Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 460–469 | Cite as

Seeing the city: photography as a place of work

  • Carlo Altamirano-Allende
  • Cynthia Selin


During the Futurescape City Tours, sponsored by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, citizens engaged in an urban walking experience that involved observing, documenting and deliberating about the past, present and future of technology in the urban environment. Central to this experience was the use of photography as the place of work where the citizen-photographers created a visual language to grant meaning and structure to their experience and deliberations. Drawing on Barthe’s (1980) idea of semiology as a construction of meaning through the exploration and identification of systematic regularities of signs and objects, as well on Benjamin’s (1999) notion that there is no photography without discourse, this paper demonstrates what these individuals see as their relationship to their city as portrayed through photographic observations. This paper aims to empirically illustrate the uses and power of an image to mediate discourse and representations of technological change in the city. Further, it opens a scholarly conversation on role of visual cultures in the construction of the necessary capacities among individuals to critically reflect on their role as technological citizens toward better understanding pathways to sustainability. To do so, we conducted a visual ethnography of the participants’ photographic images and captions. By pushing the boundaries of photography beyond an artistic practice into the realm of public engagement, we demonstrate the ways in which “a camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera,” as Dorothea Lange once stated.


Public engagement Sustainability Photography Cities Technology Anticipatory governance 



The authors would like to thank the Center for Nanotechnology in Society research team at Arizona State University: Kelly Campbell Rawlings, Kathryn de Ridder-Vignone, Jathan Sadowski, Mindy Kimball, David Guston; and the 2013 Futurescape City Tours national research partners: Gretchen Gano, Thaddeus Miller, Kevin Jones, Roopali Phadke, and David Tomblin. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under NSF Cooperative Agreement No. 0937591. Any findings, conclusions, or opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the National Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© AESS 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Nanotechnology in SocietyArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.Department of Management EngineeringTechnical University of DenmarkKongens LyngbyDenmark

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