“Jumping in” to surf photography as a research method29 April 2022
Donning the neoprene
Without plunging too deeply into the theoretical reasoning as to why, on a chilly Spring morning, I find myself clad head to toe in neoprene, clutching a weighty waterproof housing and with fins for feet…this blog is a quick reflection on my first pilot attempts at surf photography, and ultimately the launch of my exploration into surf photography as a method for my PhD.
Much of the reasoning as to why I’m interested in using creative methods to research cold-water surfing is nicely summarised by Merchant (2011: 58), who writes that “a vast quantity of sensations, movements, reactions, and affects…remain unarticulated as they are often not consciously reflected upon. Equally, such fleeting, immanent feelings, sensations and connections could simply be forgotten or not deemed worthy of exploration by research participants”. Essentially, I’m interested in these moments – flow, mindfulness, convergence (Anderson 2012)…whatever you want to call it, and ultimately I believe that creative methods will help me ‘get at’ these moments.
My methodology is continually being informed by existing insights into non-representational theories (NRTs) and methodological experimentation in order to explore the embodied affects of cold-water surfing. As Simpson (2021: 196) argues, “the pace of theoretical development that has led to geography’s onto-epistemological expansion has not necessarily been matched by expanded methodological reflection”. From considering questions around ‘what is knowledge’ the question now becomes ‘what are the appropriate methods to capture and communicate that knowledge’.
So in addition to this idea that we need to be creative in how we research the ‘more than representational’ or the haptic, sensory and embodied experiences of place…there is also a very practical challenge that arises when it comes to researching in and around water. As Merchant (2011: 58) puts it, “many embodied practices are performed at a pace or place which is not conducive to the data collection techniques favoured by more traditional qualitative research methodologies”. This is certainly true for watery environments where, simply put, you can’t breathe and talk under water or it’s simply not practical (or near enough) to speak to each other when you’re wearing hoods in near-freezing air temperatures.
This gives a new dimension to what I mean by ‘creative methods’. I originally pictured scrapbooking, drawing or lego making when I would think about ‘creative methods’, however now I realise that there is an inherent creativity in methodologically approaching watery research. There are some really neat studies of those who have already pioneered researching movement in and around water. To keep things brief, I’ll just name a few.
Denton and Aranda (2020: 647) for example have sought to investigate the “embodied, emplaced and temporal experience” of sea swimming and thus “developed a novel mobile methodology” – the swim-along interview – in order to enable interviews with “sea swimmers whilst on their swim”. Practically, this involved some creative problem solving. Denton et al (2021: 2) write, “I finally opted to wear a waterproof camera on my head and attach a digital recorder encased in a protective waterproof cover to a float. I dragged the float behind me and pulled it between us when talking”.
Bates and Moles (2021: 4), took a slightly different approach, strapping GoPros to their research participants while swimming and finding that “being in the water while making a video diary allows for an instantaneous and personal account of what it means to swim outdoors”. Bates and Moles quite neatly summarise how their multimodal methods differ from ‘interview’ methods, finding “there is a palpable difference between recalling the moment of entry after it has happened, and describing it in-the-moment” (2021: 6).
Others, have learnt a new skill in order to approach their research. Merchant, for example, trained to become a professional underwater videography for diving expeditions for her PhD research and found the utility of video-screening workshops as a research method. Through this, she found that “it is possible to render visible many of the invisible aspects of embodied encounters” (Merchant 2011: 54). I too am interested in hosting ‘workshops’ to look through the photographed material as a form of photo-elicitation interviews, so this article was of particular interest to me.
Langseth similarly hosts video screenings of his material with the surfers he filmed in order to use that as insight into the local surf culture in Norway. He describes how his initial approach of just ‘hanging out’ in local parking lots chatting to surfers wasn’t particularly successful so changing his approach and learning to take videos of the surfers offered a ‘way in’. He writes, “as the surfers were interested in watching themselves, and it normally is difficult to get someone to stand on shore filming in minus 10 degrees, they were suddenly very interested in having me around” (Langseth 2012: 9). I am already finding something similar to Langseth in that I have been able to connect with far more people through posting my images on social media. This is already creating a snowball effect of introducing me to more and more surfers in Wales simply through tagging those in the photos and having my photos shared by others online.
While not all of these studies are strictly Geographical, Hawkins (2021: 2) writes how there’s been a “growth in the number of geographers ‘doing’ creative practices as part of their own research methods”. What interests me in particular about these studies is the use of visual methods. This isn’t really the space to start weighing up the different value that video, film and photography can bring to our geographical understandings – we can leave that to the PhD. However, I will say that I am (for now) particularly interested in experimenting with surf photography and photo-elicitation workshops. Both things that I have started piloting this winter as a Phase 1 of my PhD. I’m finding this to be a brilliant opportunity to experiment, trial and refine my own research skills and develop a toolkit of different methods. As Hawkins (2021: 143) puts it, “the PhD is…a growing site of the coming together of creative practice and geographical research”.
