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In Search of the Unknown

The Visual Essay as a Method of Exploration, Through an Artistic and Participatory Process
Shirley van der Maarel


Creating our own image, whether it is in research or in art, is a constant conversation with the images already in our heads. In the case of refugees, these images are shaped by mediatised and politicised realities that obscure the capacity to see lived realities. While some attention has been given to how new forms of representation could resist reproducing the existing (visual) discourse in communicating research with refugees, few have considered how to resist reproducing political divisions in conducting research. This article discusses the process of creating a visual essay as part of an ethnographic research project with refugees placed in depopulating villages in central Italy. It demonstrates that as well as a mode of representation, the visual essay can be a method of exploration. In this way, an artistic and participatory process of ‘thinking through making’ has the potential to transform existing ways of seeing and knowing in the process of doing research.

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I thank the organisers and participants of the 2019 VANEASA workshop on “Crafting the Future of the Visual Essay” at the University of Antwerp, where this work was first presented. I also thank the editor of this special issue Paolo SH Favero for his continued support, and the two anonymous reviewers for their time and concrete comments that helped to further develop this article. I am thankful for the generous financial contributions of the Leiden University Fund, the Trustee Fund and the Minerva Fund, that made this research possible. I am grateful to friends and colleagues at Leiden University for their encouragement and feedback, and to Dr. Mark Westmoreland in specific, for his always critical yet supportive supervision throughout the research. I continue to be indebted, and remain immensely grateful to participants and friends in Italy, who did not only help create the visual essay, but also welcomed me from the very beginning, offered their time and trusted me with their stories and images.

Google Images 27th of August 2021

Screenshot by Shirley van der Maarel

1The above image is what I am presented with when searching “refugee” through Google Images. There are overcrowded boats, makeshift homes, tent camps and masses of people who remain largely faceless. When we can make out individual faces, they are generally of worried mothers, or crying children. The words at the top of the page show common associations, reminiscent of news stories, political opinions and historical events. This ‘media memory’ forms part of a ‘collective memory’ (Neiger, Meyers, and Zandberg 2011), so that these images are not just in Google, but also in people’s heads. I experienced this during my own research with refugees in depopulating villages in Italy. One of the “house managers” for example, who coordinated one of the asylum facilities, consistently referred to the house as “un campo” (a camp), even if it was a three-story terraced house in the middle of a village, surrounded by Italian neighbours. Similarly, I often had to correct people and clarify that I was not working with anyone from Syria, but primarily with young men from Western Africa.

2The issue is not just that the media offer an incomplete picture of reality, but that what they depict is a mediatised and politicised version of reality that has little to do with people’s actual experiences (Krzyzanowski, Triandafyllidou, and Wodak 2018: 6–8). Moreover, the category “refugee” has no ontological basis and is merely brought into existence to turn a group of people into a ‘domain to be governed’ (Rose 1999: 33). By making this group visible in one way and not in another, scholars end up helping to produce and naturalise legal categories, political opinions and social stereotypes (De Genova 2002: 423; Jackson 2002: 82; Köhn 2016: 8). Such critiques commonly result in calls for renewed attention in migration studies to modes of representation that do justice to people’s lived experience (De Genova 2002: 421; Jackson 2002: 80) and challenge the current political order by ‘uncovering what is purposefully made invisible, articulating what has not yet been said’ (Köhn 2016: 4).

  • 1 For the purpose of this research, I use the term refugee to include anyone hosted in an Italian asy (...)

3In my experience however, the challenge in presenting the unseen, consists in learning to see the unseen in the first place. Questions around how to represent people’s lives differently, first need to resolve the epistemological issue of getting to know people’s lives beyond existing forms of visibility. This article discusses the process of creating a visual essay, which ultimately formed the heart of my everyday research activities with refugees1 in Valle di Comino, Italy. I demonstrate that as well as a mode of representation, the visual essay can be a method of exploration, where an artistic and participatory making process has the ability to disrupt and transform existing ways of seeing and knowing.

