Q&A with Inanna Riccardi, multilingual ethnographer

Editor’s note: Nancy Cox is the founder of Research Story Consulting and former CPG corporate researcher. Her work and play include words, sketchpads, cooking (not baking) and the occasional sock puppet.

Passions, hobbies, healthy distractions and even guilty pleasures – discover how the research community plays and how that plays out in their work life. In the Venn diagram of work and play, what happens when work and play overlap? Research colleagues share their work and play stories in this interview series by Nancy Cox. 

Hello to Inanna Riccardi, multilingual ethnographer.

What is the “play” in your life?

The author’s self-portrait: The image was taken in 2018 with a polaroid camera and is part of Riccardi’s larger body of work called The play in my life has evolved but has always been related to art – painting when I was young, theatre groups in school. When I was in an area without theatre groups, my interest drifted to photography and videography. Lens-based art. I became the family photographer for gatherings and holidays. Then I wrote my ethno-anthropologist bachelor’s thesis on a performance artist in Madrid where I was studying at the time. My thesis included visual art and deepened my understanding of the connection between art and anthropology. As I worked on a practical-based master’s degree in applied cultural analysis, I kept cultivating photography as a hobby. 

After graduation, I did an anthropological project titled “Human Refugees,” on the 2015-2016 refugee wave in Denmark. Instead of doing only interviews, I structured the interviews around the visual story of an object. That was important to the refugees. Objects that the refugees brought with them such as a cloth item that they wore during the journey, or something that reminded them of home, such as a perfume. The resulting highly visual artifact became a representation or encapsulation of their refugee journey. For each person, I included the story and photo of the object, a map, a photo portrait. The result was an exhibition I co-curated for The Danish Immigration Museum then ended up traveling then went into public space – a metro (mass transit station) program with large prints. 

At the same time, I became interested in photovoice. An individual’s way of expressing – “voicing” – or telling a story through photography. I explored photovoice in a series of anthropological workshops with social welfare organizations. Co-creating visual-based artifacts with marginalized populations including people suffering from mental issues and drug-related misuse. For example, a workshop called “Home Sweet Home” where the participants unfolded what feeling at home meant to them, and what and who was “home” for them. In the final publication, the participants in each workshop also talk about their visual. While the great thing about a photograph or a painting is that we can each have a different interpretation, in a project like this it is more critical that the participant’s voice comes across clearly. There was also an exhibition at the end of each workshop, another opportunity to photovoice their experience not only to family and friends but also influence policy decision makers/stakeholders with a discussion table.

Inspired by this, I decided to embrace photography on a more professional level. I took a year off from work to study photography. To create my own photovoice. So, photography is now part of my work life although not always the work that pays the bills.

How has your play influenced your research work?

My photovoice journey and my professional journey are intertwined by narrative. Narrative is key to ethnography and photography. Photography is not only about being able to frame a good shot, it’s about narrative. I’ve facilitated others to raise their voice through photography. This is very similar to how anthropology works. We sit down with people to hear their stories and how to make their stories understood for a broader audience. How do you tell a story that is not too personal? That can be an issue but a story that is both personal and evocative with a broader reach.

Photographs that other people take can help researchers a lot. Photos naturally tell stories that might be difficult to tell in words. The photo captures a moment, the respondent can reflect upon that moment. Recently, in an alcoholic beverage study, it was easier to see the differences in the dinner habits of not only the Italian and Mexican markets but different regions within Mexico. Who is there? How is the table dressed and organized? Giving the camera to the respondent instead of the ethnographer or professional videographer that accompanies the ethnographer gives the photovoice to the respondent.

In every project where the participants are taking photographs, there are choices I understand as a photographer, assessing the context in order to understand which medium is the most suitable. I have chosen to have participants use their mobile phones to make the process easy and avoid putting them under stress. In previous workshops, I asked individuals to use an analog camera, to challenge the participants. Choosing analog also means the participants cannot delete. For that project, I also made the photographic choice to use black-and-white film so that we could develop the film ourselves. Having the participant create the visual artifact sparked conversations.

What would you tell readers who want to know more about your area of play?

We believe that we are all photographers now with our phones and especially with Instagram – using a lot of filters that beautify the photo for you. Also, the square format presents the photos in a certain way. The square format is an old way of presenting photos – Instagram borrowed that format from the pioneering consumer camera, the Hasselblad 1600F, launched in the market in 1948. But is that filtered square really your photovoice or more about who you want to impress?

The most efficient way to start your photovoice journey is to take a photography course. Photography begins – and remains – the practice of photography. I started with a short course – only two weeks. A short course has the benefit of a focus such as portraits or landscapes. Look at the instructor’s photography. If you admire their photography, that may be a good course for you. You will automatically have more respect for feedback from a teacher whose photography you appreciate.

Taking a course may also help you find a photography community. Being a photographer can be lonely. You can develop a narrow view. A local amateur club can help problem solve and inspire you to try new things.

Of course, there are books. For someone with very little experience and would like a general overview I recommend: "30-Second Photography," 2014, edited by Brian Dilg published by ILEX, and "The nature of photography,” 2007, by Stephen Shore published by Phaidon Press Inc.

Another good practice is to train your eyes by looking at photo books or by going to exhibitions.
I personally love the work of Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. Their book “Violet Isle,” 2009, published by Radius Book, is astonishing!! 

One last thought about work and play – I differentiate personal photography from work by allowing –even welcoming – mistakes. Not knowing where you’re going with your photography. When you’re at work, you need to deliver to certain quality standards. When you play with your photography, you can relax, you can wander, you can “waste” time. That’s when you learn about your photography, your photovoice, yourself and ultimately the world.

A note on the author’s self-portrait (shadow image above): The image was taken in 2018 with a polaroid camera and is part of Riccardi’s larger body of work called "My feminine side." The work investigates the notion of femininity in Italy. Riccardi says, “The Polaroid 600 was chosen because the photographer has little control over the setting, and therefore little control over the result, which is one of the perspectives that can summarize the women's condition in Italy in the 1930s-40s and, to some extent, even more recently.” "My feminine side" is still in progress.