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Seeing the city: photography as a place of work


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.

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  1. Perhaps one of the more elusive concepts in the social sciences, the term “sustainability,” the concern for balance within the environment, society and economy may convey a large set of meanings to different people. However, its first widely accepted use can be traced back to the Our Common Future Report of the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), designed to establish a consensus agenda focused on “sustaining and expanding the environmental resource base of the world” (p. 11) and that “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 43). Different epistemic communities share a different –and often contested–understanding on what sustainability means in terms of a complex array of social, economic and environmental variables. This paper is grounded on the understanding of its political nature, which couples it with debates on justice, governance and the environment.

  2. To recruit participants for the pilot program, the Center for Nanotechnology in Society designed a promotional flyer with the title Explore the Future of Phoenix. It included information related to the dates of the sessions and a link to an application survey that collected basic demographic information of applicants. This Call for Participation was distributed among different community centers, public libraries, museums, maker’s spaces, and neighborhood associations in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. We received a total of 70 applications, of which 15 were selected based on a criteria that ensured the most diverse poll of participants in terms of: age, gender, income, race, interest in issues related to S & T and degree of civic engagement.


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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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Correspondence to Carlo Altamirano-Allende.

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Altamirano-Allende, C., Selin, C. Seeing the city: photography as a place of work. J Environ Stud Sci 6, 460–469 (2016).

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  • Public engagement
  • Sustainability
  • Photography
  • Cities
  • Technology
  • Anticipatory governance