Making the Visual Essay

4In 2019, I conducted a three-month research period in Valle di Comino, central Italy, working with refugees placed in the valley’s depopulating villages, to understand how they create a sense of home in a place that others choose to abandon. In the first few weeks, I was confronted with the limitations of my research methods. The physical and social isolation that characterised life in the villages effectively caused participants to spend most days inside the house, where they were either asleep or on their phones. There was little to observe and even less to participate in. I struggled gaining access to a world that was not physically accessible: their interior lives and the digital lives lived through their smartphones. Meanwhile, the intangible feelings of home and belonging that the research focused on, were hard to capture in words, so that conversations remained at the surface and often quickly dried up. Moreover, I often heard myself asking questions that were responding to the political order the research was supposed to see beyond. I was confronted with the fact that I could criticise the stories and images already in my head, but I could not unsee or unthink them. Unwittingly and unwillingly, they were shaping the questions I asked, what I noticed and deemed relevant.

  • 2 This is not to say that they felt comfortable, but merely that they knew how to go about their phys (...)

5In response, I started using visual methods in the form of spontaneously filmed and photographic observations, as well as creative activities, such as drawing and different forms of mapping. What started as experiments with visual methods, quickly developed into an idea for a visual essay. The essay’s form was inspired by the Subjective Atlas series ( Where a normal atlas takes a bird’s eye perspective, the subjective atlas tries to grasp what it means to be in an area from the diversity of human perspective. Initially, I imagined this as a kind of guide that could be made with refugees for future refugees, but I soon realised that this was not needed, as the refugees had learnt very quickly how to navigate their new lives2. If a guide to life as a refugee in the village was needed at all, it would be for the Italians who generally knew only stereotypes about their new neighbours. After yet another interaction in which I was extensively asked about what it means to be a refugee, rather than the people who knew best (such as the African men standing next to me, who were instead ignored), I decided to make a guide aimed at Italians to explore the worlds of refugees living in the villages of Valle di Comino.

6Each page of the visual essay would highlight one aspect of participants’ lives. I identified themes or would come up with activities that could inform a page. Neither me nor the participants knew truly where this was going, or if it was going anywhere at all. Experimentation also guided the final design of a page. As a kind of travel guide, the visual essay was aimed at both constructing a world and helping readers navigate it. Readers should feel both informed by, and immersed in the pages. In order to achieve this, I could not rely on a set template and instead experimented with different kinds of images, texts and designs. This resulted in a multimodal visual essay informed by an iterative process of creating and recreating on the basis of responses from Italian and refugee participants and of feedback sessions during my postgraduate research programme at Leiden University. In what follows I will consider creating five of the essay’s pages and show how an artistic, participatory and ethnographic process can become a way to disrupt existing forms of visibility, in order to create new ones. Before continuing, readers are invited to engage with the full version of the visual essay “A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita” at the following link:


  • 3 The process of the photowalk is based on a method developed by public space artist Lino Hellings (2 (...)

7What became the last page of the guide, finds it origins in my very first days in Italy. In an effort to get to know the new place I had arrived to, I did a one-hour photowalk.3 By photographing quickly, without thinking, framing or making aesthetic judgements, I was practising a kind of seeing before thinking. Upon return, I looked at the hundred-odd photos and tried to find recurrent patterns. One stood out: waste. From bin bags split open on the street, to an old fridge on the side of the road, and seemingly abandoned buildings being protected by equally abandoned dogs. Still unsure how this was related to my research, I wrote “waste” in big letters and hung it on my wall.

8The word acted as a kind of ‘holophrase’, a term I first heard from filmmaker Diane Toucedo (2018). A holophrase refers to a simple word that is meant to convey a complex idea. It is often used to refer to utterances made by children before they can construct full sentences. The words “nyum nyum” may stand in for the full sentence “I’m hungry, I want to eat”, as well as the complex bodily experience of feeling hungry or experiencing envy at seeing someone else eating. Holophrases stand in for a range of meanings, feelings or thoughts that may or may not be related to each other. Using the word waste as a holophrase, I started adding all kinds of associations and observations, which is how words like refugees, skills, knowledge, rejection and waste started to share the same space on my wall. Together with the photos from the photowalk, these finally formed the basis for the page in the guide.

