parades and protests temporarily incorporates space into a performative practice (Cohen 2007) that contains the possibility of redrawing boundaries (Leach 2005). While these performative acts may not leave a lasting material imprint they are an integral part of the dynamics of continuity and change.

4.3 Adjudicating inter-communal disputes over parades lies with The Parades Commission for Northern Ireland, which has the power to impose restrictions in cases where local accommodation, usually undertaken by voluntary organisations and local community/residents' associations, cannot be achieved. Thus, during a contentious event a variety of groups and individuals are on site (including the Police Service of Northern Ireland [PSNI]) to manage the event, minimise the risk of confrontation, monitor the activities of all concerned and ensure any restrictions imposed are adhered to. Often these restrictions define and limit the route and/or the number of marchers and prohibit the playing of certain music or verbal exchanges. As such, as will be discussed below, the use of the visual can provide a tool to implicitly or explicitly circumvent these rulings and to establish territoriality.

4.4 The marching season of 2011 presented us with an opportunity to observe and collect visual data of contentious events in territorially contested urban space. Our rationale was to illuminate the role of the spatial and performative aspects of conflict and its management. We felt that the use of video would record the more sensory experiences and emotional reactions of participants at the events which are important ingredients in the constitution of place and in decision-making during performance (Murray 2009). However, we did not anticipate the effect that the use of photography and video, both by us and by those we had come to observe, would have on our emotional and sensory experiences.

In the Field: June 2011

5.1 The parade that we observe takes place on the last Saturday of June. Starting from the unionist heartland of the Shankill Road it passes through largely Protestant/unionist residential areas, becoming contentious at the point where marchers emerge onto the Catholic/nationalist Springfield Road, through the Workman Avenue gate and 'peacewall' that separates the two communities. Since 2006 The Parades Commission has imposed restrictions on the parade. Their determination this year states that '[o]nly the host lodge, accompanied by stewards and not exceeding 50 persons in total', can 'proceed without restriction' through the gate. The remainder of the parade is asked to march through an adjacent former industrial site[3], the two groups rejoining at the junction of that site and the Springfield Road.

5.2 Despite the potential for conflict[4] we do not have fears for our safety, nor do we feel vulnerable as women. Perhaps this reflects the expected police presence, or our assumption that we are not 'typical' of those who become embroiled in violence around these events. Yet, we do feel uneasy at potentially being unable to blend in and of being unwelcome by local communities. A local community worker has advised us that, if we want to observe from the 'Protestant/unionist side' of the 'peacewall', we might be better negotiating access in advance. Time restrictions meant that we have not done so and, thus, our decision to stand on the Springfield Road (i.e. on the 'nationalist side') is driven by pragmatic considerations. This highlights that we question the public openness of this contested space and feel discomfort at the expectation that the layer of anonymity, generally afforded by urban space, will be removed by the peculiarities of the occasion.

5.3 We have decided to use digital cameras and a video recorder for our observations. As we walk towards 'the site', we find the road rather deserted, bar two police vehicles and the occasional police officer on foot. There are few pedestrians, let alone protesters or marchers, and the sparse traffic is flowing freely. We feel 'exposed' in this public space; needing or lacking 'permission to attend'. We wonder if we are being observed by local residents and if they resent our presence? In these circumstances, Milena, who is not from Northern Ireland, finds her 'otherness' reassuring. She considers it preferable to be regarded as an 'outsider', equally removed from either side, than to be suspected of affiliations with one or the other. Carrying a camera becomes reassuring not just as a researcher's tool but as a possible indicator to others that she is merely a hapless tourist. Martina on the other hand finds her feelings of 'otherness' totally unexpected. At one level she feels she does belong (she no longer lives here but she grew up in this area), yet today in her role as researcher she feels alien. She wonders if the people living at this interface are looking at her thinking that, like the marchers that will shortly follow, she is intruding in their space.