Foley (2015: 219) calls for us as researchers to “‘jump in’, both literally and litorally”, to facilitate “uncovering narratives and responses from the water”. This certainly gives new dimensions to discussions around ‘immersion’ and ‘embodied experiences’ of experiences of blue spaces, as well as research in these settings.
Through this first Phase, I’ve been able to get a sense of how this could be useful as a method. I’m drawing together a multi-methodological approach for my research where I’m reassured I can draw on traditional forms if needed, but my inkling at the moment is that those traditional approaches can be deepened through these other processes. The intention is that my methodological layering is producing an opportunity. The hope is that a passing moment (otherwise lost) is captured, then discussed and becomes a springboard into reflection. The method becomes a co-collaborative making with researcher, water, wave and participant…an assemblage if you will.
I’ve been thinking about how there’s something very embodied about immersing myself as a researcher. In-water photography demands an attentiveness to embodied practice and materiality, not least because you become increasingly aware of how numb your hands are as it becomes more and more difficult to squeeze the shutter!
I first took out the housing a couple of weeks ago now. I’d been holding on to it all winter, always finding an issue or reason to make me hesitate in taking it out into the surf. In truth I think I felt that I wasn’t ready. I think back to that feeling of imposter syndrome I started my first PhD year with. But a week of lifeguard training changed all that, I built up my fitness and competence around the water, I’d had months of auto-ethnography of my surfing journey, I’d been making contacts and building networks…and suddenly it all just clicked into place.
As Crang (2003: 499) finds, “the body quite often ends up as providing a sort of inescapable positioning of the researcher – through race, disability or gender – but less often is it the instrument of research”. This research feels so literally embodied, my body has actually changed for and with this method. I think of the strange injury of chafing on my eyelids, currently now scabbing over from where I had rubbed my eyes over and over again to keep the water out of them after a particularly long and cold session of in-water photography at the weekend. My solution: lose the glove on my spare hand.
Back to the page
In the field of geography, the use of multimodal methods to take our research into watery worlds can help to “destabilise the static, bordered, and linear framings that typify human geographical studies” (Steinberg and Peters 2015: 1). Not only is what we traditionally consider to be data destabilised, but there is an acknowledgement that we as humans become part of assemblages of humans and non-humans, where we can better understand the ‘affect’ of these actants (salt, sea, air) on our ever-changing sense of wellbeing (Spence 2014).
I think of this argument around cultivating knowledge from the sea or from the water, why not as researchers immerse ourself in that water to be able to experience thinking ‘from the sea’. Similarly, the argument for attention to embodied, sensory, immersive practices…what more as researchers than to feel the cold, to read the ocean, to taste the salt and feel the power of the waves. This research is both a physical and theoretical un-grounding of taking my research into the water. Hawkins (2021: 9) also refers to an “empirical unmooring” where our “creative practices are are appreciated for opening us onto an epistemological stance based in the ongoing emergence of researcher and world”.
A ‘wet ontology’ (Steinberg and Peters 2015) where we think ‘from the sea’ (Anderson 2012) therefore advocates for a more fluid way of thinking, theorising and conducting research. “Rather than privileging one form of data over another” (Gould et al 2020: 4), as Bates and Moles (2021: 9) display, language can be embedded alongside other modes and these can be brought “together in a multidimensional and multisensory account”.
Non-representational theories (NRTs) have drawn attention to how experiences can be (co-)produced by humans or nonhumans and raised the need for innovative methodological developments to explore these issues. This PhD hopes to address the methodological challenges presented by NRTs, as well as the challenges of conducting research in and around (wintery) waters.
Anderson, J. 2012. Relational Places: The Surfed Wave as Assemblage and Convergence. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(4), pp.
Bates, C. and Moles, K. 2021. Immersive encounters: video, swimming and wellbeing. Visual Studies, pp. 1–12.
Crang, M. 2003. Qualitative methods: touchy, feely, look-see? Progress in Human Geography 27(4), pp. 494-504.
Denton, H. and Aranda, K. 2019. The wellbeing benefits of sea swimming. Is it time to revisit the sea cure? Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health 12(5), pp 657-663,
Denton, H., Dannreuther, C. and Aranda, K. 2021. Researching at sea: Exploring the ‘swim-along’ interview method. Health and Place 67, pp. 1-7.
Foley, R. 2015. Swimming in Ireland: Immersions in therapeutic blue space. Health & Place 35, pp. 218-225.
Hawkins, H. 2021. Geography, Art, Research. Abingdon: Routledge.
Langseth, T. 2012. Liquid Ice Surfers – The Construction of Surfer Identities in Norway. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning 12(1), pp. 3-23.
Merchant, S. 2011. The Body and the Senses: Visual Methods, Videography and the Submarine Sensorium. Body & Society 17(1), pp. 53-72.
Spence, E. 2014. Towards a more-than-sea geography: exploring the relational geographies of superrich mobility between sea, superyacht and shore in the Cote d’Azur. Area 46(2), pp. 203-209.
Steinberg, P. and Peters, K. 2015. Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces: Giving Depth to Volume through Oceanic Thinking. Environment and Planning: Society and Space 33(2), pp. 247–264.