Glorious Backfires in Digital Ethnography: Becoming an Urban Explorer
For four years, Bradley Garrett (@Goblinmerchant) explored abandoned hospitals, railways, tunnels and rooftops as part of his PhD ethnography studying an elite group of urban explorers.
Brad has in many ways had it all: a book deal from Verso just after finishing his PhD, a position at Oxford University to continue his research, and numerous requests for media appearances and license deals. But he has also just had one of the hardest years of his life, struggling with a backlash from some members of the urban explorer community as well as attempts by authorities to stop the publication of his book. Last month, Brad gave a talk to the newly-established Oxford Digital Ethnography Group (@OxDEG) about some of the perils of doing public ethnography. His story is a counterpoint to the uncritical enthusiasm usually espoused about this form of engagement. Public ethnography, we soon learn, can be dangerous.
When Brad first started working on the urban explorer project, he realized (like so many ethnographers before him) that joining the community would not be easy. He couldn’t simply join other explorers without first establishing himself as trustworthy and serious. Brad needed currency. Photographs of him pictured in hard-to-reach spaces were that currency. Brad recounts that it took him about eight months of exploring mostly on his own, taking photographs of his explorations and then publishing them on his blog, Place Hacking and other forums to get an invite.
The very method used to meet the elite explorers who he ended up studying also led to exposure of a more problematic kind. Because he was sharing his photographs and field notes using his real name, Brad was increasingly seen as a spokesperson and leader of the urban explorer community among the press who, he said, “couldn’t deal with a leaderless community”. By the time him and his crew posted photographs of them climbing the Shard in London, his website crashed and he had “every national newspaper in the country trying to get photos”.
Those whose buildings were being trespassed saw photographs of explorers claiming the spaces as their own through these visual explorations and the accompanying media attention as brazen. Some members of the community resented his status as a spokeperson, and he endured criticism and legal threats.
At some point, Brad started to feel the pressure of this public engagement. He said that it became difficult to separate his friendships from the work, that there were points in the research that ethics forms don’t cover and “difficult decisions that had to be made on the fly”. Usually, a PhD enables one to navigate boundaries privately, but this was happening in public. “Usually its just an internal conversation but it became a national conversation,” he said.
Brad’s story seems inevitable given the requirements for this ethnography. “I could have done this project sitting at my laptop reading forum posts,” he said. “I chose to be there.” Urban exploration doesn’t allow any opportunities for lurking: Brad had to choose to be there or not be there. He chose the former, and made some critical decisions in the process.
We did a short interview with Brad about his book and the project:
Brad’s book, ‘Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City‘ is published by Verso. His talk last month launched the Oxford Digital Ethnography Group seminar series. This post is part of the November, 2013 theme: ‘Being a student ethnographer‘.