Engaging emotions through senses

This time, I would like to briefly share our last 2021 experience in “The Culture and community mapping project” where during an intensive period working with community hubs, we merged two participatory methods: photo-elicitation and cultural mapping. Bellow, there is a work in progress map that will be given, in gratitude for the participation, to all the places that hosted our workshops.

We invited participants from Granton:hub, North Edinburgh Arts, The Ripple project, Oxgangs community centre, Goodtrees and WHALE arts centre. Regularly, people attend these hubs for different workshops, some of them related to arts, gardening, or volunteering in food programmes and groceries. During the pandemic, these hubs have had a key role in supporting their neighbours and creating a strong sense of belonging. The contrast between the image of Edinburgh as a touristic city and these areas is considerable and many times their stories are not as seen as voices from other areas in the city. Our goal was to listen to their versions of belonging, place-making and identity.

Due to the pandemic, we were not able to use our traditional map A0 sheets. We had to redefine our approach because people were not supposed to touch the same surfaces. So we prepared individual A3 maps so each participant could interact with them by touching, writing and putting stickers on the places they value or have something to say about it. The innovation to our methodology came with a photo-elicitation task. Ahead of our encounter, we asked participants to take 3 to 5 photos of valuable places, where they feel they belong, or that they normally visit in their neighbourhoods. 

In the beginning, we thought this part of the activity would not merge with the mapping part. However, once we started with workshops we realised that the map surfaces and the photos, either printed or shown on a smartphone screen, both became one incredible moment of fusion. There was no way to divide the mapping part from the photo. From the moment the map touched participants hands, they would start writing, making the maps of their property and coauthorship. There was no way to pause that interaction with questions about the photo without considering the map. 

Then what would happen is that photos were acting as story catalysers, adding a voice to the image and with the eyes never losing sight of the map. Everyone at the table would submerge in the mixture of voice, map and image. Other participants seating in that table and participating in that moment woud recreate the memory told by of who is speaking, the actions taking place, imagining the surrounding spacse, the noise and even how the weather was. 

When a group of people look at a map at the same time, they engage their orientation in that space. Memories about a place and how we structure and understand space in our minds do not have easy access and visibility as an atlas (Rambaldi, 2010) or as easy to read as a map app in our smartphones. Mental maps are blurred pieces of experiences mixed with emotions, movements, memories, different ages, and transformations. A printed map, thoughtfully designed for an easy way to find ourselves on it, facilitates the communication of that mental image, as “it was there where it happened”. The blurred image gets clearer and it is easier to put in words how one memory has occurred in a specific place. After associating our mental images with a map, we can share them with others looking at the same object. The map allows sharing a spatial perception. 

I think the photos alone would not have had the same impact as they did when showing them after sharing a spatial orientation through a map. Now the photo, plus the voice, and the story, triangulate an enhanced sensorial experience, allowing each of us to connect with that private and emotional moment. I won’t share those photos here, since they are not mine to share, but I will quote one story that made me emotionally connect with the woman telling it. 

my first [photo] is actually the botanic garden. And well every one of the pictures is actually got a story behind it because I remember when we were very small or young anyway, it came over the radio that the world was going to end at four o’clock in the afternoon. So mama moist us, dressed us and put us all in the tram and walked up to the Botanic garden so we could die somewhere beautiful. And that memory has never ever, I mean I’m 68 now and that was before 5 to the time and that memory has never left me

Anonymous participant

The most impressive part of this story was that the content of that photo was simply a tree. But that object had the capacity of activating, in all of us, a strong emotion, nostalgia and transported us into the women’s childhood. A great silence came after, we were all touched by the story.

Rambaldi, Giacomo. 2010. Participatory three-dimensional modelling: Guiding Principles and application. ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA).

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