5.4 Despite our insecurities in using the cameras while there is hardly anyone around, we agree that to us they are effectively a shield, a visible justification for our presence there. While we are happy to photograph the built environment, we feel uncomfortable photographing the police. We wonder if they will challenge us. The previous week Martina, who had been doing some fieldwork on a 'normal' day, had taken a photograph of a police station in another part of the city (no police officers or police vehicles were visible). From nowhere it seemed a police patrol had arrived and she had been questioned. We want to avoid a repeat of this event but also giving the impression to local residents that we are in close communication with the police, thus assuaging our apparent 'neutrality'. We chat among ourselves and decide to ask for permission to photograph them. The police officer Martina approaches looks surprised that she is asking. We feel our status as researchers is assured and start taking photographs that better reflect the scene. Yet in the absence of others we feel conspicuous.

Figure 1. Being visible at the interface. The Springfield Road at about 1.30 pm, 25 June 2011.

5.5 Chatting and laughing, a little self consciously, we walk to the junction where the two groups of marchers would come together. We stop to read and photograph a sign that gives The Parades Commission's ruling on the conditions upon which the nationalist protest would proceed (Fig. 1). It is a reminder of whose territory this is and we feel the presence of local residents through it. We then walk towards the gate. It is a large metal construction consisting of two sections: pedestrian, which is opened and locked on a daily basis, and the main gate which will be opened today to allow the marchers through but which is, bar one other occasion, locked and welded closed at all times. There is additional space in front of the gate provided by the street layout of Workman Avenue which meets Springfield Road at a right angle thus setting the scene like a stage around which people can congregate (Fig. 3).

Figures 2 and 3. Springfield Road and the gate in Workman Avenue before protesters start arriving.

5.6 Slowly at first but then rather swiftly the space in front of the gate begins to fill with police, community stewards (wearing blue high visibility jackets), media, other researchers, a number of local nationalist political representatives and nationalist residents. The latter are holding signs saying 'Loyalist Threats Work' and 'Nationalists Have the Right to Protest Outside Their Own Homes', among others. Nothing in their behaviour suggests animosity or resentment of our presence. In fact, now that crowds are gathering, we feel more at ease as we are clearly blending in among the sheer number of bodies jostling for position opposite the gate.

5.7 Many people have mobile phones, photo and video cameras and are pointing them in different directions, alternating between the gate, the police and various elements of the crowd. The police reciprocate, although it seems, at this point, that their cameras mostly hone in on the disparate group gathered around the community stewards, a short distance from the main crowd of which we are part. We overhear someone nearby asking politicians and community representatives to comment on the day. We don't know exactly who is asking but the cameras are rolling. Later we see some of these interviews on the news, yet the footage released on TV is only a small fraction of that we see being taken. A couple of months later we encounter a video from the day on YouTube[5]. It has been edited into a short documentary that assesses the events from the point of view of local nationalist politicians and community representatives.

Figures 4 and 5. Crowds have gathered in the Springfield Road facing Workman Avenue gate. Researchers 'invisible' in Figure 5.

Figure 6. Community stewards fencing 'the site' off from the Springfield Road.

5.8 Martina recognises someone in the crowd who, like her, has grown up in this area and they begin to chat. He wonders why she is there. As a local political representative his reasons are obvious, but her presence here at this time, despite or perhaps because of her previous connections, requires an explanation; now her position as a researcher and her camera provide this. The mood is quite light-hearted. Our feelings of being intruders are ebbing away; the crowd taking photos gives us confidence. Whereas at first Martina had asked permission to photograph a resident holding a sign she now feels at ease to snap away. Yet, Milena is still uncomfortable with turning her camera onto a group of 'community' people, standing close by. The few times she does she feels challenged by their glances back. She realises her newly-aquired feeling of blending in is fragile and depends on who she points the camera at.

5.9 The beating drums, whistling flutes and cheering crowds on the other side of the gate are becoming more audible all the time. The relatively relaxed atmosphere in the crowd changes as the police arrange themselves in a cordon on both sides of the road, separating protesters and marchers when the latter emerge. Those of us with cameras are jockeying for a good position from which to get photos once the gate is opened. As the marchers come through the gate a loud cheer goes up from their supporters who are briefly visible on 'the other side'. The marchers dressed in their suits and bowler hats, flags and banners blowing, emerge. The protesters and marchers do not speak but the sense of resentment between them is tangible and through it all the cameras are snapping.

