situating community and social projects through artistic processes

For there to be a community people must meet.

For people to meet they must know where they are.

For people to know where they are that place must exist.

For that place to exist it must be recounted.

For that place to be recounted it must be unique.

For that place to be unique people must actively engage with it and shape it.

For people to engage in a place they must perceive it across time and feel a part of its story.

Opher Thomson, 2021

I see art as an attempt to translate different experiences and realities – translations that have the potential to stimulate dialogue and more plural forms of understanding. Equally, I see community as a constellation of diverse experiences, rather than a representation of the most common or dominant of these (every majority creates a minority after all). So in order to consider these multiple voices when addressing community projects, especially in today’s rich but complicated world, I believe it may prove useful to better evaluate the spaces that host them. Perhaps a more profound exploration of the spaces we share might reveal something about our social interactions that dividing ourselves into groups and interests would otherwise disguise. Perhaps these spaces might reveal needs – and indeed solutions – that our stories sometimes hide.

My research looks at how social spaces are both expressions of social conditions and actual drivers of them, creating in time either vicious or virtuous cycles that can be hard to diagnose if we only consider the individuals involved and not the places that link them. Yet reading spaces that we are accustomed to seeing every day can be a serious challenge: quickly our brains ignore the recognisable, filtering out what they perceive to be of no interest – the public realm can all but disappear if we're not careful. 

This is where I've found artistic processes to be helpful, especially more accessible forms such as photography, in encouraging us to look more critically at what's in front of us, rather than merely projecting what we'd like to see or expect to find. This seems to be even more successful when combined with novel collaboration: the meeting of local knowledge, the vertical, temporal context, with the outsider's horizontal, spatial context. This has been my work the past few years, accompanying collective readings of social space with those that live and work there through artistic processes, utilising not just my experience with audiovisual languages, but also my constructively uninformed questions as an outsider and what I've learnt elsewhere from other community projects. This has been massively enriched by working alongside other kinds of 'outsiders' as well – sociologists, geographers, architects, urban planners and social workers for example.

Along the way I've had to learn how to translate not just the spaces themselves but also my curiosity for them. It’s not enough to simply go out and start shooting, as if spaces were something static to document – on the contrary we're trying to use the inherent momentariness of the photograph to better understand the inherent dynamism of spaces. Likewise, these spaces have a lot more to tell to a varied group than they do to a single person. As such I’ve slowly developed a series of "keys" to help focus the lens of our looking, as well as to empower communities to better contextualise and situate their projects once I've moved on. Essentially I've been transforming my kalagraphic practice into something more participatory, creating photographic studies of places that can be used in workshops in which I accompany stakeholders in their own collective exploration of the places where they live and work.

Every research is a journey. Every journey goes in search of somewhere to stop. If I could offer only one piece of advice to those who want to read spaces, it would simply be to slow down, and indeed to stop – like a photograph – and see what happens. 

introductory guides into reading places: example projects


On this occasion I was invited by Michael Beismann, a regional development geographer, to study the Stubai Valley near Innsbruck. The aim was to develop a new social project – the transformation of an old school into an innovative new community centre and shared work space. I was attracted to the project because the old school was a perfect example of what I call "suspended spaces". I use this term because such spaces are unresolved: they demonstrate both an obvious sense of past and an unknown future, hanging in the present, which positions them in time and asks a question. Community spirit seems to thrive off such questions, as they elicit bottom-up citizen responses, provoking innovation and generating new meetings and social activity. 

The old school project had the hallmarks of something that could become very special, and I was enthusiastic to get involved and see how I might help. 'Old school, new life.' If the new community centre was to be successful, a better understanding of the ways people were already meeting should be helpful in envisioning how to integrate the school’s potential into the broader social fabric of the valley. 

The following is therefore a unique kalagraphic study of the Stubai Valley's social spaces from my own horizontal perspective, but for the reasons listed above it is arranged rather as an introductory guide in a way that those with a deeper vertical perspective are able to continue the research for themselves. In 2022 it formed a crucial part of the workshops we held for those involved in the project (who in turn went on to produce their own written and photographic studies using the same techniques), but the hope with this particular piece was to create something cross-functional that could be used in other contexts beyond its original setting. Having seen how helpful my Community Express audiovisual studies were proving for introducing my practice, even in situations very distant from their own, I set out to produce a specific kalagraphic study that could nevertheless be used for initiating collective readings in all manner of places.

Reading social space is an ongoing activity. My photos would look different on a different day, in a different light, at a different time of year. No matter: the intention of this work is not to document, but rather to explore fluid and plural processes, like the spaces themselves. The hope is that by working in this way my consultation is open-source, and that more people will feel encouraged to actively explore spaces with a few extra keys in their pocket. There are twelve of these keys in use here (found in capitals under the narration), and they will be defined and redefined throughout the journey, asking for example where public meets private, which elements help us identify the place or recall other times or spaces, what dynamics are created and which senses are activated, asking more precisely where, when, how and why people meet where they meet, and the implications this has for the community.

The journey will open in a new window (it can occasionally take a few seconds to load on slower internet connections): simply click (swipe on phones) anywhere on each slide to move forwards up the valley in exploration. Gute Reise!


