Post by Francesca Esposito, Doctoral Candidate in Community Psychology, ISPA-University Institute, Lisbon [supported by a grant of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (SFRH/BD/87854/2012)]. This post is the third instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Visual Methodologies.

It was 3 September 2013 when I received an email from the Prefecture of Rome (the local branch of the Ministry of the Interior) notifying me that I had been given permission to access the center for identification and expulsion (CIE) of Rome, Ponte Galeria. I had officially submitted my request three months earlier. Given the well-known difficulties of getting access to these sites, especially for research purposes, I was anxiously awaiting the answer. Needless to say, when I finally got a positive response I was very happy. What surprised me most was that the extent of the freedom they allowed. In addition to interviews, I could film and take photographs so long as I respected detainees’ privacy and guaranteed their anonymity. I had not expected this kind of flexibility.

I decided not to film, since it was beyond the scope of my research goals and I felt that it would’ve been much too invasive for detainees as well as for staff. It turns out that later this year, Raffaella Cosentino and Alessio Genovese made the first documentary shot inside Italian CIEs, including the centers of Rome, Bari, and Trapani. Instead, I chose to take the opportunity to photograph inside the detention center.

At the time, I didn’t have any idea about how to use images in my research, nor about which pictures I wanted to take or even on what to focus. Once inside, I started to photograph objects, spaces, and events that attracted my attention and were accessible. I usually take photographs when there’s some privacy. It’s an intimate act, one that can feel quite invasive. Given the levels of distrust that often characterize so many relationships within the CIE, I worry about what people think I’ll do with the images I take.

Sunset through the bar fences at Ponte Galeria (Photo: F. Esposito)
I alternate periods of participant observation and interviews and informal conversations with detainees and staff members with times in which I walk around Ponte Galeria, taking pictures that make sense to me in that particular moment. In both cases, I don't have a guiding hypothesis or an a priori framework that guides me in what to include and what to avoid. I just try to grasp the intricacies of the complex reality that is the CIE. As Melanie Friend argues in relation to her four-year (2003-2007) research process towards the multi-media artwork Border Country, oral and visual representations are both powerful forms of portraying individuals and narrating stories. In my research project, I also conceive of them in such a way.
So far, I’ve discovered that images are a useful means to record particular events and moments in the course of fieldwork. An image condenses a set of sensations, colors, smells, sounds, and emotions that are often difficult to put into words. As a research tool, this aspect of images can be enormously powerful. As I review an image, even when I’m in my office, I can suddenly recall the context, both physical and emotional, in which it was taken. In this way, I use the evocative power of the image to be able to ‘go back’ into the field when I’m out of it. In a similar fashion, images can make ‘real’ issues that privileged groups (Italian citizens, in my case) prefer to ignore. Letting people ‘enter’ immigration detention centers through such images can provoke a strong impact, raising people’s awareness.
Female living unit at Ponte Galeria (Photo: F. Esposito)
On the other hand, as I’ve already noted, taking images can be invasive. The (potentially) exploitative and asymmetrical nature of research relationships is unavoidable; images may strengthen this dynamic by catering to voyeuristic appetites, both of the researchers and those who have access to the pictures. Photographs can objectify and reinforce stereotypes, especially when they concern marginalized and oppressed groups. In this sense, and according to my authorization, the photos I take mostly portray the CIE’s interior spaces and landscapes―environments that are far from familiar, ordinary, and sterile, similar to the ones exposed in Border Country.
The majority of detainees don’t like to be photographed: they don’t want their friends and families to know that they are in detention; they’re ashamed of their condition, and often feel guilty about it. Many, especially women, are also worried about their safety since they’re escaping situations of persecution, domestic violence, trafficking, and sexual or labor exploitation. Ethical concerns are particularly relevant in these specific situations, and more generally in sites like these ones, where people experience a certain degree of powerlessness. Detainees’ concerns, fears, and personal preferences need to be respected; special care must be taken so my actions as a researcher don’t expose them to any form of risk or increase their distress.
Main corridor of the female living unit at Ponte Galeria (Photo: F. Esposito)
Images can be a powerful tool to portray the lived experiences of people in sites of confinement, especially when integrated with other methods, such as oral narratives. They can tell the ‘research story,’ also speaking to the various ways in which, as researchers, we are part of it. However, it’s necessary to engage in an ongoing reflection on the meanings that images assume in our research processes. Such a dialogue allows us as researchers to become more aware of and able to navigate tensions and challenges that inevitably arise by using visual methodologies, including the tensions between voyeurism and knowledge production, as well as that between ‘giving voice’ and possessing/exploiting others’ voices.
Themed Week on Visual Methodologies:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Esposito, F. (2015) Using Images in Research on Immigration Detention: Tensions and Challenges. Available at: (Accessed [date]).