Society through the Viewfinder

Associate Professor of Sociology and Tisch Faculty Fellow James Ennis, pictured with graffiti cyberpunk-style.

Associate Professor of Sociology James Ennis is using his Tisch College Faculty Fellowship to explore intersections between his academic interests and his lifelong passion for photography.  Over the years, he has documented scores of demonstrations, rallies, festivals, protests, fairs, and gatherings.  Intrigued by the sociological value of this collection, he is now developing ways to use this rich archive systematically.

Tisch College Faculty Fellows pursue a year-long academic project with a major active citizenship focus.  They meet regularly as a group for interdisciplinary discussions on engaged teaching and research, coordinated by Tisch College director of research and CIRCLE director Peter Levine.  This year, the program includes discussions of community engagement as an approach to research, educating Tufts students for active citizenship, and research on civic engagement.

“I think the fellowship serves a key need, linking up people in different domains in creative ways,” said Ennis.  “It gives the kind of freedom and flexibility needed for a project like this, to let it be what it’s going to be through the process of discovery, and to develop without programming it in advance.”

Crowd at Obama campaign rally, Concord, NH, November 4, 2012.
Crowd at Obama campaign rally, Concord, NH, November 4, 2012.

Particularly interested in political demonstrations, Ennis sees his work as exploring related questions in visual culture and sociological inquiry.

“Sociologically, it’s clear that people organize into communities,” he said.  “But within that, there’s such a broad spectrum of engagement, from neighborhoods up to religion, the arts, politics.  I think active citizenship is all the ways people do democracy, the way they organize themselves and work together.”

“There are two tracks to my project,” Ennis continued.  “One is about documenting these kinds of events, and preserving and circulating that record.  The other is thinking about those channels of distributions, and the relationship between this kind of documentation and its usefulness to sociology. ”

The annual HONK! Festival in Somerville has been a favorite subject, both to photograph and for its very public demonstration of civic spirit. The annual gathering of activist street bands has engaged the research interests of a number of Tufts faculty, including members of the departments of American studies, anthropology, dance, and music.

Horns on parade at the HONK! Festival.
Horns on parade at the HONK! Festival.

“It’s like a cross between New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and a political demonstration,” said Ennis.  “It’s celebratory, but civic messages and community representation are central, and there’s a recasting of how public space works.”

"Labor Creates All Wealth" banner at the Honk! Festival.
The sun shines upon HONK!

Ennis has been excited by photography since he was young.

“My father was an amateur photographer, so I got an early interest from him,” he said.  “In high school I learned film and dark room chemistry, and I did that for years, until everything went digital.  Starting in college, I would go to protests, festivals, any kind of big public gathering, and take pictures.”

As his interest in sociology grew, Ennis continued to pursue his photography – and to explore the interplay between his two passions.

“There’s an interesting overlap of the start of documentary photography and the work of people like Jacob Riis, and the foundation of American sociology,” said Ennis.  “They both came into prominence at around the same time, and they’re looking at the same topics, like immigration, cities, and systems of power.”

Occupy Boston Antiwar march, October 15, 2011.
Occupy Boston Antiwar march, October 15, 2011.

“Since then, photography has been driven by aesthetics – the criteria are what is interesting to the eye and what is not.  Quantitative sociology, which is mostly what I’ve done, has different concerns, looking at the whole sample and the whole population.”

Wisconsin Labor Solidarity Demonstration, Massachusetts Statehouse, February 26, 2011.
Wisconsin Labor Solidarity Demonstration, Massachusetts Statehouse, February 26, 2011.

“For example, if I take 500 pictures, 300 of them might be kind of interesting, 100 of those are good, and 30 of those are really good.  And then within that selection, I’m going to crop and strip things out.  That’s really counter to what I do as a sociologist, which is not to crop, to deal with whole systems.  There are big questions of representation that I want to think through, and I’m excited to be able to explore them with the other fellows, and the help of Tisch College.”

 More of James Ennis’s photography can be found on his flickr photostream.