9Both the photowalk and the holophrase activity could be considered as an effort to destabilise pre-existing ways of seeing the world. Experiments in psychology show that our minds direct our seeing, to the extent that one can miss the otherwise obvious (e.g. Chabris and Simons 2010). The photowalk is an effort to turn this around by letting our eyes guide our seeing. This does not result in seeing more clearly, but in seeing differently, which may trigger thinking differently. Meanwhile, the writing of holophrases on my wall, worked in the opposite direction. Instead of an open-minded seeing, this was a directed seeing, to notice waste in whatever shape or form. It could be considered as a “knowing with” waste rather than a knowing about it. It also resulted in a kind of heightened awareness where ‘the attention to something rather than everything’ opens up new ways of thinking (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2015a: 270).

Waste in Italian is rifiuti, which also means to reject, and which is close to the word for refugees: rifugiati. Wasted buildings, wasted skills, rejected asylum procedures and wasted waste. Wasting time just to fill time. Waste management, but how to manage human waste? (Shirley van der Maarel 2020:56)

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Waste

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Waste

Shirley van der Maarel 2020:55


  • 4 Asylum facilities in Italy are publicly funded, but privately run by non-profit organisations. So-c (...)
  • 5 People’s actual names are used unless a different name was requested by the participant.

10I started to create a “wall of holophrases” and added the word “black”. It came from a moment in which one of the house managers4 had heard Mado,5 a woman from Cameroon, ask me where I had bought my tights. Looking at our legs side by side he said “you don’t need to buy any tights, your legs are already black”. To which she responded, while pointing at her shoes, “these are black, my legs are chocolate”. Having the word as a holophrase on my wall, made my senses attentive to “black” — in whatever shape or form.

11One evening, I was driving Amadou home from a dancing class we had attended together. The intense blackness of the unlit mountain road stretched in front of us. Something about the dark dense tree line on my right, the last bit of orange-purple sunset on my left and the prospect of his loud and intrusive shared house, made me stop. Amadou and I looked at the twinkling lights in the distance, and through the audio recorder we listened to dogs barking in the valley below us. I filmed a tree that was being lit up by my car’s flickering indicator lights. Tree. No Tree. Tree. No tree. And I filmed Amadou as he was patiently waiting for me to finish while he scrolled through his phone. Back home, late at night, I watched the videos and saw how the light of the phone lit up Amadou’s face. Tree. No Tree. Amadou. No Amadou. Later that night as I sat in my dark bedroom, mesmerised by this footage, I started wondering, what makes someone visible? What allows someone to be seen? What is it that gives someone light when you are left in the dark? Through what means do you claim an existence when existence is being denied? Tree. No Tree. Amadou. No Amadou.


Tree no tree


Video by Shirley van der Maarel


Amadou no Amadou


Video by Shirley van der Maarel

  • 6 See also Ngo (2017: 15–20) or Ahmed (2006: 109–11) on moving through space with a “black” body.

14After looking at this footage, the phone gained a new meaning. Rather than only functioning as a communicative device, I started seeing it as something that allows people to exist. The culturally homogenous population of the rural Italian villages was not used to having non-European visitors, let alone having them as their neighbours. It meant that whenever the refugees moved around the villages, they were watched and discussed as “the Other”, exacerbated by the visibility of their racialised black body in an otherwise completely white population.6 Anything that indicated otherness, whether that was drinking tea instead of coffee, juice instead of alcohol, having a different bodily odour, or indeed having a darker skin colour, could trigger comments from Italians. The phone allowed them to exist in a world different from the one they were physically in.

15To present the kinds of worlds they were entering through their phones, I decided to create two mock-up phone screens for the guide. Explaining my intentions, I asked different participants to guide me through their devices; showing every single app, explaining how often they used it, what they used it for and opening them up to show how the apps work. Graphically replicating their phones required a detailed understanding of how they used them, so that I could not rely on assumptions of how people used even familiar apps, such as Whatsapp, Google translate or email. Some people allowed me to see the Whatsapp groups they were in or showed quite personal messages, that revealed intimate parts of their social and interior lives. What followed were unexpected conversations, where the concrete reality of the phone prompted and grounded conversations about daily life beyond what I could have observed or imagined.

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Phone

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Phone

Shirley van der Maarel 2020:44


  • 7 Women generally did not watch football, and the few non-African refugees, who were either Pakistani (...)