5.10 Standing near the front of the group, Milena's video recording cuts off what would normally be taken in by one's peripheral vision. The digital eye is honed in on the gate itself; the gate is the 'legitimate' stage of performance. To some extent this is the effect of us having bought into the competitive spirit of stealing the best photo opportunity but it is also influenced by Milena trying to retain her sense of anonymity by not pointing the camera at people and in directions that make her feel visible. To no small degree this narrow focus on the gate is conditioned by the physical layout of the space around it – with the audience positioned directly across, and the gate openning as if a curtain is parting on a stage. Later when looking at our photographs of the gate openning we notice the plethora of photographers. Not only are people, including us, standing on 'our side' of the road facing the gate directly with their cameras, but observers/spectators standing on the opposite side, who we see briefly, seem to be experiencing the same 'drawing of the curtain' spectating moment. Figure 7 shows this clearly with photographers 'shooting' each other in an instance of temporal and spatial reciprocity of action, position and body language.

Figures 7 and 8. Figure 7: 'Shooting' from across the line; Figure 8: Marchers walk through Workman Avenue gate and onto Springfield Road.

5.11 As the parade begins to make its way through the gate, we immediately notice one of the frontline marchers pointing a camera at the gathered crowd (Fig. 8). Despite so many taking photos and filming, the camera in his hand feels out of place; at odds with the general demeanour of the rest of the marching party. We realise that we are also somebody's spectacle, an object of scrutiny, albeit that we are merely part of the crowd being 'captured' by him. It feels as if he is indicating that they, the marchers, are not there to be stared at and judged. It is a fleeting feeling; the marchers quickly pass to meet up with the main procession further up the road; the crowd is quickly moving in that direction and we must be part of it.

5.12 We follow hectically, attempting to film as we go. Again, there is a moment of awkwardness as we try to reassess the new spatial configuration and where we could 'legitimately' stand within it. The protesters have quickly regrouped so that they are visible to the marchers and bands when they emerge from the industrial site. In the rush we separate. Martina notices a space by some traffic lights that offers a good vantage point and rushes over. This brings her into much closer contact with the marchers and away from the protesters. At this moment the procession pauses and she finds herself face-to-face with a marcher with a camera; so close it feels as if the two of them could touch. The marcher turns his camera towards different groups in the crowd and each time he puts his feet wider apart as if taking a stance. Eventually, he points the camera in what feels like Martina's direction (Fig. 9) and although she knows it is not directed at her personally she feels unsettled; too visible, as though some unspoken boundary has been infringed. Nonetheless she continues snapping. Another marcher with a video passes by. He is not even looking through the camera; it is as if he does not care what footage he is taking, rather that he is seen to be taking it (Fig. 10).

Figures 9 and 10. Figure 9: A parade member photographing the observing crowd as the procession pauses; Figure 10: Filming while marching.

5.13 Meanwhile, Milena stands on the side of the junction, together with a number of protesters, and tries to continue filming from there. She can see media people and the occasional police officer in a traffic island in the middle of the junction - a good vantage point for filming the procession. She is envious of their position, yet she dares not cross partly because she is concerned with standing in the way of protesters. Earlier, walking towards this spot while filming, someone had pulled her onto the footpath, a man's voice saying something like 'here, love'. She could not decide if that was purely the helpful gesture of someone who, seeing her concentrating into the video, was concerned that she might trip, or was he letting her know she was in the way of protesters. Either way she feels visible as if she has been standing out in the eyes of those surrounding her whilst her attention has been occupied elsewhere. She now hesitates to step onto the traffic island and, thus, into full view of all sides. However, as more people cross to stand on it (Martina already there) Milena is emboldened to cross. From there she observes the way different parts of the crowd have reconfigured at the edges of the junction. The community stewards have lined up in a cordon, facing the marchers and with their backs towards the Springfield Road. Later, looking at our photographs, she notices they too were holding cameras and directing them at the parading procession. Their body language reads as a challenge to the marchers (Fig. 11).

Figure 11. Community stewards observing and (some) taking pictures of the parading procession.

5.14 From her new vantage point, Milena also observes close up two of the marchers pointing cameras at us. These men are simply reciprocating our digital glances but it makes Milena too feel distinctly uncomfortable. The discomfort that we both feel at that moment is perhaps indicative of our (pre-reflexive) assumption that the marchers, and indeed the protesters, have placed themselves in the 'public eye' in a way that we have not. In this fleeting encounter there is a sense that our role in the performance has changed, our anonymity has been compromised. To us it feels like the marchers are saying 'We are watching you too!'