Community Express is a long term project by the Agency for Health and Social Care of the Emilia Romagna Region, organised in collaboration with the University of Parma, to study and support social innovation in community welfare. I was invited to use my methods to "situate the analysis of social projects in spaces, to decipher them as sedimentations of social relations" (Vincenza Pellegrino). The project was an ambitious dialogic experiment with two intertwined aims that facilitated each other: my role was to provide new, tangible tools for the social workers, programmers and volunteers who participated in the program, whilst simultaneously helping the Agency understand their innovations in order to better support them going forwards.

Over the first a year I hosted a series of workshops in close collaboration with the Department of Sociology of the University of Parma to encourage participants from across the health and social care spectrum to reconsider the places where they were experimenting participatory welfare across a broader timeframe. This process included creative writing exercises, group discussions, as well as both photography tasks and listening challenges. These were both exploratory group workshops that encouraged mutual, collaborative evaluation across the region, but also individual consultations to offer more detailed analysis. Together we reassessed places as physical spaces, perceived spaces and lived spaces, engaging with the histories that formed them to help us imagine how community welfare might affect their future. Special attention was given to rethinking the "voices" involved in each place, moving beyond service "providers" and "users" to a more plural sense of community and participatory welfare.

From this wealth of material I set out to create my own audiovisual kalagraphic study of the places involved in the 17 candidate projects (available below) to put into critical focus some of the questions we had been sharing. Again, the idea was to create an introductory guide to further these collective discussions in the final workshops, in a way that would also be useful for potential participants in future. 

The next year the project was continued with all 9 Volunteer Service Centres of the region, drawing participants from volunteer organisations and local associations. Here I made use of my 17 kalagraphic studies to introduce the method, before we set out to explore the social space collectively. I gave each participant a specific key to read one aspect of the space, and we then brought all the material together afterwards to enable further discussion. Analysing their own photographs, participants redescribed the places with a series of new lenses, considering their unique aspects, visibility and discretion, central and peripheral qualities, differing perceptions, all while examining who was present and absent. From these emerged several themes and concerns which the projects held in common, which in turn helped shape regional planning and policy at the Agency.

The 17 kalagraphic studies will open together in a new window. Simply click (swipe on phones) anywhere to advance or use the coloured buttons to change between the projects: each has a specific focus. Buon viaggio!

These introductory guides, as well as being studies in and of themselves, are used as explanatory material during smaller kalagraphic workshops, providing a less abstract way of illustrating the main principles and concepts, as well as presenting the "keys" that participants can then use in their own projects.




Extract from 


(Urban Traces) 

'Art-based methodology and social research: rendering porous the frontiers of the visible'

Daniela Leonardi & Vincenza Pellegrino, University of Parma

"...When we encountered Opher Thomson's work, it was clear to us that his particular visual research could help us grasp how specific places of social concern were part of a city's history. We were interested in the fact that his reading of places made use of specific techniques, including arriving from afar to note the connections between one portion of a city and another to understand how they fit into a broader spatial dimension, gaining a specific identity through contrast, juxtaposition or imitation. His exploratory photographic work, then shared with the group, focuses on places in order to read their marks of both past change and present transitions, focusing on visual expressions produced by those who inhabit those places (objects, writings, images)."

"With Opher Thomson, we travelled around the places nominated for observation for several months, delving into 17 cases of social work in the spaces mentioned, meeting over 40 professionals and many citizens, shopkeepers, and residents, listening to their stories and encouraging the participants to produce images in turn and then to explore them (explaining why they had taken them and what they meant). Out of this process of collective urban traversal emerged a group diary focused on the relational dynamics that characterise the use of space: looking at 'meeting points', 'movements', 'access', 'expressions of home', how to distinguish 'public and private' space... These lenses of observation animated the process of reflexivity. This kind of reading of spaces helped to contextualise social 'problems' and to grasp more deeply the history of the observed dynamics."

"From a methodological point of view, photographing places rather than people helps to capture the relationships, the wider dynamics in which people live immersed. The eye is led to grasp more carefully the different uses made of the same spaces, the (missed) encounters, the differences between neighbouring places, the verbal and non-verbal messages left in places of interest. Dedicating ourselves together to the production of images was valuable, finally, because the photographs helped us to look differently. In this sense, this way of working can help to redefine, at least momentarily, the hierarchies between different ways of exploring and knowing, levelling the gaze of the researchers with that of the social workers and vice versa. The presence of an artist and the methodological exercise proposed to the group created an atmosphere that stimulated a distinctive and participatory cognitive process, stimulating a taking of responsibility in the production of information used for institutional action..."

Agency for Health and Social Care

Emilia Romagna Region

"The visual method helps to trace the significance of what is built materially, by seeking a coherence between form and political design. The courtyards, emporiums, apartment blocks, parks, health centres, which we witness in the products made in collaboration with Opher Thomson, are meeting and listening spaces for a collective response to individual needs. This kind of observation of public policies and private social projects serves to collectively ask questions about tensions and contradictions that are difficult to see in the written pages of a project but we nevertheless find them in the action and life of the city."

[more coming soon]

My heartfelt thanks to all my travel companions in this research!