Visual Geographies: Auto-photography and the Earth at Night

Earth_at_Nightby Fiona Ferbrache

New images of the Earth at night have been released by scientists at NASA.  With lighting levels recording 250 times better resolution, these are said to be the most detailed images ever produced. This means that faint lights, such as an isolated highway lamp or a fishing boat, are being detected by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, which was launched in October 2011.  NASA claims that the lights detected from space include human settlement, wildfires and volcanoes, oil and gas wells, auroras, and light of the moon and stars reflected from water, snow, cloud and desert surfaces.

As well as identifying sources of night light, the same satellite is able to take measurements of light emissions and reflections to help assess the human footprint from a global perspective.

These global images link to the theme of photography in an early view Area paper.  Lombard’s (2012) article on auto-photography opens with the suggestion “that visual methods are becoming increasingly prevalent in geographical research”.  Accordingly, Lombard argues for auto-photography as an important component of a mixed-methods approach to certain forms of geographical enquiry.

Lombard draws on her own research among Mexican residents to illustrate how auto-photography provides an understanding of residents’ perceptions of place.  These people are portrayed as relatively powerless individuals, but the camera acts as a tool enabling them to convey their experiences to others.  For researchers, Lombard argues that auto-photography complements alternative qualitative methods such as interviews, not only by igniting discussion of themes captured in the image, but also through improved relations between the researcher and the researched.

While Lombard’s paper contributes an understanding of Mexican residents’ sense of place, it is also significant in terms of situating auto-photography as a useful method  in human geography’s ‘visual turn’.

globe42  NASA’s images

globe42  Earth Observatory

books_icon  Dodman, D. 2003. Shooting in the city: an autophotographic exploration of the urban environment in Kingston, Jamaica

Area 35 293–304

books_icon  Johnsen, S. May, J. and Cloke, P. 2008 Imag(in)ing ‘homeless places’: using auto-photography to (re)examine the geographies of homelessness Area 40 194–207

books_icon  Lombard M. (2012) Using auto-photograph to understand place: reflections from research in urban informal settlements in Mexico. Area. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01115.

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