Illustration by Animal Waves

From images to social identities: stories of working class families on the move

José Cavaleiro Rodrigues


Evidence gathered since the late 2000s has suggested that a part of the working class goes through episodes of poverty without becoming chronically poor. Drawing on a project conceived to capture successful movements that escape severe or extreme destitution and deprivation and based on an ethnography with 28 families in two public housing estates in the metropolitan area of Lisbon, this article will start by exposing how poverty emerged in their lives, under what conditions it was possible to overcome it, and how they identify the positions they have conquered within structures of inequalities and social hierarchies. 

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José Cavaleiro Rodrigues


José Cavaleiro Rodrigues is an Associate Professor at Escola Superior de Comunicação Social (ESCS), from Lisbon Polytechnic, and an integrated researcher at Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia (CRIA). He holds a PhD in Anthropology, from Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas (FCSH-UNL), since 2012, and is the author of many books, papers and communications in national and international peer reviewed journals and conferences. He founded the scientific review Comunicação Pública in 2005 and was awarded in 1998 with the City Annual Prize “Augusto Vieira da Silva” for the best research about the Lisbon Metropolitan Area. His current research topics are urban affairs and inequalities, entrepreneurial creativity, and citizenship.

Animal Waves


Animal Waves, pseudonym of Joana Cruz. Born in 2000 in Lisboa, Portugal. Studied Visual Arts in Salesianos Lisboa and graduated in Plastic Arts at The Upper School of Arts and Design, ESAD.CR in 2022.

Develops artwork in an experimental way with painting, sculpture, video-performance, and photography where explores the body around possible environments. This body can be a form or a figure and its scenographic contexts contribute to the construction of a narrative. The performative process meets this line of thought, and it is an active element for the narrative. In painting, which frequently uses oil pastel and acrylic, the body is moved by impulses and rhythmic movements that create an abstract composition.

Currently is working with photography focusing on daily life events and people.

To retrieve these life stories, we created a new visual method to support interviews called “Visual Evocation”. After being pioneers in the use of new image technologies during the last decades of the 19th century, with the sequences filmed during Haddon’s Expedition to the Torres Strait, or the first photographs published and registered in South India by Breeks and Marshall, anthropologists maintained, at least after 1930, an intense activity of cinematic exploration that ends with the reflexive, participatory or sensorial experiences in film of contemporary times.

While ethnographic film was looking for its path, innovations also emerged from more instrumental uses of images, in contexts of fieldwork and community action, through photographic or filmic elicitation and photovoice. In either of these cases, the pre-existing images or those captured expressly by the subjects involved, are the focal point of interviews and, it’s through their manifest contents, that facts are clarified, memories reconstituted, or opinions expressed.

In the proposal that we developed, the images were made by the researcher, they are born from a collaborative relationship between the researcher and the people he is working with, but they are only a triggering device: the final goal is to generate a deeper reflection and facilitate the expression of identity narratives, seeing “beyond” these personal vignettes and what they already tell.

This visual and written materials are now being prepared to set up a portfolio of contents used in sites, exhibitions, and publications. The intent of this final stage is to provoke awareness on the diversity of this social category known as “poverty”, their ways of life and representations about inequality and, simultaneously, to promote a sense of achievement and validation in this “class travelers” that cross the poverty line.

A few years ago, I started working on a new form of visual elicitation, with a very generic definition of this set of methodologies, simply as the use of images in conducting interviews. The idea came to me in the context of fieldwork, a study with a long period of direct community observation, carried out in two resettlement neighborhoods in Lisbon, focused on 28 families whose common characteristic was to present consolidated trajectories of social mobility, escaping the condition of poverty in which they were born or lived a significant part of their lives. The central objectives of the research, therefore, went through knowing the periods of poverty and its appearance, the moments and the strategies developed for overcoming it, but also the way in which the subjects identified the social paths taken and the positions they reached, in the framework of representations and ways of conceiving the structure of inequalities and contemporary social hierarchies.

