The Photographer’s Dilemma: A Public Process Parable

It’s possible my soul was just sold to the devil. You see, I’m an avid photographer — the worst kind: a hobbyist, spending lots of money on the craft but never recouping the investment, at least financially. When I travel, an empty hand longs t…

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It’s possible my soul was just sold to the devil. You see, I’m an avid photographer — the worst kind: a hobbyist, spending lots of money on the craft but never recouping the investment, at least financially. When I travel, an empty hand longs to hold the camera. So when the new Canon Rebel XSi was announced three weeks ago, I got all jittery; it must be mine. But times are tight, and a thousand bucks give or take are not easy to come by. Still, I pre-ordered the new-fangled thing, which is available mid-April, and will pay for it the American way — on credit. I suppose I didn’t sell my soul, after all. I borrowed against it.

Borrowing can be an apt metaphor for participatory planning. We borrow ideas from other places and, somewhere in the process, get feedback and further customize those ideas for the specific locale. In design charrettes, for example, it is standard procedure to show a series of images borrowed from other locations (such as another New Urbanist development or another city with intriguing design elements) to neighbors, external stakeholders, and other participants. We use these to help identify preferences in the new (or renewed) development. Audience members rate the photos, tallies are made, and results show what they like and don’t like, guiding them toward a design aesthetic.

Rooftop view at evening, Loreto Bay, Baja California Sur.

Rooftop villa view, evening, Loreto Bay, Baja California Sur. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Alternatively, a photo survey can be conducted. In this process, stakeholders are invited to head out on their own or in small groups with a camera and take photos along a theme or specific location. Once processed, the photos are then sorted and used as a basis for group discussion. It’s a wonderful way to focus participants, not to mention get them walking.

In either case, it’s not so much the borrowing as the image — and the process of imaging, or better yet visualizing — that’s important. Though in our Web 2.0 world we like to talk on cell phones and send text messages and write on blogs, we are fundamentally a visual species. Just look at the meteoric rise of YouTube, the übersite for videos. Or witness how many folks host their photo collections on sites like Flickr.

Home and front garden, Bisbee, Arizona.

Historic home and lush front garden, Bisbee, Arizona. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Last week, I had the opportunity to present to a group of high school students. The topic of their honors course this semester is “Utopia,” and I was asked to present on New Urbanism and the Community of Civano, where I live. While I had plenty of slides with bullet points and quotes, the series of photos I ran through to introduce Civano — no words, just a slideshow of quality images — was clearly the most appealing. That’s not a criticism of youth today, that they can’t concentrate on the narrative. Rather, it’s an observation of the way we are, and the way we learn, too.

Today’s technology facilitates our innate appreciation of and thirst for images. That’s a blessing and a curse. Too much of a good thing and too much of a bad. There are other clichés, but the result for any of them is that in city design and other public processes, we need filters to help guide us or we get overwhelmed. We need a reasonable selection of images and a reasonable way to present them. Today’s technology can help there, too, but it cannot replace a solid project planner: the person who clicks the shutter in the first place.

As for tomorrow’s technology, if the new Canon camera is any indication, it’s promising, indeed. Now we just need to figure out how to pay for it.

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