Last week (9 November) Taryn Simon was a guest of Phillip Adam’s on Radio National’s Late Night Live program. The basis for the interview was Taryn’s project An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. It was a fascinating interview that encouraged me to think about access to research sites and to explore her work.
Back in 2006, The New York Times wrote of Taryn’s work:
During the past 50 years, American photographers have sought to reveal America to us mostly by showing, in pictures snapped casually, or better, “casually,” the weirdness hidden in plain sight — on our sidewalks, along our roadsides and in our public rituals and spectacles.
Taryn Simon is of a younger generation (she is 31), and what she is after, in a remarkable new body of work she calls “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,” is something altogether different: a sense of what we won’t allow one another to see. In the realms of government, science, security and nature, among others, Simon has gained access where few others have. Yet the resulting photographs carry no sense of struggle or shadowy danger. … these “Index” works are formal, carefully lighted, quiet, still: they’re portraits, not snapshots. … What’s most strongly conveyed, perhaps, by a close study of these photographs, is how intricate and often systematic this off-limits land of ours is — how conscientious we can be about what we don’t want to be conscious of.
An articles in Frieze (2008) offers an insight into Taryn’s approach to accessing the off-limits.
As a young woman of 33, Simon cuts an unlikely figure for someone who has stepped over the boundaries of Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Long Island and photographed exploding warheads on Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base with her camera’s shutter hooked up to the trigger. … Working with a rotating team of producers, she spent four years researching the sites for her project on the Internet and fitting them into pre-determined categories: ‘religion’, ‘nature’, ‘science’, ‘government’, ‘security’ and ‘entertainment’. She wrote countless emails and made endless follow-up phone calls to obtain permission to take her photographic equipment inside notoriously restricted spaces such as the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre in Hollywood and the CIA Original Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia. She didn’t crawl under fences: doors were opened for her. (She attributes some of her success to the initial permission of Army and Homeland Security, which helped her gain access to certain government sites. She is also the first to admit that her status as a young woman made her seem to be a less threatening breach of security.) In interviews, Simon makes her process sound bureaucratic and banal, admitting that it’s ‘extremely calculated’. Yet the long paper trail that leads to the realization of the photographs, raising the issue of how Simon managed to access those locations, casts its own seductive spell.
Her TED video talk (2009) provides an opportunity to hear at first hand about her work.
It was interesting to note from this background information in a 2007 article that “only one site refused Simon access: the underground facility at Disney World in Florida, where staff dressed as characters are allowed to remove their costumes”. The rejection was:
After giving your request serious consideration, even though it is against company policy to consider such a request, it is with regret that I inform you that we are not willing to grant the permission you seek, especially during these violent times, I personally believe that the magical spell cast on guests who visit our theme parks is particularly important to protect.
Taryn’s unequivocal commitment to overt research with formal consent is an excellent process model for field work. A fundamental issue for qualitative researchers is how to: identify and negotiate with gatekeepers (Brogdan, 1972); distinguishing between sponsors, gatekeepers, friends (Burgess, 1991); gain access to a research site.
In a recent paper in Qualitative Research, Carla Reeves (2010) explores the challenges she faced “when undertaking ethnographic fieldwork within a Probation Approved Premises”. She points out that:
How access to research sites is achieved is increasingly being discussed, particularly in ethnographic accounts. These discussions often focus on the practical and ethical challenges of entering fieldwork sites. In contrast, how researchers leave study populations or sites is rarely explored, although perhaps as complex and sensitive to negotiate as access. This article reflects upon the practical, ethical and emotional dilemmas experienced by the author when conducting research with sex offenders and staff in a probation hostel. The focus of the article is on how access was gained and how the site and the people who took part in the research were left at the end of the fieldwork.
Carla concludes that “negotiating access is different to gaining entry to a research site, and that these negotiations include considerations of the relationship between the researcher, the research and the researched”.
Carolyn Wanat (2008) has discussed the distinction between external and internal gatekeepers in gaining access to public school research sites. She notes that:
Gatekeepers grant formal access but withhold cooperation if they think studies threaten them or their schools. Project approval by official gatekeepers does not guarantee cooperation from informal gatekeepers and participants.
She describes gatekeepers’ practices “to grant or withhold access and cooperation and the influence of perceived benefits and threats to cooperation”.
Paula Mayock (2000) discusses the process of access in her report of engaging difficult-to reach young people in a study of inner city drug use. She observes that:
Initially, the essential ‘gatekeepers’ consisted of youth and community workers and local drug counsellors. However, as knowledge of the social terrain expanded and additional support and acceptance were secured, this group of adult contacts was extended to include local community members who had reliable knowledge of peer networks and/or ‘hunches’ about the activities of certain groups. Adult informants were instrumental in making introductions to young people: their detailed knowledge of community events and local culture informed many important procedural decisions relating to access and provided short cuts to contacting a range of prospective participants.
Paula concludes that:
In a community-based study of this kind, access is not a one-off event. It is a social process which has to be negotiated and re-negotiated throughout the entire course of the fieldwork (Burgess, 1991). Efforts to establish contact with young people do not cease until the researcher is satisfied that every possible avenue has been explored with respect to accessing suitable participants. This involves searching through networks of friends, sympathetic acquaintances, and sometimes, complete strangers, for possible routes of access (Werner and Schoepfle, 1987). Upon entering the field, the researcher is likely to face various forms of resistance and this cannot be planned for in advance. Such unforeseen developments can be instrumental in reshaping the course of data collection, and definite plans to collect data within a specific time-span can be disrupted. Irrespective of the level of preparation, research techniques must be developed in response to emerging developments.
This post was stimulated by a radio interview. The insights Taryn Simon’s work offers are a rich addition to the discussion about access in qualitative research. Carla Reeves, Carolyn Wanat and Paula Mayock offer excellent examples of how the process of access occurs in difficult-to-reach and socially sensitive settings. All four have remarkable stories to tell as a result of their negotiations with gatekeepers.
Reference (without hyperlink)
Burgess, R. G. 1991. Sponsors, gatekeepers, members, and friends: Access in educational settings. In Experiencing fieldwork: An inside view of qualitative research, edited by W. B. Shaffir and R. A. Stebbins, 43–52. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.