A thousand words?

(Note: this blog post was first published in 2018)

One of the first tasks my colleague Joe and I undertook after being appointed as Research Fellows on the Living Gender project was to design a suitable image or logo that could be used as a visual representation of the project. The idea was to have some kind of coherent visual identity that we could use on our website, Twitter, recruitment materials, flyers and so forth.

It sounded easy –stick in some keywords like youth+diversity+gender, find a suitably nice picture, add some text to it, and boom! We’re ready to launch.

But it turns out that this process opens up a whole lot of fundamental methodological and political questions. Increasingly, research projects are (visually and otherwise) ‘branding’ themselves – the ESRC, for example, even offers guidelines on how to do this. (They literally describe it as ‘developing a brand’). However, we don’t ever really hear about the ‘messy’ process behind this – the conversations that were had, and why particular images came to be chosen over others. Just like how it’s often really useful (and sometimes reassuring!) to hear about the challenges other people face in conducting research (beyond the sanitised, linear version often presented in academic outputs), we thought it might be useful to outline some of our thinking with regards to choosing an image – an increasingly crucial step in the life of a research project.

So, the first thing to note is that we didn’t have any budget for commissioning someone to create imagery for the project. We were thus restricted to images that we could find on the internet that were royalty-free and had the appropriate creative commons license. I envisaged us ending up with something like the infamous woman laughing alone with salad stock photo or Hide the Pain Harold, but a helpful colleague here at Leeds pointed us towards websites such as PexelsUnsplash and Pixabay, which actually have surprisingly non-terrible photos.

The next decision to make was whether we wanted the image to be a more literal or more abstract representation of the project’s themes. Searching combinations of youth/young people/diverse/gender brings up images like the following:

Whilst these are lovely photos that would not look out of place on the pages of Vogue (or Teen Vogue, given its ‘wokeness’), the problem with more literal photos is that they’re always going to be exclusionary to some degree. For example, in all these photos, the bodies are normatively-sized, and seemingly able-bodied. In the first and second photos, ‘gender diversity’ is interpreted as androgyny, which as others have commented, usually means ‘masculine’, thus contributing to ongoing femme erasure and devaluation. And the models in all three pictures are (or seem to be) white.

Thus we raise the question of what ‘diversity’ are we including – and excluding – through our choice of image?  This links in to broader debates within feminism about intersectionality – which intersections do we mean? There is the ‘classic’ trifecta of gender/race/class – but do we also include sexualitydisabilityreligionagecitizenship status, etc? And what is included in (or who gets relegated to) the “etc” that invariably comes at the end of such lists? Judith Butler way back in 1990 spoke about the tendency of feminists to subsume difference under the “etc” and how this was due to the “illimitable process of signification itself”. So if signification is illimitable, does that mean we have to draw the line somewhere?

There’s also a danger that the above images feed into a kind of neoliberal corporate diversity. Feminist scholars such as Sara AhmedDavina Cooper and Yvette Taylor have talked about how ‘diversity’ works as a kind of institutional capital that allows people to feel good about how progressive they are, whilst still concealing racism and other violences. The first photo, for example, would not look out of place in University promotional material designed to attract new students on the basis of how diverse and inclusive the institution is. Sara Ahmed suggests we become bad at ‘embodying diversity’ as a tactic of resistance – i.e. refusing to use certain bodies to represent and ‘stand for’ diversity – and so this would seem to be an important consideration for us as a team. Interestingly, the ESRC also has something to say about this: “aim to reflect the diversity of society in your imagery but without being tokenistic”. But how to do this? What diversity? (all of it?)

There’s also a central problem in that while our project is about ostensible changes in how young people think about gender, including the idea that young people might be embracing more fluid gender identities, our project isn’t about ‘gender diverse’ youth per se. We hope to include those kinds of voices and experiences in our research, but equally, our project is about exploring whether those kinds of claims regarding seismic shifts in gender (c.f. Channel 4 naming their season of programmes on gender as ‘Genderquake’) are really borne out in practice. The image we use will inevitably impact on our ability to recruit young people, and whilst having images that depict a more obvious ‘gender diversity’ will attract certain kinds of young people, it may also act as a barrier for other groups of young people who might have a different perspective on gender.

And so, we also considered the idea of sidestepping the abstract/literal division somewhat and just using letters to represent the project:

This idea was advantageous in that each of the letters represent some of the intersecting geographical ‘sites’ in the lives of young people that we are interested in exploring. For example, the ‘L’ is from a welcome home door mat, the ‘V’ represents technology/social media (and by extension, also work/home/leisure spaces) etc. However, we also had conversations about the choice to use these particular images to represent different sites, as well as the colours we should use for ‘Gender’ – could we make them the colour of the trans flag, for instance? Would this send out a signal to potential participants who understand the symbolism of the colours that we are trans-inclusive? (and thus allow some young people to feel safe in participating?)

But, in the end we decided to go for something more abstract. Using keywords such as colour/abstract/fluid/light, we found images such as the following:

These images sidestep some of the problems involved in using more literal imagery. They don’t depict any particular kind of bodies, and thus (on the face of it) don’t seem to exclude anyone (but without conducting ‘market research’ with young people themselves, we can’t ever really know how they might be received). The rationale for using these kinds of photos is that different colours could depict a diversity of genders, and the fact that the colours are distinct in some cases, whilst they blur/weave together in others, could represent both stability and fluidity. However, there is an attendant danger that photos like this end up looking a bit anodyne because they are so ‘inoffensive’ – maybe a visual version of ‘muzak’.

After extensive discussion and input from all team members, and a shortlist of images being drawn up, we eventually chose this:

Here, there are distinct colours, but the paint also runs and blends. The application of paint onto the boards might also represent the idea of gender as something active, but something which might also have some permanence/stickiness.

Finding the ‘right’ image (and also the ‘right’ font – we went for something we felt was contemporary and ‘slick’) ultimately required us to interrogate some of our assumptions about how we perceive young people. Do the neon lights in the previous pictures speak to some associations we have with young people and urban ‘street’ environments? Do the paint splatters above remind us of graffiti – and thus some kind of youth (and again, urban) transgressiveness? Does the chalked ‘i’ in the Living Gender letters indicate an automatic association of young people with school/education? Why do we assume that the image we have chosen will appeal?

We want our image to do a lot. We want to appeal to young people – but less in a consumerist marketing kind of way, and more in the sense of fostering connections with young people so that we can hear and foreground their voices. We want to communicate something about who we are as a project, and the kind of researchers we are. Inclusive? Intersectional? Critical of diversity discourse but nevertheless striving to ensure that our project is diverse? But it’s not just young people who will see the image. It’s also about representing the project to our academic colleagues, and the third sector organisations and practitioners we will engage with throughout the project. These are, arguably, very different groups with potentially different agendas and politics. It’s a big ask for one image.

Ultimately we had to come to terms with the fact that there was no ‘perfect image’. This is particularly true for our project where we are beginning with the idea of diversity, and are trying to build diversity into the core of our research design, but it is probably equally true for all projects.

We’d love to start a conversation about the decisions around visual representation with regards to research, or book covers, or websites – why did you choose the images you did? What challenges did you face? Selecting an image to ‘represent’ you/your project is, we suggest, a key methodological (and political, and ethical) decision, so it’d be great to start talking about this!

Karen Cuthbert (with editorial input from the Living Gender team)