Photographic Documentation of Grassroots, Spontaneous and Temporary Memorials

Photograph of the spontaneous memorial in St Ann’s Square after the Manchester Arena Attack (May 2017). Photograph by Manchester City Council.

By Kostas Arvanitis, Senior Lecturer in Museology, University of Manchester

Large-scale disasters, terrorist attacks and other mass violence events, as well as the death of public figures lead often to the formation of spontaneous, grassroots and temporary memorials. These often consist of flowers, candles, notes, flags, t-shirts, and other artefacts. Such memorials have become an expected expression of public grief and memorialisation in various parts of the world.

During the period of this temporary memorialisation, cultural/civic organisations, community groups and researchers are interested in or tasked to capturing and documenting visually the memorials.

The following provides quick and brief guidance on what to photograph. This is based on my own work documenting and researching the spontaneous memorials after the Manchester Arena attack (22 May 2017) and studying similar memorials elsewhere. It has, also, been informed by relevant literature and conversations with students at the Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester over the years. The guidance has, also, been shaped by my collaboration with staff in cultural organisations in Manchester (especially Manchester Art Gallery and Archives+) and beyond.

This guidance is far from comprehensive. It focuses on what to photograph. It does not touch on other aspects of such work, e.g. technical steps, issues and solutions pre-, during and post-photography; how to form and manage a team, where there is a team of people involved in the project; how to combine photography and film; how to archive, curate and use the photographs; and how to look after oneself and others especially with regards to possible vicarious trauma resulting from engaging with this work. Also, in some cases, you might find useful to combine your photography with notetaking; this guide doesn’t cover that either.

The guidance assumes that the photographer has considered the ethical parameters of such photography and, where relevant, has consulted the ethical guidance of their institution, and/or requested and been granted ethical approval. This is especially relevant if the photographer intends to take photographs of people’s behaviour and action around the memorial. It, also, assumes that any required permission to photograph at the site of the memorials has been sought and granted.

Not all of the following guidance will be relevant to everyone embarking on such photography. Among other factors, the nature and the location of the event memorialised, its broader sociocultural contexts, and the specific scope and aims of the visual documentation would influence what and how is photographed. Also, if some or all of the items are being collected after the removal of the spontaneous memorials, a few of the steps below might not be necessary (e.g. photographing the content of individual notes/cards).

I’d be very interested in hearing from anyone if you’ve found this guidance useful (or not). Similarly, if you’d like to suggest additions on it, please get in touch! (kostas.arvanitis@manchester.ac.uk).

Finally, watch this space for guidance on collecting spontaneous memorials.


What to photograph when documenting spontaneous/grassroots/temporary memorials: 

  1. Location of the memorial: Take photographs that capture where the memorial is located (e.g. in a square, park, on the site of the related disaster/event, etc).
  2. Context: Photographs that communicate the geographical, spatial and social context of the site: i.e. take photographs of: the memorial site from different angles and distances to indicate geography; particular spots with memorial items to capture any spatial contexts; and crowds to demonstrate social/civic uses. 
  3. Growth of the memorial:Take photographs that document whether, how and how much the memorial grows over the period of the spontaneous memorialisation.
  4. Change of the memorial over the period of its existence on site: What changes, if any, does the memorial undergo? E.g. does its content (i.e. types of items) change and, if so, what might have led or contributed to such change? Do people’s behaviour or actions change and why/when (e.g. does the memorial’s duration and interference with daily life and activity affect people’s interaction with it)?
  5. Materiality of memorial items: Take photographs of items that document different types of materials the memorials are made of, as well as their origin, size, shape, design, decoration, etc.
  6. Performativity of memorial items: This refers both to the act of leaving an item (i.e. photographing the leaving of an item at the memorial; or interacting with an item/the space, e.g. reading a note, taking photographs of it, or taking a selfie); and the performativity of the item, e.g. is it a long message that invites people to read? Is it a candle that might attract more candles around it? Is it an item that prompts people to photograph/engage with (e.g. writing on it, or adding a post-it note etc)? 
  7. Language: Capture the textual and visual language of items, especially in written notes. In many cases, it would be difficult to photograph all such notes, letters and cards. In large-scale memorials, these tend to be obstructed by flowers and other items; or their text might not be clearly legible (not least because of weather factors).
  8. Creativity: Items that indicate that people have taken time and applied special skills to create (e.g. artworks, school projects etc). 
  9. Everydayness: Unplanned items that people left largely prompted by coming across the site and by observing others leaving memorials (e.g. notes on pieces of paper, or a hashtag written on the back of a café receipt).
  10. Ephemerality: items/messages that are time/weather-sensitive (e.g. chalk graffiti on pavement). 
  11. Assemblage: This refers to particular groupings of items that, from the outset, are created as such, e.g. a group of candles; a group of items that are directed at a particular individual; or a group of items from a particular community (e.g. staff of a hospital, pupils and teachers of a school). 
  12. Community: items that are put together by groups of people (e.g. school posters, a card signed by a family, school, group, community centre, hospital etc). 
  13. Personalisation: This refers to personalisation of both actor and intended recipient: Regarding the actor, this might be an item that reveals something about the person who left it on the site (their profession/nationality/ethnicity/etc, e.g. a flag of a nation attached on a soft toy). Regarding the recipient: items directed at a particular person, e.g. a card or a letter to the person(s) who the memorial relates to.
  14. Emotion: Items that communicate how the individual who left them might feel (e.g. the content of cards and notes, heart-shaped balloons, etc).
  15.  Affect: Items that communicate the emotion an individual (intends to) instil to others at the memorial site. This is often linked to social/civic messages (e.g. messages that talk about solidarity, community spirit, resilience, anger etc). 
  16. Ritual: It refers to anticipated and formal actions and behaviours e.g. minute silence; lighting a candle; writing a message; speeches etc (please see next point on Embodiment about considerations of how and whether to photograph). 
  17. Embodiment: This is often part of how ritual (see above) happens, i.e. we use our bodies to participate in a ritual. E.g. we stay silent and still for the minute silence; or we move slowly, or slow down when passing by a memorial site; or lean over to read a message; or assume a praying position/gesture; or sing, or recite a poem. Inevitably, this kind of photography would in many cases mean that you need to take photographs of people’s behaviour and action, so you should take measures to avoid interfering with or disturbing people’s memorialisation activity and preserve anonymity (e.g. do not photograph people’s faces). Equally, it is important to ask yourself, “why do I photograph this?” and “should I take photograph of this at all”? What to photograph includes a consideration of what not to photography.
  18. Protest, if any: Spontaneous memorials often project a homogenous sense of unity and imply a singular response to the event, which can be misleading. Take photographs of items or actions that differ to, or (in)directly oppose the memorialisation taking place (including the formation of anti-memorials on site or elsewhere).
  19. Self: Capture and document your own involvement and agency (e.g. by taking a selfie at the site; and taking notes about your own reflections of photographing the spontaneous memorialisation).
  20. Removal: Photograph the removal of the memorials. Removing the memorials and clearing the site is still part of the memorialisation process. It marks the formal end of the (spontaneous) memorialisation and is often being observed by passers-by. In some cases, some, most, or all of the memorial items would be collected by one or more local, cultural or community organisations, while other items would be recycled/redistributed/donated (e.g. soft toys and candles), composted (flowers and plants), or disposed of. Photographing the removal and, where possible/desirable, the transition of memorial items into their new home or form of existence would offer your photography project a clear end point, or at least a key milestone.  

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