Repeat photography & coastal change: From notes and ideas to research method

Repeat photography & coastal change: From notes and ideas to research method

Image 1: Storm battering the coast of Cabo Pulmo, 10:38 am on September 3, 2012.

You never know when or how new research will begin. Let alone how you’re going to do it. That’s why it’s always good to take notes…and photographs.

In March 2012, when I was in the middle of my doctoral work in Cabo Pulmo, I just happened to map the coastal profile of a nearby beach (known as “Los Frailes”). It’s a long, sandy stretch of beach that curves around a small bay. I walked along the edge of the waterline with a small hand-held GPS unit and mapped the profile. I’m still not sure why I did it; I just decided to map it. By chance, the very next week, a huge section of that same beach collapsed into the ocean. As it turns out, there’s a deep underwater canyon that runs right up to the shore. That morning I heard several reports about the beach collapse, so I raced over to check it out with a few friends. About 120 meters of the beach–the same place where I’d walked and mapped the week before–had just fallen into the ocean. I re-mapped the coast, took some photographs, and archived it in my memory bank as something to keep in mind.

Later that year, this issue of coastal instability came up yet again. In early September, I stepped outside to watch an approaching storm as it hit Cabo Pulmo. I didn’t even mention this event in my fieldnotes, but I did take photographs (see Image 1 above). At the time, my research was focused primarily on the local politics of conservation and development. I wasn’t looking at anything related to the effects of climate change, coastal erosion, or sea level rise. But there it was. Once again: archived.

I returned to Cabo Pulmo in 2013. This time, I was paying more attention to coastal erosion, but it still wasn’t my primary research focus. I re-photographed the sea wall and beach that I had photographed in 2012 (see Image 2). This second image is shot with a different camera, and from a different position, but the change that took place is pretty clear: a large section of the rounded sea wall in the foreground is gone, along with a big chunk of the soil behind the wall.

Image 2: Cabo Pulmo coast, 8:33 am on May 19, 2013

During that trip in 2013, I spent more time photographing the effects of coastal change and erosion, including photographs of failing sea walls and repairs. This was when I began paying closer attention to the unstable nature of the coast, and not only how people live with this instability, but also try to control it as much as possible. These sea walls are basically temporary fixes that can withstand coastal erosion for an often unknowable period of time. Some hold up better than others. But these residents persist, battling against the tides and storms.

Around that time I started asking more people about these changes. Some of these conversations had come up during my interviews, and I wanted to know more. One couple who has been traveling to Cabo Pulmo for more than two decades shared a photograph they had taken of the beach in the mid 1990s (Image 3), which is basically a 180 degree view of the same beach shown in images 1 and 2. Like all of the other images (and data), this went to my mental archive as something I wanted to focus on more closely in the future.

Image 3: Photograph of the coast of Cabo Pulmo, late 1990s to early 2000s. Facing north. Cabo Pulmo point is in the background.

Fast forward to the present. I just returned from another follow up trip to Cabo Pulmo this past June. I also went there for some follow up research in 2017. On both of these trips I was paying ever more attention to erosion and what people were saying about it. Image 4 (below), taken on New Year’s day in 2017, shows a similar view of the beach as Image 3. If you look closely at Image 4, you can see the same orange-yellow wall on the left side of the image that is in Image 3. These images were clearly taken from different positions, but they show the dramatic changes that have taken place over the past two decades. The sandy beach that used to buffer these coastal structures has been severely reduced. At high tide, there is no beach. Image 5, from June of this year (2018), shows the same approximate location. This last image was taken at a moderate high tide, and it illustrates the complete loss of beach (and a sea wall that has been severely undermined).

Image 4: Cabo Pulmo, January 2017. Facing north.
Image 5: Cabo Pulmo, June 2018. Facing north.

The collapsing beach and the storm photograph that I discussed at the beginning of this post have, in the end, sparked an entirely new line of research for me. I am currently working on new projects that examine coastal erosion and sea level rise from an anthropological perspective. This includes ongoing work in Cabo Pulmo, and an expanded project that examines these issues along the California coast in the US.

Up until this point, I have used photography in a fairly unsystematic way, mostly as a quick note-taking tool. I took photographs to loosely document places and events, and as visual reminders. Now it’s time to get far more systematic. When I shot all of these images, I was not thinking about using photography as a primary method for my research, but I am now.

Repeat photography is a thing, in case you didn’t know. If you haven’t heard about it, I recommend checking into the work of photographers such as Mark Klett (for starters). Here’s a short article from the Christian Science Monitor in 1985 that discusses some of Klett’s work, along with a few others who have undertaken this kind of re-photographic work. In Klett et al.’s 1977 book “Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project” the authors relocated and rephotographed locations that were first documented by 19th century photographers:

Over a period of three years, using the photographs of O’Sullivan, Jackson, Hillers, Russell, and Gardner, along with government maps and notes, the survey found 120 of the orginal sites. They then made photographs that matched the originals in both angle and light.

Related image
Image from Klett’s Rephotographic Survey Project showing the location of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in 1872 (left) and 1978 (right).