Figure 12. Police, media and marchers filming each other.

In the Field: June 2012

6.1 The following year we resolve to observe the event from 'the unionist side' of the 'peacewall'. Having meanwhile done some fieldwork in this area, we are keenly aware of how much smaller and closed off that space is and that few observers go to that side of the gate. We feel that we are likely to stand out and be perceived as voyeurs even more than we had expected to be the case the previous year. We therefore seek to negotiate access in advance. Martina talks to a member of the Orange Order whom she has interviewed on another occasion and he assures her that there should not be any problem.

6.2 We start by observing at the junction of Shankill Road and Ainsworth Avenue, just a few hundred meters above the Orange Hall from which the procession begins. This staunchly unionist area runs parallel to the Springfield Road, a mesh of small streets separating it from the nearby interface wall and gate where the potential for contention lies. Here, the spirit is one of community celebration, almost carnivalesque, and is devoid of tension. The streets and indeed many of the spectators are decorated in red, white and blue. There are lots of young people, children, and babies in buggies. The mood is relaxed and the only indication to us of potential trouble is when we notice a group of community stewards passing by. As the parade begins the crowd claps and cheers supportively. Streams of teenagers (and some younger children) flow on both sides of the procession following as it marches towards Workman Avenue where a small party will pass through the gate and onto the Springfield Road from where we had observed the previous year.

Figure 13. The Whiterock Parade procession in Shankill Road being greeted by crowds, 30 June 2012.

6.3 As soon as the front of the marching procession passes our vantage point we start walking alongside. We do not notice any media or other researchers. Those using cameras appear to be simply supporters. As we walk along, local residents stand in groups on footpaths or in their gardens drinking, eating, cheering, waving flags. They seem little interested in us, yet, we feel recognised as strangers. We walk along, concentrating on the procession, feeling again our cameras justify our presence. Later Martina finds one YouTube video (among numerous others) from this section of the parade in which we can briefly see ourselves walking and smiling; we are indistinguishable from any of the parade's supporters.

6.4 The site around the gate surprises us. Community stewards have virtually fenced it off from spectators who are turned away from it watching the procession. It feels almost as though they are neither conscious of the gate (and the wall) nor aware of the nationalist protesters on the other side; or perhaps they are intent on ignoring it and celebrating 'their day' and 'their bands' irrespective of the limitations that have been placed?

Figures 14 and 15. Figure 14: The marching procession in Workman Avenue. The edge of the gate is visible in left corner. Observers near the gate have their backs towards it. Community stewards (in orange jackets) have made a human chain cordoning the gate off; Figure 15: The gate is open and the small marching procession has just passed through it. Protesters and observers on the 'nationalist side' are taking photos and holding up protesting signs.

6.5 We join the watching crowd. Martina notices that the pedestrian gate is ajar and, walking past and around the stewards, sneaks a brief preview of the 'other side' (neither community stewards nor police challenge her) and then rejoins Milena. Having seen her looking through a woman, who cheers in the crowd, asks Martina 'are themuns still there'? When Martina confirms this she makes a derogatory remark and turns her attention back to the bands. Clearly supporters and onlookers are far from unconscious of the protest on the Springfield Road but local stewards are purposefully managing, almost choreographing, the crowd's attention away from the gate.

6.6 The parade proceeds without slowing down or glancing in the direction of the gate and we find it impossible to tell which section will pass through. We are struck by how different our experience is in comparison to last year: while spectators are snapping away, none of the marchers, at this point, is using a camera; neither can we see any official media. Perhaps not unexpectedly, there is no sense of confrontation such as we perceived while standing on the other side of the gate. We miss the moment when the sign is given for the opening of the gate. The procession does not perceptibly change its rhythm but by the time Milena notices movement closer to the gate and turns around to film, the gate has been opened and the head of the small marching party has already passed.

