“Fancy Pictures” and the Ethics of Documentary Photography

By kgallag8

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In Methodology Matters: Doing Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences, Joseph McGrath regards ‘doing research’ as “…the systematic use of some set of theoretical and empirical tools to try to increase our understanding of some set of phenomena or events.”  Mark Neville’s conversations with David Campany in his new book, Fancy Pictures, are an exemplary case of McGrath’s definition.  The book chronicles Neville’s ‘documentarian’ photography projects from 2004 to 2016 in which he immerses himself in an environment, be it a small working-class town of Scotland in The Port of Glasgow; the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in The Helmand Work; or the Lloyds of London and the London Metal Exchange in Here is London.  For our purposes, I will focus my time on The Port of Glasgow project from 2004.

“I physically go into communities and, over time, I negotiate some kind of performance from the people I’m with.” –Mark Neville

In applying my knowledge from Methodology Matters and The Ethics of Fieldwork (a publication of PERCS) to this photography book, I found Mark Neville to be a mastermind of the game in his The Port of Glasgow project.  He and David Campany discuss the issue of photography commodifying people and ways in which to “interrupt or subvert that commoditization of people and their bodies.3

As a photographer working primarily on grants and residencies—at the time—, Mark Neville applied and was awarded a grant of £106,000 ($132,076) for a public art project in the west coast of Scotland.  Neville had preconceptions of what his project was to become: “[an] expensive coffee-table book of social documentary photography” and it appeared to him that a book like this “[would not be] aimed at the kinds of people who were in the pictures… there was a real contradiction, a hierarchy, exploitation.”  So Neville decided instead to make his final publications available only to those living in the community, and to have an open relationship with the people being photographed in regards to: how they wanted to be portrayed, what they were okay with publicly showing, and what events Mark was allowed to attend (i.e.: parties, church services).

This method of research would most likely be described by Joseph McGrath as a ‘field study’—meaning that “the researcher sets out to make direct observations of ‘natural’, ongoing systems, while disturbing those systems as little as possible.1”—although, the fact that Neville invites his subjects to comment on the way they are portrayed may skew some lines in the exact definition.  I would consider this type of work to be extremely ethical, based on The Ethics of Fieldwork and my own biases of ethical behavior.  In production of this book, Neville was highly open with his subjects, gaining the trust of the community for the two years it took to complete the project.  He answered the question “Are there ways we can gain the information we need without hiding our purposes? 2” with a ‘yes, of course!’ as he laid everything out on the table before and during production, field work, and research.

In going about his project this way, Mark thought he would “avoid stereotypes and assumptions [as well as] alienating [his] participants. 2” , but that was not the case with all of the Glasgow residents.  Although many were proud and excited about the high production value and the solidity of the book—some even going to lengths of emailing Mark about their enthusiasm—others were not as happy.  The residents of ‘Robert Street’ saw the book as too representative of the Catholic pubs and clubs in the town and that there were not enough depictions of the Protestant culture; these people collectively decided to burn their copies of the books in the streets.

“I literally got a call from the fire station telling me a pile of my books was on fire.3” –Mark Neville

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A January 2004 article from The Greenock Telegraph interviews Nursery teacher, Claire Scott on her feelings of the publication and the negative repercussions she believes it may have on how the town sees itself but also how the rest of the world will see them.  Scott believes the publication to have negative stereotypes of what “people expect [Glasgow] to be like… ‘A dirty wee Port’” and regards Neville as “an outsider looking in with a prejudiced view before he started.”

“We have to live here after his lens is gone.” –Claire Scott

So the question arises: ‘Can researchers conduct adequate analysis that serves the initial question(s) of their study, in a way that makes the subject feel comfortable during, and content with the results after?’

The Ethics of Fieldwork brings up similar questions: How do we record (or do we record) the discoveries within a community that the community itself does not know or recognize in a systematic way?; How can we show out participants as whole people while still focusing on key elements of their lives?; How do we establish rapport within the community we are studying?; Is it possible to be seen by your subjects as anything more than an outsider?

Indeed there are ways of getting around these preconceptions: learning local norms of conduct, making the subjects feel that they are in control of the situations—or that ‘you need them more than they need you’, learning local concerns in regards to the project, and above all: being truthful to your subjects.  Neville’s primary mistake may have been sheer hubris—that he did not realize he was alienating his subjects by indirectly defining them as exotic or exemplified of their environment, while forgetting to check if there were any embarrassing revelations from the people being portrayed.  He may have taken the necessary steps to try to conduct an ethical research project, but he must’ve overlooked something, somewhere.

It could also be true that it is inevitable you are always going to offend someone—that no matter how hard an individual tries to report clear, concise, unbiased information, there will always be at least one person that will disagree with the content and message of the work.  McGrath regards the research process as “…at heart, a social enterprise resting on consensus. 1” But can we all ever really be in general agreement?  The answer is quite confidently, ‘no’, as we can see—on a societal level—in cultural reviews of books and movies, trends of fashion, what our taxes should go towards, climate change, etc.  No matter how convincing, accurate, or honest the reporting and information may be, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. 4

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1 Mcgrath, Joseph E. “METHODOLOGY MATTERS: DOING RESEARCH IN THE BEHAVIORAL and SOCIAL SCIENCES.” Readings in Human–Computer Interaction(1994): 152-69. Web.

2 “The Ethics of Fieldwork.” Elon University 34.5 (1993): 2. Http://www.Elon.edu. PERCS: The Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies, Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

3 Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. Print.

4 Lydgate, John. “A Quote by John Lydgate.” Goodreads. Good Reads, 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.


