Canberra is Australia’s capital city, but you may not necessarily know this if you were parachuted in blindfolded, out of the blue. While Sydney is bustling with tourists and attractions, and Melbourne is brimming with multicultural events, Canberra is seemingly pedestrian. On a Sunday, the majority of the shops close at 4 PM, even in the city’s central business district, and on holidays, there are few people in the centre of the city. That’s because Canberra is, in many ways, a satellite city: our politicians fly in on weeks when Parliament sits, which ramps up the pulse of taxi drivers and plumps up some of our cafes and bars at peak times, every other week. Many people who live here are not locals. Young people tend to move away, while public servants and academics move their families here for their careers.
I had previously lived in Canberra for six months as part of a secondment for another job, many years ago. I was much younger then and, looking back, I did not really enjoy the city. I mostly spent my free time with groups who knew each other from graduate placements and often talked about work, even at 1 AM outside clubs – which is, by the way, the time that most clubs clubs closed back then (and likely do still). “Did you know he’s still an APS5?” (Australian Public Service Level 5) “He’s never going to be promoted!” I was surrounded by Anglo-Australian people who had little interest in multicultural experiences – having come from a highly multicultural part of Melbourne, this was a big change.
Back then I worked very long hours (and do still but not quite so intense) and, to be honest, I was often tired and I own the fact that I did not make a big effort to get to know the city. This time around, knowing that I’d be here a bit longer, I have gotten to know different types of people and have gone out of my way to get the most out of Canberra, by exploring more of its heart and culture. I aim to bring you a few visual stories of how I reacquainted myself with this city, with a visual sociology series I’m calling, Weekends With a Sociologist.
Rituals in visual sociology
I travel for long periods as part of my job, and have to do a lot of public speaking (and yes, I cope with extensive travel using visual sociology!). On the one hand, I’m an extrovert who enjoys being around people and making sense of the world by talking as much as possible (luckily this gels with an applied sociological career). On the other hand, I have come to cherish being back in Canberra, in my own bed and following my own routine. So whenever I’m home, I revel in mundane tasks and relish taking my camera and other visual sociology gadgets out on adventures (my camera, my smart phone, laptop or tablet, portable charger, a couple of pens, and a notepad).
I like to start my weekends with a Zumba class as dancing is one my favourite things in the world. I come home and do a couple of hours of housework (bliss!) and then start my visual sociology with an all-day-breakfast lunch.
I could eat breakfast for every meal quite happily and I’ve been on a quest to find the best all-day-breakfast in the region. Dobbinsons is a favourite haunt because they serve breakfast until 3 PM and it’s probably the best value in town. The people who frequent are also very interesting sociologically; Dobbinsons’ famous pastries (which I’ve yet to sample, sadly) draw in eclectic crowds. Another current faithful is Ricardo’s Cafe. While it’s not quite as economical, they are open on public holidays and their homemade hashbrowns are on point. It’s another great place for visual sociology reconnaissance, as their outdoors area is lovely in the sun, with big tables for writing and lots of inspired conversation.
It is an important part of my visual sociology ritual to be able to sit down to eat and observe the city as I go about planning the types of events I aim to capture with my cameras. I take the time to record my surroundings as I’m eating and coordinating logistics, and then it’s off for a visual adventure.
Canberra is organised as a series of circled suburbs, connected by large roundabouts and many highways. As such, we enjoy many separate cultural hubs. Today I’m mostly talking about the city centre and surrounds.
I easily spend five hours or longer walking around drinking in the sights and chronicling my experiences, more often than not posting about my sojourn on social media, especially Instagram (more on this below). I photograph, record and make notes about exhibitions, interesting sites and community events.
In between these long hours spent walking and photographing, if I can, I try to stop for a cup of tea, a juice or a hot chocolate, giving me an opportunity to type up my notes or get some other writing done. Koko Black is the gift that keeps on giving because, while always packed with chocolate lovers, there is plenty to see and write about.
My visual documentation takes a short break in the early evening as most cultural sites close, but my visual sociology continues soon enough. I take the time to once again choose an interesting place to rest and eat.
In the city centre, I like to stop at Bunda Street in Civic, or a bit further along London Circuit and New Acton. Various surrounding streets are home to inviting visual culinary scenes. From the ever-reliable Jamie’s Italian, to a wide range of ever-enticing local foods (Garnish of India has me looking for excuses to visit), the tasty treats Canberra has on offer are all bountiful opportunities for visual sociology.
Even after a long day, I like to document my night. Whether it’s dinner with friends or a film festival or a cheeky night cap, I keep my visual sociology going until I head home. The city has narrow options in terms of a late night coffee or snack, but there are many little bars for chilling out, and other alternatives for firing up the sociological imagination. In particular, I have been curating a visual sociology series of movie theatres and the culture of hotels.