6.7 Still, we are able to see enough for us to experience a similar 'drawing of the curtain' moment to the one we observed the previous year. A wall of cameras is snapping at us from the 'other side'. This is briefly unsettling as we know that many of those standing on the Springfield Road despise and ridicule the crowd that we are now part of. We observe and participate in the same moment of 'mutual shooting' although there is much less of this in our present position (we notice only a couple of photographers standing near us). This moment feels, again, like confrontation. For us it is emotive, especially as we see some familiar faces in the crowd facing us from the Springfield Road and fleetingly wonder if we are recognised by anyone who may have remembered us from before. Cameras are still a justification for our presence, though more for those who are observing us from the 'nationalist side' than for those surrounding us from the 'unionist side'. As the gate begins to close we witness a surge of cheering, clapping and waving of banners by supporters of the parade all around us directed at those standing on the 'nationalist side'. This is short-lived as the crowd immediately dissipates into the network of small streets. We then walk freely through the pedestrian entrance of the gate. By this time most of the crowd at the 'other side' has moved to the nearby junction but some protesters remain, holding a huge sign which says 'Make Sectarianism History'. Given the apparent lack of attention to the protest that we witness among parade supporters at 'the unionist side' of the 'peacewall', and what looks like purposeful choreographing of the crowd away from the gate, we are struck by the imbalance between the mutual orientation of unionists and nationalists to the gatherings of their adversaries on each side of the wall; an imbalance counteracted by the 'digital duel' that the opening of the gate allows/calls for and that we are also part of.


7.1 Pink (2009: 99) describes the use of visual media and images in research as 'routes to multisensory knowing'; essential to the ethnographer's engagement with place and to participating in place-making. Thus, when working with visual materials and, as we experienced, creating these materials - the latter 'become meaningful in terms of the ethnographers' whole biographical experience of the research process' (ibid: 99); and, we suggest, beyond. Reflexivity therefore is essential in understanding how our responses to, and interpretation of, the events we became part of were not only influenced by our use of cameras, by that of others and by what occurred on the day but also drew on our biographies and (often) pre-reflexive dispositions.

7.2 Having lived in Belfast for thirteen years but grown up in Eastern Europe, Milena's experience of life in Belfast has had its ups and downs. When she first arrived the city was (and despite growing cultural diversity remains), overwhelmingly 'white European', and since Milena perceived herself to belong to that category she was taken aback to realise how recognisable as a newcomer she was. Having lived in other cities outside her home country before moving to Belfast she had never felt that she had stood out as 'not from around here' only by virtue of her appearance. Yet in Belfast she felt visible, standing out in a place that felt closed in on itself and with little interest in the 'unfamiliar'. She had neither anticipated nor welcomed these feelings. She missed the reassurance that belonging and anonymity in the city provide. Raising a family here, getting to know, to work with and befriend people have gradually changed the way Milena feels in and about Belfast, and have helped her carve out her own sense of place. Yet, this experience of visibility stays with her and contributed to her sensitivities at the times of our observations. She felt ambivalent: on the one hand recognising that in this particular situation her usual discomfort at being visible was potentially a strength (her very visibility being an affirmation of a 'neutral onlooker' status); yet, in her mind, it still meant she was likely to stand out. She was also unfamiliar with the site itself, having never walked on foot through the area and so, although not fearing for her own safety, was wary of what lay ahead.

7.3 Martina, on the other hand has grown up in the area of our observations. At one level, this provided her with 'insider knowledge' and spatial awareness that generated a degree of ease and familiarity yet, simultaneously, provoked a sense of discomfort upon arrival on the relatively empty Springfield Road. Whereas normally she would have had no concerns being in this area, to her surprise now she felt strangely out of place. Less than a month before our first observation she had walked around it, along a route very similar to that of the parade, taking photographs, crisscrossing the boundaries, exiting at Workman Avenue gate, and she had not experienced any of these tangled feelings. On reflection on that day, while undoubtedly people saw her, some despite not knowing her nodding and saying 'hello', she had managed to retain her anonymity while holding onto a sense of belonging. Lacking the potential for confrontation the space itself, and her sense of belonging within it, were differently understood and embodied by her on that earlier day. Approaching the potentially contentious site of our observation in 2011 she felt uncomfortable – an intruder, a voyeur; feelings which perhaps reflected her internalised dispositions, an empathy with the residents and an emotional response to place. These initial feelings subsided, as the space began to fill and, in particular, as the use of 'the visual' became more central and she became just one of many.