The work of Klett and others has been very useful and inspirational. But is anybody using this methodology in anthropology? The answer is yes. Trudi Smith, for example, is an anthropologist who has done some excellent work with repeat photography. I first learned about her work back around 2009 and have followed her since. Her work is creative, detailed, and compelling. Smith published a 2007 article in Visual Anthropology titled “Repeat Photography as a Method in Visual Anthropology.” Answering George Marcus’s call for a ‘research imaginary’ that challenges and reorients existing ethnographic practices, Smith writes:

I propose that repeat photography reimagines ethnographic practice and realigns product and process in visual anthropology while it examines the photographic record of a place and subjects it to contemporary analysis. Repeat photography reworks the double meaning of ethnography for visual anthropology. The process, or the fieldwork component of ethnographic practice in repeat photography, is a visual, embodied strategy that emphasizes looking, insight, and reenactment.

Klett et al. and Smith each blend the scientific and the aesthetic in their work. They are concerned with not only finding and rephotographing certain locations, but also thinking through the process that goes into making photographs. Why did the photographer make the image in that particular way, and what does it tell us about culture and aesthetics of that time? And what does this tell us about change, not just in landscapes but also in cultural meanings and memories that people attach to those landscapes?

As I move from the note-taking stage to a more focused research project, these are definitely some of the questions I plan to explore via repeat photography. I am also interested in exploring how this kind of photography can be helpful for opening up dialog and reflection about issues (climate change, sea level rise, and the subsequent social, economic and political problems that come with them) that are often difficult to discuss.

In Cabo Pulmo, this means I will be systematically rephotographing images that I have taken between 2005 and the present. At the same time, the plan is to repeat photographs such as Image 3 (above) and and then interview residents (and hopefully some of the people who took the photographs) to round out the process. Working with the photographic collections of local residents could be a great way to not only document historical change, but also to create venues for talking about both the present and the future.

I’m doing something along the same lines up here in California, although in this case there are often extensive photographic archives (via local Historical Societies and various university collections) that provide a good baseline for repeat photography work. I am starting this work in San Diego and Santa Cruz counties, and building off of the work of Gary Griggs (among others) for the latter. Griggs, who is a coastal geologist and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, has done extensive work on issues of coastal change, erosion, and sea level rise (see Griggs 2017 for example). He has not only produced a ton of scholarly articles about these issues, but also written a lot for broader audiences. This includes a popular 2006 publication with Deepika Shrestha Ross that employs repeat photography to examine the Santa Cruz coast in the past and present. Here’s a short online article about some of this Santa Cruz-based work by Griggs and Ross.

In all of the sites where I am working, the primary idea is to use visual methods to compliment and augment more traditional ethnographic methods. I’m looking to find out more about the material effects of coastal erosion and sea level rise (i.e. literally documenting how places have changed), while also exploring the social meanings and implications of these persistent, ongoing processes.

As someone who grew up near the ocean, and in the water all of the time (like 4-6 hours per day), I can’t say that these issues were at the forefront of my mind. Sure, I knew about sea walls and erosion and the effects of big storms (like the 1983 El Niño), but these weren’t issues that were on my mind day in and out. This stuff only became a pressing issue when something big collapsed or when some massive storm overtook a coastal road. Otherwise, for me and many of the people I surfed with, we just sort of lived with the changing coast and took it all day by day. We paid close attention to all of the daily effects (shifting beach sands affect waves daily), but it’s not like we were worried all the time about long-term change or damage.

This is all personal and anecdotal, of course, but based upon some of the preliminary interviews and informal conversations that I have done on these issues so far, many people seem to have a similar attitude. While climate change, sea level rise, and coastal erosion are big, hot-button issues, it’s not necessarily the case that they are such pressing issues that they are a daily concern. It’s hard to see change at this level. Some of this depends quite heavily on the extent to which people feel that they are personally at risk, however. But, as with climate change, trying to assess not only what people think, but also how and why they ultimately decide to take action is tricky. These are just some of the questions that I am in the process of trying to answer now. Photographs, especially when they depict striking differences, may be able to help highlight some of the long-term changes that are difficult to see on a day to day basis, and therefore facilitate the ethnographic process. That’s the idea, anyway.

The next step is to identify some of the images and locations that I plan on rephotographing. That means paying closer attention to dates, time of day, tides, lighting, lens choices, angles and so on. But that’s the fun part. After that I’ll move on to using those images as part of the interview process. Or, perhaps, it could be fun to open up the whole process and have people relocate and photograph these places with me. These are just some ideas. It’s always fun (and challenging) to move from ideas and notes to actual research. And that’s right where I’m at now.

All of this began with a chance event, which I happened to document, and a few photographs of an approaching storm. This is how research and a lot of creative work takes shape, at least for me. Sometimes things lead nowhere, and sometimes small avenues, ideas, or side projects lead to whole new lines of exploration and research. This is yet another reminder for why taking good fieldnotes is so important, because you just never know where some seemingly minor detail will lead you. But in this case, don’t just take notes! As I said in the opening lines of this post: take photographs as well. It doesn’t matter if you’re using an iPhone or an 8×10 film camera. And, if you think you have any interest in using repeat photography as a method: take notes about your photographs as well! Trust me, it will save you an immense amount of time when you try to relocate and rephotograph something you shot 10 years ago. Wish me luck.

2 Replies to “Repeat photography & coastal change: From notes and ideas to research method”

  1. Great post. One of Ruth’s and my great regrets is that we never got around to systematically photographing the changes in the Yokohama neighborhood where we have lived for going on 39 years. Here’s hoping younger, smarter anthropologists take heed and act on your advice.