16The “phone interviews” also sparked new areas of interest. Seeing the different football apps, I became aware of how important football was for the African men.7 A page on football was initially aimed at revealing a ‘latent commons’ with Italian men (Tsing 2015), that I hoped would trigger a recognition of a shared passion that could bridge social divisions. When a small group of participants started drawing the emblems of their favourite teams, I had imagined the activity to take about half an hour. Instead, it took several hours, as they were painstakingly drawing, erasing and redrawing, while comparing their works to the original emblems they had opened up on their phones. Up until then, I thought that watching, playing and betting on football were merely ways of passing time. Seeing the attention with which they represented their teams, and hearing them explain why these were their favourite teams, I became aware that I had misunderstood, and probably could not understand, the meaning of football for these men.


The Making of the Football Page


Video by Shirley van der Maarel

  • 8 At the time of research, national law dictated that asylum facilities with more than ten people req (...)

18In the weeks that followed, I saw them making the emblems over and over again, as they were doodling on bits of leftover paper. It made me wonder not only about the importance and meaning of football, but also about the joy of creating and producing something. Hannah Arendt ([1958] 1998) famously differentiated between labour, work and action. Labour refers to the repetitive acts of biological survival, work consists of building and contributing to a human world, and action is about expressing oneself in a world where one’s opinions carry weight. Seeing the attention with which they carried out the task, it occurred to me that on a daily basis they were largely unable to engage in either labour, work or action. They spent most of their time in the house, only some had an odd job, groceries were done for them by the house manager, and in some houses, people were not allowed to cook for themselves8. From the original idea of showing dozens of little drawings, the page now evolved to wanting to foreground the commitment, joy and value of both the football and the making of the drawings. More than simply creating the page, the collaborative creation had uncovered aspects of their lives that I did not know were hidden.

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Football

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Football

Shirley van der Maarel 2020:36-37


19Food seemed an obvious theme to include in the visual essay. With people from across Africa, and occasionally from Pakistan or India, different food cultures often coexisted within the same house. Food can bring the taste and smell of home, and sharing food can also be a way of connecting with people from different backgrounds. However, food more commonly appeared to be a problem. I first discovered this when I was about to leave one of the asylum houses and Thompson, a young man from Nigeria, asked me if I liked eggs. I followed him into his room where he showed me a box of the food he had collected to give away, as he and his housemates did not eat it. Meanwhile, in other parts of Italy the news reported of refugees going on hunger strike, as they no longer wanted to eat the food that was provided. This in turn was met with uproar by some Italians, and it often came up in my own conversations with Italians in the area. Confused and intrigued about this situation, I started working with participants in different houses to systematically photograph all the food they did not like, and talk about what they would have wanted to eat instead. Similar to the phone interviews, these conversations revealed layered meanings and experiences of food, beyond the simplified and politicised reality that was presented in the Italian media. They also prompted conversations that went beyond food alone. We talked about the transport networks through which some participants went to an international food shop outside the valley, their relation to the house managers who only ever visited them briefly to deliver the groceries, or the more general lack of control they felt over their lives.

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Food

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Food

What they buy, what we eat

Shirley van der Maarel 2020:40

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Food

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Food

What they buy, what we eat

Shirley van der Maarel 2020:41


20Mountains created the valley where the research took place. As a continuous background, they followed me wherever I went. I often photographed them, but their majestic character always seemed to escape the frame of a single photo. It was only after I spoke with Silvia, one of my Italian contacts, that it became clear why. In a rather poetic voice message, she mixed metaphor and description to explain that the mountains were less of a background, and more of a figure shaping life in the valley.


Silvia Talking About Mountains


Video by Shirley van der Maarel

22Re-watching and re-reading my photos, videos and research notes, suddenly the mountains were everywhere; shaping history, sociality, ways of navigating space and understanding oneself. It was only when I could see the mountains differently — not as a backdrop but as a cohabitant — that I could also re-present them differently.

