Studies on Photojournalism and Sofa-surfing win our dissertation prize

Zainab Ravat wins the 2018 SCGRG Dissertation Prize

Zainab Ravat of Queen Mary, University of London, is our 2018 Winner for her dissertation entitled Photojournalism: Explorations into the Geographical Witness, Activist and Traveller. The committee praised the study for its sophisticated and nuanced approach to its topic, and the considerable insight and flair it demonstrates in its write-up. The study was based on very rich empirical material, with extensive research conducted with leading photojournalists on their personal motivations and experiences in the field, and produced a sensitive and engaging empirical analysis. The committee felt that this was a fascinating example of cultural geographical work.

Kieran Green of the University of Plymouth is our 2018 Runner-Up for his dissertation entitled In the Balance: Unsettled Space and Sofa-surfing. The committee were impressed with the originality and depth of research demonstrated in the study, which focused on a topic that is timely in austerity Britain. They praised its rigorous engagement with existing literature, its rich empirical work, and detailed analysis that gave valuable insight into individual trajectories in the practice of sofa-surfing and their wider geographies.

The winner has received a prize of £100. Both have also been given a one-year free subscription to the journal Social and Cultural Geography courtesy of Taylor & Francis.

In total we received 25 submissions for the prize. These spanned the breadth of social and cultural geography interests and we look forward to continuing with the prize in 2019.

You can read our winner’s dissertation by clicking here.

Here’s an interview with our winner Zainab about how she got in to her research and how she found the dissertation process:

1. What inspired you to study geography?

I’ve always been naturally drawn to the subject matter that geography allows us to engage with. From a young age, I began to learn about the ways in which the physical and human worlds around us are intertwined. Whether it was to do with the tourism industry, natural disasters or migration, there was an awareness that these were all processes that can change people’s lives. I imagine many geographers begin with a desire to help shape some of those processes for the better.

2. What led you to choose photojournalism as the focus for your geography dissertation?

I was struggling to settle on a final topic for my research when my supervisor told me that the dissertation was an opportunity to take something I enjoyed in my personal life – a hobby or interest – and to explore it intellectually and geographically. That’s when I began to think about the interest I have in the work of photojournalists. I knew there was a lot to be explored beyond the aesthetic quality of popular images, and particularly the more confrontational ones, like war and conflict imagery. Beyond that, I also knew there was something intrinsically geographical in the subject matter, as photojournalists essentially help to shape our own understandings of different places and the people in those places. After a little initial research, I saw that geographers have extensively examined the effects of imagery and have raised some interesting questions about ethics, agency and power relations, for example, in the depiction of poverty in NGO campaigning. I wanted to produce a report that did more than regurgitate those discourses, and decided I could have a lot of fun if I were to think about not only what the images represent, but who the photojournalists themselves are, where they come from and why they do the job they do. More importantly, I was intrigued by the capability photographers have to impact social change, and how they might articulate their own identities as activists or agents of change. It was an attempt to reveal the complexities in the production and effects of their images by honing in at the micro level. That angle has also allowed me to engage with other kinds of social, philosophical and critical theory outside of geographical discipline that I may not have otherwise had the opportunity to dedicate time to.

3. Your dissertation contains some fantastic interviews with photojournalists – could you tell us a bit about your experience of researching the project?

It was an incredibly fun and insightful experience on the whole because I had the opportunity to speak to photojournalists whose work I had known about for a long time, and who have years of experience working for the likes of National Geographic, Magnum and Al Jazeera. However, I would be lying if I said there weren’t times when I felt like giving up! I quickly found that photojournalists can be a tough group of people to correspond with as they’re often travelling or in the middle of projects at any given time of year. I must have emailed over 50 different people before I finally managed to secure a fraction of those for interviews (some of whom never even turned up!). I had conducted a lot of research into the people I was emailing to find out exactly who they had worked with, what their current projects were and a little about their background, so it was very time intensive from the beginning.  On the other hand, the interviews that did take place were beyond fascinating and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to conduct them with such accommodating and open people. It was by far the highlight of the experience.

4. What do you feel you learnt or gained from the process?

Speaking to people who are taking the time out to share personal experiences, some of which are sensitive, is a careful task and my research was an exercise in navigating how best to do that whilst still probing at the right questions. I think I went into the interviews with a degree of confidence already, but once you spend 11 hours discussing strangers’ lives with them, you come out with a better grasp of how to articulate yourself and think on your feet in that kind of situation. I learnt a lot from the photographers themselves, who had plenty of insights into the difficulties of journalism and the personal obstacles they have had to face in their careers. Overall, I came out with the experience of shaping my own project and an understanding of the effort and initiative it takes to make research happen.

5. Do you have any advice for students currently thinking about studying geography?
I would encourage it! Geography is incredibly interdisciplinary by nature and at the same time, it uniquely interrogates concepts of nature, place, space and power in ways that you won’t find in other disciplines. From my experience, it’s also an excellent field in which to learn how to think critically and to become a well rounded individual with an awareness of social and worldly issues. I know fellow geographers with ambitions for careers in a wide array of areas and with skills that are relevant to employers and academic departments alike.

6. …and for geography students who will soon be planning their dissertation research?

Don’t worry if things sometimes seem like they’re falling apart. If they don’t fall apart a little, then you’re probably doing it wrong. Any setbacks you have are an opportunity for you to refine or reinvent your project, and even when it seems as if you’ve run out of options, a little bit of time and thought will help you think of another angle to take your research in. I would advise you to try reading early and not to leave the writing and referencing too late in the process – this is easy to forget for anyone who isn’t used to writing a 10,000 word project! Looking back at my final research, I see where I made mistakes, where I rushed things and where things could have been clearer. No matter what, your final product will mostly likely be imperfect to you too, so my advice is not to strive for perfection every step of the way – but to just get started and to keep at it.