7.4 Despite the differences in our backgrounds some of our experiences, particularly during the second year of our observations, were shared. We felt much more at ease which was surprising given that we expected there would be fewer outside observers, while our previous research experiences were suggestive of the unionist community's reticence in responding to research. Perhaps we were more relaxed because we had negotiated access and because our observations began in a spot where there was a sense of celebration rather than contestation. It was in fact very similar to our experiences of observing other parades in the city centre and, in that sense, familiar and unthreatening. Some of the complexities and sensitivities that come with being a researcher in a 'conflict society' were also common to both of us and applied to both years of our research. There was tension for us that we could encounter people who we had previously interviewed or were hoping to contact for future research. Inevitably we wondered if our visibility at the interface might associate us, in their eyes, with one side or the other.

7.5 Thus, on both years of observation our cameras turned into an essential tool for dealing with our perceived loss of anonymity; a way of tacitly negotiating access and managing interactions with others. Yet, their significance extended much beyond. Ultimately, it was the interactions resulting from the reciprocating of visual glances between us and other participants - the shared practice of using the 'digital eye'- that allowed us to experience contestation emotionally; to understand the feelings of being stared at (being made to feel judged or accused) and the empowerment that comes with returning 'the glance'. The use of visual technologies by others had the unsettling effect of turning us into objects of the 'digital gaze' and by prompting us to consider ourselves through their eyes, allowed us to imagine with their emotional perspectives (Woodward 2008).

7.6 The tumble of feelings, senses and emotions that became part of our analysis reveals some of the strengths and weaknesses of visual methods. It enabled us to understand the performance of conflict in a way we would not have otherwise, revealing contested space as emotional space and the 'digital eye' as a conduit of emotion (Koskela 2000). Yet, our emotions also influenced where and at whom we felt comfortable pointing our cameras, and where we positioned ourselves, arguably at times contributing to us emulating, to an extent, the 'digital glances' of those surrounding us. Indeed, pointing the video camera mostly at the gate (during our 2011 observation) and the group of marchers walking through possibly contributed to us legitimating, together with others, the gate as the 'stage of performance' of conflict. Yet, as with all research methods, the digital does not 'act' in a vacuum and this honing of 'the digital eye' on the gate was also conditioned by the layout of the surrounding built environment. The latter, allows a greater degree of access from the Springfield Road, influencing the spatial positioning of the 'audience' and channelling attention to the gate and to the 'peacewall'. In contrast, our video footage from a contentious parade in the Ardoyne area of Belfast (two weeks after the 2011 events described here) is much more diverse (in terms of the directions we pointed our cameras) as the built environment there did not afford the opportunity to face the marching procession head on.

7.7 Overwhelmingly, our reflections show that the use of digital image technologies as a part of the embodied performance of contentious events interacts with the experience of visibility of and in contested space. Visibility, as we suggested earlier, is central to the legacies of conflict and intertwines in complex ways with feeling safe or unsafe; acting as a tool in establishing or challenging territory; allowing empowerment, disempowerment and resistance (Koskela 2000, Monahan 2006 and 2011, Σ Dochartaigh 2007). Its maintenance is not reliant on new technologies - residential segregation, the physical layout of segregated urban space and its symbolic markings and the closed-in character of many communities are the main contributors to feeling visible or invisible. Yet, during our observations particular significance was conferred on 'the digital eye' as a medium of communicating and moderating visibility between participants. Our field notes demonstrate how the dense mesh of digital gazes and glances drew participants into non-verbal interactions which signalled allegiances, distances, judgments or resistance, and acted as a proxy for dialogue and a powerful tool in the process of (re)producing urban space as a place of conflict.