Visual adventures in Sociology
Canberra City is fun to photograph as quirky public art peppers the urban landscape, attracting interesting people and behaviour. The Canberra Times Fountain (pictured top) lights up at night, as well as igniting smiles from appreciative passers-by all day long. Life Cycle, the stainless steel statue prominent in Civic, outside the mall of Canberra Centre, is supposedly an homage to spirituality and “cosmic concepts” (I’ve pondered the significance of this giant metal spiral many times). Ainslie’s Sheep commemorates a prominent early European farmer from 1835. In true Australian metropolitan city fashion, the sheep are an irreverent favourite with tourists. Adelaide has its pigs and Melbourne has it giant purse in their respective city malls; Canberra has two naughty sheep playing, one with its legs up in the air… Symbolism ahoy!
Beyond these and other iconic artworks, Canberra is also lucky to have the Sculpture Park at the National Gallery of Australia, our art gallery that is only five minutes’ drive from the centre of the city.
Some of my favourite wanderings have been spent chronicling a few series I hope to bring you soon, such as my visual sociology of how natural and physical sciences are represented at museums, and the relative absence of social science displays (what “counts” as science?). I also enjoy visiting art galleries and have been accumulating a series on how women’s bodies are exhibited and how women’s stories are told, as well as recording the (lack of) artworks by people of colour, especially in major galleries that are dominated by Western European men. I have been collecting works for my series on Australian artists for my Antipodeans project.
I also have a focus on museums and the representation of Indigenous Australian history and culture. I’m especially interested in capturing how non-Indigenous curators collaborate with Indigenous artists (or how they don’t), and how museums acknowledge and reconcile the tension of hosting artefacts that some Indigenous leaders have fought to have restored to them.
Some of this visual analysis already exists on my Instagram (follow my hashtag #VisualSociology), but I hope to compile this body of work on my blog in due time.
A social view
I use my Instagram to do visual sociology on a regular basis, especially to journal my travels, and share my sociological observations when I visit galleries, museums and other public spaces. Some are brief impressions:
Interesting sociological themes: Portrait of Curtis Edwards who has autoimmune alopecia dealing with societal expectations and isolation. "Untitled" by Isabelle de Kleine. From the Macquarie Digital Portraiture Award. #sociology #sociologyofart #visualsociology #canberra #australia #art #portrait #nationalportraitgallery
Other posts are (relative) long reads:
The Young Archie Prize is a prestigious national award for portraits by Australian children and other youth. Most of the sitters are mothers, chosen because "she cares for me;" they are visually praised for their patience and generally depicted as smiling and exceptional figures in the eyes of their children ("wonderful"). Sisters are the next most common sitters, and generally chosen because they are creative, inspiring and fun. One young male artist describes his sister/subject as a protective figure although they are only a couple of years apart. Third most common are brothers, with similar sibling traits of energetic inspiration. Other children painted grandmothers (one was described as "sad" and rendered enigmatic, missing her birthplace of India). A couple of artists painted girls who are friends. Few children painted men. A couple of artists painted their uncles (one is a lawyer), one painted their grandfather, but no one painted their fathers. In some ways, these trends, particularly with children being over-awed with mothers as care-givers, is a reproduction of gender norms. Motherhood is seen as a "master status" for women. Then again, these mothers, but especially sisters, mass occupy canvases because they are the central characters in young lives, bearing delight and wonder. At what point do young artists stop seeing women as unique figures of creativity and autonomy – someone with whom to share adventures – before falling into the practice of seeing women as passive subjects? Having visited (and written about) various museums and galleries in large cities, I've been frequently disappointed to see few women artists (particularly in main collections). Artworks by men overwhelmingly position women as sexualised, powerless and as objects that project aspects of hegemonic masculinity (the dominant way of being "a man" such as ownership over people and things). For these young artists, social norms have not fully set in, and women are instead agents of change. #art #sociologyofart #artgallery #agnsw #sydney #australia #youngarchie #archibald #sociology #visualsociology
I’m also fond of Vine, which is perfect for looping amusing sights, sounds and golden nuggets of information, such as this on Male Peacock Spiders at Questacon, Australia’s national science museum.
This video caught my attention as Western convention tends to compare human gendered behaviour to other animals (even though gender is a social construction). The outdated notion is that females need to attract a mate and so they are more concerned with their own attractiveness, while also being more “naturally” cautious and fragile. In contrast, so the pop evolutionary psychology goes, male species are virile and dangerous “hunter gathers,” who get their mate via aggression and dominance. This simplistic narrative is not true for many species, and least not with the Male Peacock Spiders.
The male partner primps, preens and struts for female attention. This clip marks my sociological bemusement at how often biological determinism misinterprets actual biological science.
More and more I gravitate to Snapchat. Making stories from short clips as I move around the city has been challenging and fun, such as the snaps I did on the public art around Questacon, all (scientifically themed of course), and the history of the National Library. There is more room to make mistakes on videos, but I see that making little ephemeral films on Snapchat have profound educational potential.
Blending my visual sociology interests with my social media and blogging has provided an additional incentive to explore the city of Canberra. There is always lots to do and experience, especially when seen through a sociological lens. You can even find a little slice of Peru in Canberra, whether it’s the Mr Papas food truck, or Inka Marka playing El Condor Pasa, one of the most iconic Peruvian songs, in the heart of the capital.