Historically mountains offer protection. From high on up you can see what’s coming and you can see where you are - Alvito, Gallinaro, behind that San Donato, and further up is Picinisco. You can see over there, and from there you can see over here. Mountains in every direction, a continuum that surrounds you, shelters you. But like anything that watches over you, it also locks you in, obstructing the view to what is beyond. And mountains speak only through echoes, so that everything constantly comes back around. Sometimes, when you are down in the valley, mountains may seem insurmountable. (Shirley van der Maarel 2020:42-43)

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Mountains

A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Mountains

Shirley van der Maarel 2020:42-43

Thinking Through Making

23The creation of the visual essay turned into an experiment on what it means for ‘thinking’ to take place through ‘making’ (Ingold 2013). The activities gave purpose to days during which participants would engage in few other activities. They also grounded conversations in the tangible realities of food or mobile phone apps, which made it possible to talk about otherwise abstract concepts, such as home and belonging. Most importantly however, thinking through making involved a different kind of knowing.

24(Social) scientific research generally involves a cumulative knowledge process (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2015b: 430) which, in the case of research with refugees, builds on the same mediatised and politicised realities that migration scholars are asked to transform (De Genova 2002; Köhn 2016). An artistic practice, on the other hand, is directed not at knowing more but at knowing differently (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2015b: 429). It starts not from what is known, but from the unknown and the unexpected, to challenge what we do know (Sullivan 2011: 81; Zijlmans 2011: 186). The Danish visual artist Jacob Rantzau for example, would place some of his sketches on the floor of his studio, let people walk on them without knowing, and hope that the changes would cause him to look differently (2017). This act is not aimed at creating a more accurate or aesthetic representation of reality, which is how the social sciences often continue to interpret the role of visual work in research (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2015b: 431). Rather, it is aimed at unseeing and unmaking, to be able to see anew, in order to think anew. Artistic practice as interpretation rather than imitation of the world, also means that style, aesthetics and visual form is not simply applied to a work, but is developed in the process of knowledge making (Favero 2018).

25Considering the visual essay as an artistic process, which in turn is understood as a knowledge-making practice, allowed the creation of the visual essay to act as a method of exploration, not just representation. The visual, ethnographic and participatory activities that formed the basis for the essay pages, created the conditions for the unexpected to emerge. Unanticipated conversations and interactions with people and places often confronted me with ways of seeing that were unknowingly filtering my ways of thinking – and vice versa. From this ability to know differently, it then becomes possible to respond to calls for new forms of visibility in migration research.

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1 For the purpose of this research, I use the term refugee to include anyone hosted in an Italian asylum facility, which includes people seeking, having been granted or rejected asylum.

2 This is not to say that they felt comfortable, but merely that they knew how to go about their physical and social surroundings.

3 The process of the photowalk is based on a method developed by public space artist Lino Hellings (2014).

4 Asylum facilities in Italy are publicly funded, but privately run by non-profit organisations. So-called “house managers” are appointed to one or more facilities. They are the refugees’ first point of contact regarding any health, legal or other needs, and they are responsible for enforcing the rules and communicating between the refugees and the organisation. For a more detailed description on the asylum system in Italy see Galera and Giannetto (2017).

5 People’s actual names are used unless a different name was requested by the participant.

6 See also Ngo (2017: 15–20) or Ahmed (2006: 109–11) on moving through space with a “black” body.

7 Women generally did not watch football, and the few non-African refugees, who were either Pakistani or Indian, were more interested in cricket.

8 At the time of research, national law dictated that asylum facilities with more than ten people required a cook that would prepare the food and decide what and when to eat.

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List of illustrations

Caption Google Images 27th of August 2021
Credits Screenshot by Shirley van der Maarel
File image/jpeg, 428k
Title A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Waste
Credits Shirley van der Maarel 2020:55
File image/jpeg, 1.0M
Title A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Phone
Credits Shirley van der Maarel 2020:44
File image/jpeg, 388k
Title A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Football
Credits Shirley van der Maarel 2020:36-37
File image/jpeg, 384k
Title A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Food
Caption What they buy, what we eat
Credits Shirley van der Maarel 2020:40
File image/jpeg, 449k
Title A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Food
Caption What they buy, what we eat
Credits Shirley van der Maarel 2020:41
File image/jpeg, 391k
Title A Visual Guide into Terra Incognita - Mountains
Credits Shirley van der Maarel 2020:42-43
File image/jpeg, 747k
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Electronic reference

Shirley van der Maarel, In Search of the UnknownAnthrovision [Online], Vol. 8.2 | 2020, Online since 31 August 2022, connection on 06 December 2022. URL:; DOI:

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