7.8 In order to explain our interpretation of what the embodied use of the visual meant and did for other participants in the events we must refer to the broader context of governing and managing parades and protests in Northern Ireland. The reform of political governance, including a far-reaching reform of the PSNI, have conditioned largely positive changes in policing and managing contentious events in Belfast (Jarman, Rallings and Bell 2009). Working relationships between the PSNI and the dense network of local community and residents' organisations and nationalist politicians have been gradually improving, resulting in pro-active engagement between key parties in advance of contentious events (ibid). This point was illustrated through the apparently smooth choreography of the events we observed in both years which clearly involved direct communication between community stewards and the police on site. Yet, the search for local accommodation around contested parades remains a complex and fragile process, involving a multiplicity of power relations (Bryan 2000, 2006). The extent to which parades and protests are seen to be governed by The Parades Commission, the PSNI and, indeed, by some local community organisations (who find themselves in the 'invidious' position of intermediaries [interview community worker, 1 April 2011]) is viewed by many participants (and by some in the wider community) as a restriction of their rights and itself a cause of aggravation[6]. It is such sentiments, together with the actual restrictions imposed on the use of other means of expression by marchers and protesters, that confer particular significance on the embodied use of 'the digital eye'.

7.9 Σ Dochartaigh (2007: 489) in his research on online interactions argues that the use of new information and communication technologies during, and beyond, contentious events at interfaces 'demarcate[s] spaces of surveillance and penetration at lines of confrontation', multiplying 'territorial strategies for exercising power [and] generating new forms of action around a physical boundary'. Our observations confirm that, to a degree, for both marchers and protesters, the use of visual technologies was an exercise in surveillance; a demonstration of power – conveying a sense of 'penetration' of the other's territory (ibid). Yet, we suggest, it was much more than that. By engaging in this digital 'shooting' both sides were also contesting the form of the events and their roles within them, thus making statements of defiance to their adversaries, to observers and to the various official bodies, which, through governing and/or managing conflict, seek to define and shape such events. Thus, for protesters the use of 'the digital eye' reinforced the statement of their right to 'live free of intimidation' and 'to protest peacefully outside of their own homes'. It communicated their contestation of the right of marchers to parade through nationalist residential space. For the marchers, pointing cameras in the direction of the observing crowd was an affirmation of their rights to march down 'the Queen's highway' and to celebrate a cultural tradition 'in a peaceful and dignified way'. Accompanied by defiant body language it also signalled their refusal to comply with the implied role of an 'offender' who is there to be judged and sniggered at.

7.10 Crucially, the diverse media representation of these contentious events has resonance beyond the immediate experience of the events, continuing to reify or contest conflict. Whereas in the past conflict in Northern Ireland may have been exclusively reported by the official media, the growth of digital technology and online sharing heralds the emergence of competing narratives (Greer and McLaughlin 2010), examples of which can be found beyond the context of Belfast, notably in the London riots of 2011. Through the internet those present at the parade and protest were able to tell 'their story', immediately reaching much larger audiences than that available to us as researchers. Internet footage we found highlights how the visual can be utilised to intentionally/unintentionally project ideologically loaded stories. Central to the nationalist video of the 2011 protest was the argument that the opening of the interface wall gate 'once a year' [sic][7], is a nuisance and a provocation for local nationalist communities. By contrast, footage, taken by marchers or observers of the parades from the 'unionist side' of the interface presents a picture of festive occasions and community/heritage celebrations, suggesting that the protests, rather than the parades, are the source of conflict and that despite the restrictions placed upon them unionists are not cowed.


8.1 At the start of our research we were interested in assessing the opportunities that contentious events and micro conflict management strategies offer for constructive dialogue, mixing and urban border crossing in Belfast. Our rationale for using visual methods was to illuminate the role of the spatial and performative aspects of conflict management thereby capturing the fluidity of acts which, while ephemeral (Cohen 2007), are an integral part of the dynamics of continuity and change. However, we were little prepared for how the use of visual methods influenced not only our interactions with others, what we noticed and what we omitted, our emotions and sensory experiences but also the focus of our analysis, shifting it onto how, we as researchers were co-implicated in the transient production of place. Thus in this article we aimed to add to understandings of how a place of conflict is experienced, (re)produced or challenged through embodied performances that incorporate 'the digital eye'. We applied a perspective of visual ethnography as place-making (Pink 2009) to the empirical case of researching contentious parades and protests in ethno-nationally contested urban space.

