Images as Bag Packs when Researching Mediterranean Mobility: Tools and Tensions

Natalia Ribas-Mateos

Researcher, University of A Coruña, Spain

Time after time, migration studies tend to make use of ancient travel myths to recall the living experiences of contemporary mobility, sometimes to highlight an expression of mourning and sometimes to insist on a venturesome, enterprising nature of modern mobility. Sometimes there are images of travellers, adventurous heroes, people forced to leave their lands, others fighting for survival or some kind of social mobility. This article provides an opportunity to discuss some questions related to the use of images in fieldwork (in social sciences research) in the Mediterranean region by using some examples, thus offering a specific arena in which to discuss mobility in the Euro-Mediterranean space.


Following a variety of images and roles, this work aims to identify three different points concerning the use of images and intercultural trends through the theme of mobility in the Mediterranean: First of all, I would like to problematize the use of images in social sciences. More precisely, why does focusing on images draw us to the methodological problems involved in research on mobility? And what kind of representation of the social world do we utilise through images?

Secondly, I will approach the topic of how far images help us when conducting fieldwork (through the different practices of co-residence, travel or even visiting).

Thirdly, I would like to consider locations, how we conceive places of such mobility and how we select different images for them. [1] This is what I have called problematizing location in globalisation by contrasting places, specifically by using two examples of video projects: Límenes. Villes frontières-seuils méditerranéens (on the cities of Tangiers in Morocco and Durrës in Albania) and Nine abouab (“Nine Doors”, on mobility in the old city of Damascus). I will also try to review a related matter, that of Clifford Geertz’s “wide idea of travel” (1997) – the overlapping experiences marked by different translation terms: diaspora, borderland, immigration, tourism, pilgrimage, exile, which can be informed through itineraries on a map and through heritage sites (known as cultural tourism).

Problematizing Images

An interest in the relationship between images and questions of methodology has been always present in my work. This is a key analysis because I think we have to go beyond the creative questions of artists when using images of places and people in the Mediterranean, as we have other questions to add to theirs. This happens differently for us because we are not photographers, filmmakers, or painters; we are something else.

In the field of social sciences, we normally just use images to make representations easier (I will not go into detail here about the abusive use of PowerPoint in conferences and other venues), just as a way of communicating ideas in a better way or backing up our ideas transmitted by academic writing. And, more specifically, I alludehere to how we apply our images in selected fieldworks, namely in mobility in the Mediterranean region (many other questions can be added, such as how we select a specific area in terms of unity, diversity and fragmentation).

In the field of social sciences, we normally just use images to make representations easier just as a way of communicating ideas in a better way

In the opening phase of the fieldwork site, there are relevant methodological questions, such as what kind of images and interpretation of the social world we choose and what kind of representation of the social world we construct. And I recall that we have numerous answers to these questions from many scholars such as Bourdieu, Foucault and Said, as cited by Latte (2005): “We start from the founding teachings of Michel Foucault and the works of Edward Said and the comparatists to argue, on the one hand, that the study of discursive, spatial or photographic images does not refer to a questioning of their degree of truth or their potential for manipulation, but rather to ideological constructs and the social imaginary of a society or group producing them […] We argue, on the other hand, as Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, [2] that images are performative, leading to the creation of ‘social fictions’ that become social realities insofar as they are admitted, shared” (Stéphanie Latte Abdallah).

However, using images in research is nothing new. For example, in the domain of ethnographic films, we can go back to the work of Jean Rouch as a precursor, using by way of illustration his film Jaguar, set in West Africa in the early 50s, which tells the story of three men of Mali travelling to the cities. Therefore, I believe that in examining our additional role as producers or reproducers of images it is necessary to draw upon works originating from visual anthropology, which have been very productive in problematizing the role of researchers, like ourselves, as also embedded in mobility. And connected to such a role we can find many types of examples of the researcher using images when travelling to other places, which I regard as key ideas in the conception of mobility:

  • The traveller of the 19th and 20th centuries in the histories and practices of travel. We can also review the role of the traveller in the Arab world, when viewing travel as two forms of journey: the rihla, the scholarly journey undertaken for the acquisition of knowledge, and the pilgrimage as a sacred journey. Both types were crucial and were related to a geography of learning, with its own infrastructures, institutions and centres of scholarship.
  • The category of the researcher as traveller. Such a category is more connected to the contemporary figure we want to allude to, the researcher as a traveller when conducting fieldwork in the social sciences. We also include here a contemporary setting, where the category of the indigenous-diasporic alternates with forms of travel/fieldwork.

