How to write about images without looking at them but only hearing about them from the study participants? How to analyze images without images? How to conduct “visual studies” if you end up only with verbal narratives as your data? – These were the challenges I faced when I completed data collection for the project What’s in the app? Digitally-mediated communication within contemporary multilingual families across time and space (2018-2022), led by Professor Åsa Palviainen. My work in the project ended in March 2021 and the article on narratives about family photography was submitted in May. After two rounds of reviews in three different journals, the article WhatsApp iconology: Narratives on in-app photographic practices in (transnational) family communication was finally accepted in mid-January 2023 by the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.
I learned a lot while working on this article. Thanks to colleagues from the ECREA Visual Cultures Section, I was able to start the whole analysis as they guided me toward W.J.T. Mitchell’s ideas on imagetext and iconology. This theoretical framework helped me to look at images without seeing them (so having no visual data at hand) but hearing about them (so working on what participants told about their visual communication practices in mobile communication in transnational family context).
The study presented in the article lays at the intersection of visual culture studies, mobile communication, migration and transnationalism (transnational family communication). Hence, I also faced difficulties in finding the most suitable forum to publish it (and so, two journals rejected it in the second review round). However, I found the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies as the most welcoming and encouraging place for this article. And I am happy it will be published with all the elements I really wanted to keep there, including a personal, an ethnographic-like twist in the beginning, referring to my reading of R. Barthes’ Camera Lucida as a student, many years back.
EDIT: As of January 31, 2023, you can now read the article here (the link provides access to the free copy of the article).