8.2 The use of the visual constituted a shared experience - a de facto collaborative practice - between the participants in the events we observed and us, the researchers. We stress that this interactive use of digital image technologies represents a medium of communication between researchers and participants, not only in that it is a 'visual language' (conveying complex meanings in a flash), but, in that it phenomenologically constitutes engagement and interaction during the research encounter by profoundly invoking senses and emotions that tap into researchers' biographical experiences. As such, this digital exchange not only assists but compels reflexivity into personal, political and intellectual autobiographies and the critical role we play in creating, interpreting and theorising research data (Stanley & Wise 1993, Maynard & Purvis 1994, Brewer 2000, Letherby 2003, Pink 2009, Pauwels 2010). Being reflexive can be difficult, challenging and, at times, uncomfortable. It requires a 'profound level of self awareness ... to begin to capture the perspectives through which we view the world, and it is not easy to grasp the "unconscious" filters through which we experience the world' (Mauthner & Doucet 1998: 122). Undoubtedly, our engagement with 'the digital', both on the day and during analysis helped us to recognise, acknowledge and locate ourselves in the process. Moreover, through the multi-sensory and emotional aspects of the process we were able to see the multiplicity of experiences and emotional perspectives involved in the performance of contentious events and to reflect on our own role in these performances.

8.3 Underlying our discussion is the argument that power is central to the performance of conflict and to its management and that the role of the 'digital eye', as we observed and contributed to it, is integral to possible (albeit temporary) shifts in power between various groups. The uses of digital image technologies, by both marchers and protesters, can be interpreted as, to use the words of Mitchell and Kelly (2011), an 'instance of surveillance used as a tactic [of resistance]': resistance by marchers and protesters to each other, to the media, the police, and the various organisations seen to be in a position of power to govern parades and protests. Crucially also, resistance to people like us – the researchers, seen as having an overwhelming degree of control over how we interpret and represent participants' words and actions.

8.4 Arguably, visual representation has the capacity to amplify power imbalances in the research nexus and create social subjects and social realities (Sontag 1997, Holliday 2000, Packard 2008). It could be argued that in channelling, together with others, public attention to contestation and political violence our use of the 'digital eye' legitimated a place of conflict. Yet, concomitantly, digital image technologies have the capacity to engender a power shift in the research relationship (Murthy 2008). The inclusion of self-directed photography and photo narratives in research is increasing, as are examples of participants deciding on what images of them can or cannot be used for research purposes or public consumption (Packard 2008, Woodward 2008, Hingley 2011). While as observers we did not offer such a choice to those we photographed or filmed, many of them captured their own images and made them public, telling their story through them. Depending on the type of research, participants are now not only able to influence how they are represented through the (digital) eye of the researcher but are in a position to generate unedited representations of selves (Holliday 2000) and others, including researchers. This capacity, directly linked to the increasingly 'technologically mediated' (Murthy 2008: 849) character of everyday life, is effectively changing the nature of social interactions and affording more agency to those who have traditionally been mere 'objects' of the photographic gaze. Thus, the 'digital eye' has a democratising influence on various elements of the performance of conflict: (re)defining the roles of performers and audiences; of researchers and researched, opening contentious events to a wider audience; and facilitating the communication of competing narratives as opposed to limited and sanctioned stories.


1ESRC large grant No. RES-060-25-0015, <http://www.conflictincities.org>.

2A recent survey identified 99 such barriers, consisting of steel fences, walls and gates of various height and length (Belfast Interface Project 2012).

3Details of Parades Commission ruling: <http://www.paradescommission.org/media-centre/news/94>.

4Given that the previous weeks have seen severe rioting in east Belfast.

5Entitled 'A Nationalist Communities Experience of a 'Peaceful' Orange Parade'. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8S-pqVHn8w

6'For instance, The Grand Lodge of the Orange Order maintains the position that lodges 'should not meet with "Sinn Fein controlled residents' groups", nor with the Parades Commission' (Jarman, Rallings and Bell 2009: 19) and openly seeks the disbandment of the latter.

7In fact the gate is open twice a year.


The authors would like to thank Katy Hayward, Liam O'Dowd and Giulia Carabelli for their incisive comments and constructive suggestions on various drafts of this article. To Katy Hayward in particular we extend our gratitude for joining us on one of our 'field trips', for sharing her views on it with us and for taking some of the photographs we have used in this article. We also thank the three anonymous SRO referees for their constructive feedback.


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