Empty Signs / Quotidian Ruptures

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Visual anthropology is a broad area of anthropology that encompasses the study of visual systems, the use of (audio)visual tools to do research, and these tools as ways of representing the research (Banks, 1998).

Historically visual anthropology pretty much equalled ethnographic film, but more and more researchers use photography, film and drawing to think about and to represent the field site. Anthropology is still heavily text-based and often images are only illustrative (rather than influencing the argument or research), but there is increasing use of experimental forms to stretch the possibilities of understanding people’s life-worlds (Pink, 2006).

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I find photography an important way of paying attention to the things around me – I start to see slightly different. I often build up archives of photos of particular things I notice and photograph over and over.

Such archives become things to think with.

As in the case of these photos of empty billboards I took in Chile in 2017.

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Surely much anthropological thought happens in the finding those gaps in the researcher’s everyday life. Fissures between expectation and experience. Things that take you by surprise. Arts of noticing, as Anna Tsing might call it.

For me, these billboards are not only an example of acts of noticing. The more I look at them, the more I see them as visual metaphors for the processes of noticing those things that hide in plain sight. They depict the gaps in the fabric of everyday life, gaps of understanding, that stand out in their quietness. 

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These billboards stand out in their emptiness and quiet.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen an empty billboard in Australia.

Whereas I was finding myself asking

 – why are there so many empty billboards in Santiago?

-and why are there so many in Australia?

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Is it from a slowing economy? With a slackening of consumerism perhaps, this advertising space isn’t necessary anymore?

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Or perhaps Chileans just don’t see it like that? Perhaps they have a much less regimented idea of public space, no need for the ‘completeness’ of an environment.

(Admittedly  I never asked anyone about it, so I didn’t conduct proper research around it).

To me these photos provide a provocation around public space. The shocking lack of advertising makes me realise its total ubiquity. And it provides a kind of visual hope too, that perhaps gaps in the totality of consumerism is possible. I only really notice advertising through when it disappears, and it is replaced with a series of Robert Hunter paintings.

Untitled no. 1, Robert Hunter, 1987

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