Thus, these two conceptions of travel – one more historical, the other more contemporary – are surely quite significant in defining the position of the researcher in dialogue with the people with whom he or she is interacting.

Problematizing fieldwork

Of course, we do not evaluate photographs or paintings as static images; we take into account their critical background. In fact, we already have images of places during fieldwork, even during pre-fieldwork, but what may be more determining here is to see how far images can have a post-effect, after fieldwork has been completed. And, of course, there is also a phase of problematization when we return to the research site after completion.

Once our work in the field comes to a close, is there a way to give something back to the people who are at the origin of that work? How is it possible to maintain an open cycle which does not simply end up in an academic article? A possible response can be found through images, because it is through images that we transmit representations of places, for example, of the city and village.

In connection with such concerns, I decided to work on a video comparing different ethnographies, conducted in Tangiers and Dürres, but mainly filmed in 2002 and distributed in 2006: Límenes, villes-frontières, seuils méditerranéens (by Natalia and Pablo Ribas-Mateos). In this case, the work shows the benefits of using images, either as a complement to the ethnographical work or as a form of returning (or giving back) to the field, to the people of the research site. In this respect, for Le Houérou, the act of taking a camera and capturing the moving images forms part of a protocol of research which reveals the utmost phenomenon of the Maussian gift and counter-gift (du don et du contre-don entre enquêteur et enquêtés).

Once our work in the field comes to a close, is there a way to give something back to the people who are at the origin of that work?

Thus, the film as a gift or as a farewell gift is offered to the filmmaker and to the social actors and is imposed as a form of closing, a temporary closing of the fieldwork. Similarly, for Le Houérou, who has been researching mobility in Mediterranean countries for years, the film is inscribed in a process of counter-gift, as liberation of a moral debt. It is the idea of giving through images, as Le Houérou (2006) puts it: “The act of taking a camera and producing animated images has fitted into a research protocol revealing the insurmountable nature of the phenomenon of the gift and the counter-gift between the researcher and the subjects. These are films based on research, which is the dissemination of the research itself. The film as a gift has imposed itself as a form of closure, a temporal closing of the ‘fieldwork’. For Le Houérou, the film forms part of a process of counter-gift as a liberation of a moral debt.”

Therefore, in the process of making and showing the DVD of 2005, I was interested in finding out for the first time how research was received by the people of the fieldwork and how it would return, in part, to its origins, and how it was also possible to manage this situation in a well-defined relationship of reciprocity. Many people who had participated in my research were present at the presentations of the DVD in Tangiers. [3] In particular, the presence of Aïcha’s family (one of the families studied) made a big difference. I had shown how I had learned many things with her about the women in Tangiers as she was a mother of seven daughters, a woman who had experienced the emigration of some of them to Spain. At the showing of the video, the audience asked me many interesting questions: what is the meaning of these constant references to circuits in the Mediterranean and the circulation of lorries? Why do you use the image of ants? Is it a parallelism with us? I found these questions challenging because I never thought that such images would awaken so much curiosity in people. It was a surprise which had to be reflected in an interpretation that corresponds to and builds on several strands in the intercultural dialogue between the researcher and the people who took part in the research.

And visions seem to be very highly diverse according to many different individuals. In October 2010, I had another chance to present the video in the legendary Cinema Rif in the Souk El Barra of Tangiers. Some people were happy to see the hidden places of Tangiers being screened, and they were also happy about the central role given to children and youths. But others had a negative vision and thought that there was a gap between us, the researchers, and the people filmed. Was it then a failure of the spirit which should rule a documentary or was it a failure of the sociologist in not achieving a real dialogue with the people of the fieldwork?

Problematizing on Location

And, finally, the last question relates to how we problematize a specific location, a specific place that is a strategic site where we conduct our research and, in my case, normally a city. We use many images of the city in question, landscapes, buildings, people and children. Within this greater concern, there are multiple related themes that are spatially connected. There are at least two distinct issues:

  • How do we envisage the stereotypes constructed upon such a space as the Mediterranean or the Southern Mediterranean as the “Orient”, or even Southern Europe as a “kind of entity”, a unit?
  • The fact of choosing multi-sited or multi-locale fieldwork is increasingly familiar to us. Nevertheless, it also poses other questions to us, such as how superficial or in-depth it can be for our studies.

Fieldwork requires more than just passing through a place. How do we manage that morally and ethically? One must do more than conduct interviews; we often have to be involved in many more activities, from forms of co-residence to various forms of collaboration and advocacy. How well can we capture mobility, if we, as researchers, also end up on the move?

Let’s take the example of the context of the research I was conducting in winter 2007-autumm 2008 on mobility in the old city of Damascus, as a very clear, concise and specific location.