Locally anchored fieldwork, very inspired by community studies, intended to facilitate immersion in the experience of places, people and families and the recovery of a joint history, while establishing a denser contextual base for a collection of individual and family information, which would depend mostly on ethnographic interviews. This type of interview, linked to ethnographic practice, maintains a close relationship with direct observation. They are flexible, both in their structure and in their application. The scripts can be subject to small adjustments, specifications introduced according to discoveries made possible by the advancement of interactions between the researcher and the community. This dynamic can also be achieved with prior knowledge and familiarity with the interviewees: at the formal moment of the interviews there are questions for which part of the answer elements already exist, which streamlines and shortens the procedure. The feedback between the practices observed in everyday life, documental data and a rich collection of testimonies, is the distinctive element of this form of ethnography.

Even using this type of interviews, the weight and diversity of themes, the fact that they required a reconstitution of complete life stories, with family dimensions, changes in residential conditions, migratory movements, educational achievements and professional paths, changes of socioeconomic condition, give rise to a vast set of elements that must be temporally articulated and confronted, to understand the projected identities and status claims of individuals. These are complex processes, in which it is necessary to sew together episodes and reconstitute a multiplicity of paths that we receive in the form of narratives, stories through which subjects want to make themselves known and convey an idea of themselves. Descriptions and narratives that involve feelings and emotions, sometimes reserved aspects of personal and family life that are not always easy to talk about, memories that need to be reactivated, events that never received a special meaning and for which interpretations are now being asked.

It is in this framework that the possibility of using the moving image as a facilitating instrument took form. Using images to create a device that bypassed the fragmentary, simply chronological and, above all, descriptive logic of the interviews, from the present to the past and, again to the present, and replacing this restorative logic by asking the interviewees a fundamental question, a first attribution of meaning to their identities and, based on the responses, collect images on film that, after being viewed, could trigger reflective processes and a discursive deepening on the part of the subjects. The film, or rather the filmed scenes, are not intended to be more than an auxiliary tool at the service of the interview and for the benefit of expression through words.

For practical reasons, related to the delay introduced in the process, most interviews did not resort to the use of images. Only two families were selected, and their representatives were asked to answer two questions: “who am I” and “how did I become what I am today” and then to decide with me which life situations, people, experiences, places or situations would have decisive role in their life stories and their personal and social trajectories. Next, it would be up to the researcher to follow these instructions and try to capture the best images to visually illustrate representative life scenarios that, once edited, would be taken to the next interview session.

The filming and image editing work was deliberately minimalist. Open shots, more closed if indispensable to reveal some details, handheld camera and synchronous sound, all dominant options of observational cinema. When viewing, although the images corresponded to specific situations, people and places, the interviewees started by commenting what was shown on screen, but quickly made the bridge between the portrayed action and the thematic context: their successes and failures, their projects for mobility and their self-representations. The subjects were aware that the relevance of the images did not result directly from what was seen in them, from their manifest content, but from aspects of a more symbolic nature, latent in the content, and which made them go back to the importance of specific actors and situations in the formation of their identities.

This new method, which we have chosen to call “visual evocation”, does not differ from other more typical forms of elicitation just because of the value given to what underlies the visible image and needs to be discovered. There is a special role played by the intervention of the researcher who, working with the small textual “script” previously supplied, must return to the interviewee, in the form of images, a visual “script” from which he must start his narrative. Accepting this dialogical interference implies that neither the images nor the biographical narrative is properly “authentic”. Just as the researcher chooses what he shows, the interviewee also operates a selection of memories and experiences, chosen parts of life with which he builds a fictitious, but plausible, self, a way to make himself known to others and to transmit a meaning for his imagined identity. If this collaboration is fruitful, the biographical portrait will approach the subjective “truth” of the subject.

Saline, a socio-educational worker and one of the interviewees

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