Anonymous celeb? – facing an ethical dilemma when art and research meet

“In 2004 I had been drinking far too much for a long time. I lived in the woods and was totally down and out. Now I am standing here with a rose in my hand at the opening of my own exhibition. The President also sent us flowers,” says the person who participated in the making of a photographic exhibition about homelessness at the Kiasma museum of contemporary art.

The participants in the three-year photography project that I was in charge of have all experienced homelessness. The photography exhibitions were shown at Kiasma in autumn 2010 and the Finnish Museum of Photography in 2011. During the project I was compiling the materials for my doctoral dissertation, which deals with photography as a method of participatory projects. My research material contains almost 2000 photographs and interview recordings. In the material, homeless people consider their lives using photographs – what does homelessness mean to them and the shift from homelessness to having a home. The exhibition tells about these people’s lives, about how they survived and about the meaningful moments of life.

One of the goals of the exhibitions was to raise awareness of homelessness and prompt discussion on this social problem. The positive publicity received meant that the people, who shared their life story for this shared issue and are familiar from the pages of newspapers, are now recognised by many on the street. The desired publicity through art was achieved, but we had to forego an important research ethical principle.

As a researcher, one of my tasks is to ensure that my studies do not cause any problems for the participants. The identity of participants is not normally disclosed and anonymity is ensured. But as the exhibitions had already brought the participants to the public eye and, respecting copyright law, their work had been publicised under their own names I had to take this issue into account when writing my study. I have to trust my ability to put myself in someone else’s place and to be able to assess what is an ethically good way to write a study that respects human dignity.

When art and research meet, various practices must be matched up. When I stepped from the field of art into my research, I encountered research ethics, which, as an artist, I had not taken into account. Boldness is needed to listen to the needs of both sub-areas and to give them the space required. However, my targets as an artist and a researcher are the same: to highlight for discussion issues that I feel are important. I connect boldness above all with doing the right thing. Boldness is to choose wisely in a difficult situation while respecting others.



Liisa Söderlund

Photographer and dissertation researcher Involved in the University of Eastern Finland’s Kaksi Suomea (two Finlands) project investigating social differences and divisions in Finland in the 2010s, which received funding from Kone Foundation in spring 2015.