In a context of global changes characterised by a process of intense economic liberalisation (and, later, the context of the huge process of unexpected Arab revolutions), a process that we can see very clearly in the last five years in Syria and most particularly in its capital, we focus on a particular setting, that of the protected UNESCO 1979 urban site of the Damascus intra-muros. The mobility and cosmopolitanism of this city, which has been inhabited for over 5,000 years, provide us with a suitable analytical perspective to see contemporary changes under Mediterranean conditions, which in such a case are very particularly connected to a very specific setting of the Middle Eastern migratory pattern.

Fieldwork requires more than just passing through a place. How do we manage that morally and ethically? One must do more than conduct interviews

In this kind of ethnography and in the images related to it (Ribas Mateos, 2011b), I consider the notion of the “lived space”, but in a specific site, in a space where old monuments (typical of the so-called oriental city complex) take on a new renewed social interpretation (through market economy changes, gentrification, tourism, foreign cooperation, and sustainability policies, etc). We allude here to a specific privileged site, in which to see the history from a long term perspective with its approach based on time parameters, with all its magnitude and which through cultural tourism makes Syria a historical cradle for re-invention. But we also look at it within the history of the recent history, from the perspective of the movements of the multiple communities which have settled here, sometimes looking for shelter, sometimes tyrannies, sometimes just victims. My focus during fieldwork was on such mobility, expressed by an interesting connectivity of social relations woven by cosmopolitanism (Clifford 1997).

My aim in this location was to open up the question of how mobility is constituted in spatial terms and through specific spatial practices of research: routes, itineraries, settling in a house, living in a house. The expression “spatial practice” here is derived from the works of Michel de Certeau (1984). My overriding emphasis here, and in the more extended discussion of fieldwork, is to focus to some degree on spatio-temporal localizations. In the words of Adrienne Rich (1986), “a place on the map is also a place in history” (quoted by Geertz, 1997: 349).

Thus, surely the spatial question, its images, stereotypes, spatial practices and own history, is highly critical in defining the position of the researcher in dialogue with the people with whom he or she is interacting in the fieldwork.


I have tried to open a debate on how we problematize images during our fieldwork on mobility in the Mediterranean area. I have attempted to do so by reviewing different topics which I believe can be useful tools, such as conceptions of travel, how images can have a fieldwork effect, how we can give through images, what images mean in a well-defined relationship or reciprocity, addressing such questions by giving examples of thinking in terms of location when studying globalisation. However, I would like to end with the term “tensions”, in order to express the notion that addressing the topic of images in social research is not just a problem of black and white but a problem of endless tensions in how we choose the object, what our role is in fieldwork and which space we select.

I will conclude with the research conducted in the old city of Damascus, in which these tensions are always apparent, for example between the past and the present, between the old and the new picture, set in the 90s. What does the current process of restoration in the old city mean in relation to the pressures of global changes? But curiously enough this change has deep resonances with a very romantic image of the Orient – and I refer here in particular to authors who represent the Orient as something to be restored. Take, for example, what Said mentions when he refers to the figure of Chateaubriand: “The Orient was a decrepit canvas awaiting his restorative efforts” (Said, 1979:71), or when he refers to the figure of Lamartin where the Orient becomes “the country of my imagination” (177) or “the land of cultures, of prodigies.”(178) Thus, to conclude my contribution I would ask again if Orientalism and its images is still with us or, if it is inside us, should we not find ways to be able to identify it properly and transform it?

Who in the entangled events of life today would be able to distinguish with such confidence between what is lasting and what is ephemeral?

Many such questions will remain open to the future, especially at a time when mobility and revolution in the Mediterranean is now so uncertain: “Who in the entangled events of life today would be able to distinguish with such confidence between what is lasting and what is ephemeral? Unfortunately, all too often events appear before contemporary people with the same level of importance and major events, those which construct the future, make so little noise – they come at a snail’s pace, as Nietzsche used to say – that we seldom notice their presence.” (Braudel, 2002: 94)


[1] In a way I reconsider introductory questions approached in the seminar “Image & Imagination – Portraying Mobility in the Mediterranean”, ESOMI and Danish Institute of Damascus, 30th and 31st August 2008.

[2] Bourdieu, P., “A propos de la famille comme catégorie réalisée”, in Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, no. 100, December 1993, pp. 32-36.

[3] “Tangiers, boulevard du Détroit” in Tangiers: The Omnipresent Witness of Social Change, Conseil de la Communauté Marocaine à l´étranger, Tánger sin Fronteras and Moroccan Memories Foundation. Tangiers, 6th October 2009