Always outside, peeping in

June 1, 2012 at 6:23 pm

©Ciara Leeming, 2011. Rubbed-out anti-Roma graffiti on a residential street in Manchester.

“The qualitative researcher’s perspective is perhaps a paradoxical one: it is to be acutely tuned-in to the experiences and meaning systems of others—to indwell—and at the same time to be aware of how one’s own biases and preconceptions may be influencing what one is trying to understand.” (Maykut & Morehouse, 1994, p 123)

There’s a tension inherent in documentary work, increased manifold when there is a linguistic or cultural barrier between researcher or photographer, and subject or collaborator.

Over the past few years I’ve taken myself off to several different countries to work independently on stories – Israel and Palestine, India and Turkey – and while they were all great experiences they led me to the conclusion that I personally would create stronger journalism through working more slowly and closer to home. Using interpreters – often unqualified and of questionable quality – and navigating yawning cultural differences while dipping quickly and unsatisfactorily into other people’s lives has made me value solid local journalism more than I ever did before.

Sometimes when I’m sitting awkwardly in a Roma household, not understanding a word of the Czech or Romani which is being spoken around me, I think back to this realisation with an small inward smile. I might be working in the UK on a subject which I care about greatly and now know a fair amount about, but I’m frequently just as at sea with the process as I ever was and often painfully aware of my outsider status. Overcoming that initial awkwardness – my inherent shyness and discomfort with the documentary process plus other people’s confusion over what I’m really doing, takes time – if it ever happens. But with an increasing comfort level, for me, comes an inner laziness where I stop seeing photos and simply see friends. This is a trajectory I’ve become painfully aware of – both with earlier work on indigenous Gypsies and indeed to some extent with Ramona. I hope though to overcome this block.

My role as photographer, researcher, ethnographer – whatever it is that I have now become – is to navigate this awkward tightrope between outsider and confidante. Of course I’m never going to be Roma and I’m not trying to be. Sadly too I am never likely to master Czech, Slovakian or Romani so it is crucial for me that I find individuals or family members who – like Ramona/Elvira – have enough English to fully participate in what I’m doing and give fully informed consent.

Before I found Ramona I spent almost a year trying to find ways into the Roma communities in my area to start a photography project. I visited numerous families with outreach workers, I attended lengthy Pentecostal church services, I visited individuals I met for stories and no one got it - certainly not in the way I needed them to – and they certainly did not agree. The Romanian community in particular, is largely very conservative, traditional and insular. I often felt I was walking around a building, locked out and tapping at the windows, desperately trying to make it across the threshold. The irony of this was not lost on me – people talk so often about the Roma being marginalised and socially excluded, and to a great extent many of them are, at least from the mainstream host community. But I am the outsider in this situation, looking for acceptance of any kind but most often being told no.

I got a lot of ‘nos’ in those early days and continue to receive them on a regular basis (only last week one of my project collaborators dropped out, leaving me back at square one again). But even when people say yes – as some people are starting now – I still struggle to negotiate my outsider-welcomed-to-the-inside-but-still-and-forever-an-outsider status.

But then again, isn’t the idea of insiders and outsiders actually a bit simplistic? While I will never be Czech or Roma and understand those aspects of people’s experience, I am a woman who is able to relate to and empathise with other females on that level – and I would hope I can find other common ground with many males. There is such a place for researchers, some would have it, as ‘the space between’.

Corbin Dwyer writes: Although a researcher’s knowledge is always based on his or her positionality, as qualitative researchers we have an appreciation for the fluidity and multilayered complexity of human experience. Holding membership in a group does not denote complete sameness within that group. Likewise, not being a member of a group does not denote complete difference. It seems paradoxical, then, that we would endorse binary alternatives that unduly narrow the range of understanding and experience…

“To be considered the same or different requires reference to another person or group. Fay (1996) noted that each requires the other: “There is no self-understanding without other-understanding” (p. 241). Accepting this notion requires that noting the ways in which we are different from others requires that we also note the ways in which we are similar. This is the origin of the space between. It is this foundation that allows the position of both insider and outsider.”


* Corbin Dwyer, S. (2009) “The Space Between: On being an insider-outsider in qualitative research.” In The International Journal of Qualitative Research.

* Fay, B. (1996). Contemporary philosophy of social science: A multicultural approach. Cambridge, UK: Blackwell.

* Maykut, P., & Morehouse, R. (1994). Beginning qualitative researchers: A philosophical and practical

guide. Washington, DC: Falmer.