Neville, Mark.  View from the Ropeworks Building. 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 24. Print.

Neville, Mark.  Betty at Port Glasgow Town Hall Xmas Party. 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 13. Print.

The Greenock Telegraph. January 12 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 13. Print.

“The first email response to Port Glasgow from a Portonian. 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 13. Print.

Neville, Mark.  Boys at Devol. 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 1. Print.

Neville, Mark.  Ancient Order of the Hibernian Social Club (Donna). 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 25. Print.


Kelsey Gallagher, Information Professionals LIS651 Thursdays 3-6, Spring 2017

Can We Avoid Biases in Library Classification Systems?

By keneilb

The problem of bias in library classification structures and subject language are, from a queer perspective, problems endemic to the knowledge organization project itself. If social categories and names are understood as embedded in contingencies of space, time, and discourse, then bias is inextricable from the process of classification and cataloging. When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself. 1

As human beings, we are bound to our subjectivity. The way we shape the world is due to our upbringing, experiences, community, culture, and other social influences. I believe that, because of this, it is near impossible for us to truly see objectively. Every thought and idea we have is influenced by something else. This notion trickles down even to library classification and subject language use. It would be lovely if we could all agree on a universal classification structure that everyone mutually agreed upon, and that did not offend anyone, but how could we achieve such a thing? Language itself is subjective and not only is it difficult to get the exact same meaning between two different languages, but even between two individuals speaking the same language you will find that their experiences and influences has shaped how they interpret their language and it doesn’t always have the same implications between the two. In Drabinksi’s article, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” she points out these important statements, pointing out the subjective nature of classification and subject language.

Why does any of this matter? Something Drabinksi says in her article stood out to me, as it was the first time I’ve ever thought of it that way. “As users interact with these structures to browse and retrieve materials, they inevitably learn. . .”. 1 Her focus is on the learning of negative stereotypes about race, gender, class and other social identities, however I can see it also being general. As people interact with a library, not only will they learn from the materials they are using, but there can also be the side effect of learning from simply browsing for their material. Some of our major classification systems like Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress were created through the white, Christian male perspective in the past. Because of this, classification systems pay heavy attention to the Christian religion but treats Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as minor religions. Someone who is browsing will either, knowingly or unknowingly, observe and learn from this. This is the same for the marginalization of gay and lesbian sexuality, while making heterosexuality the normative.


This brought back a memory I had when I was in undergrad, doing research for one of my psychology courses for the first time. This particular library used Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC). I was looking in the 500s because that was the science section. To my surprise, psychology was not located there. So I thought, perhaps it would be under social science, the 300s? No. Instead, I found psychology under the 100s as a subgroup of philosophy. 3 I understood that psychology had ties with philosophy, since it happens to have sprung forth from that field, and it was widely thought of as pseudoscience early on in its beginnings, but I didn’t think to find it still classified this way. It’s also the same in Library of Congress Classification (LCC), where psychology is under B, still a subgroup of philosophy, along with religion. 4 What’s surprising is that although psychology has prospered into its own field of science, its still portrayed in the classifications as less.

Drabinski makes excellent points about the biases contained within the classification and subject heading structures, she believes that the way we should combat this is by “queer theory”, which basically is an approach where instead of directly combatting the structures, we empower the users of libraries by teaching them to think critically and use the system critically. Although, in my experience, users don’t give much thought to the classification structures, this would still be a powerful thing to implement nonetheless, for those who do happen to engage with it and have questions.


Approaching the problem of library classification and cataloging from a queer perspective demands that we leave intact the traces of historicity and ideology that mar the classification and cataloging project. Such traces can reveal the limit of the universal knowledge organization project. . . 1


At first, I thought Drabinski was saying that we should do nothing about making a change to the classifications, but as I took all her words in I believe I see her point. I may be wrong in my interpretation, but I believe she is trying to give a different approach, rather than having the responsibility on just catalogers, it will shift over to the librarians who engage with users and expose them to understanding that will inevitably put an eventual strain on making the change.


As previously mentioned, however, biases will always exist. We cannot come to a complete “finish” with this process. The process will be forever ongoing, and this is due to the subjectivity of human perspective. We can only continue the process and it will continue to reflect the zeitgeist of the time, or perhaps the previous time since every few generations will come up with their own ideas that will challenge the previous’, as we are doing now. It is impossible for us to have full neutrality within the Library. As Jensen implies throughout his article, whatever stance is taken even if its supposedly neutral, it is still a stance and thus making it non-neutral. 6 Applying that to the field of Librarianship or a Cataloger, no matter what direction we take in changing classification and subject heading language, there will always be others who disagree and who will have their toes stepped on by the changes. This doesn’t mean that we should not engage and challenge our current positions, but instead we should attempt to find means of progression where we can continually move forward with the times, and with current understandings. Drabinksi’s method is a great one, and I would even add that we should find ways to actively engage library users with the classification systems, because for the most part they usually come in with an idea of what they want, and quickly get it and then leave. If we found a way to engage them into learning, it will spread understanding and more people will take notice to the system, its flaws and its strengths.

  1. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.
  2. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.
  3. OCLC. (n.d.). DDC 23 summaries. Retrieved September 26, 2015, from OCLC website: http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/oclc/dewey/DDC%2023_Summaries.pdf
  4. Library of Congress. (n.d.). Library of congress classification outline. Retrieved September 26, 2015, from Library of Congress website: http://www.loc.gov/catdir/cpso/lcco/
  5. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.
  6. Jensen, R. (2006). “The myth of the neutral professional” in Questioning Library Neutrality, ed. A. Lewis. Library Juice, 89–96.
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