The politics of toilets is something I have been interested in since the first year of my degree, when a lecture on critical geography got me thinking about the power relations tied up within them and the latrinalia (toilet graffiti) phenomenon. As spaces which are often unconsidered, a photographic project investigating public toilets seems necessary (although often incites confused looks and raised eyebrows). Such reactions, I believe, reinforce the need for such exploration.
Ultimately, my project aims to examine the way individuals can appropriate toilets as a means of expression, becoming spaces of commentary, resistance, or surrender. Using the image below, taken at The Level in Brighton, I would like to briefly outline some potential points of exploration to demonstrate the worthiness of this area of study.
- Ideas of ownership and ‘publicness’ – who are healthmatic? Who ‘owns’ the toilet? How is it funded? What does ‘public’ really mean? Consequentially, issues around maintenance and repair – who handles this? How long will it take to gain access again? Where is the nearest alternative?
- Latrinalia / graffiti: clearly, the notice posted by healthmatic has been modified by a smiley face – visual analysis could be carried out to explore the implications and meaning within this. Is the artist happy that essential repairs are taking place? A sarcastic smile nodding towards the seeming lack of work being done? Or perhaps just a meaningless addition, if this is possible to achieve.
- Semiotics: political and social discourse tied up within the image of the women and male figures holding the hands of their child. Ideas of nuclear family, heterosexual relationships, gender, and identity. This is particularly interesting with the introduction of gender-neutral toilets in some areas.
Evidently, there is a wealth of potential entry points for this photographic project. This leads me to a reflective entry following feedback on my first assignment for this module, the research proposal.
Reflections: Research Proposal
Receiving feedback for my first assignment has reassured me of this project whilst providing some useful starting points for improvement. I would like to reflect upon these below.
How does photography contribute to answer the research question?
This is not a question I had truly considered before. I am unsure which area I want to focus my research on further currently, but I think photography will be a vital element in answering my final research question for several reasons.
Firstly, since I am dealing predominantly with public toilets, these spaces are regulated and controlled by some form of governing body – in this case, mostly Brighton and Hove City Council. I expect this means that, for example, forms of resistance (latrinalia, political posters, stickers, and so on) are removed as quickly as possible. Capturing evidence of these acts will be vital in proving there existence and securing them for analysis. In privately-owned facilities, such as toilets in cafes and pubs, these activities are allowed and sometimes encouraged.
Why shall this topic being approach by photography/visual practice and not by critical discourse analysis for instance?
I believe photographing different spaces will help contribute to analysis in a more accessible way and help draw attention to these activities. Research does exist on these spaces, but they are often lengthy academic research pieces which pander to a certain audience while excluding others. I believe visual practice can help to combat this whilst evidencing the existence of toilet politics in real-world scenarios.
Images could also help complement a survey which I would like to conduct on perceptions of public toilets – these could help contextualise a research survey and make it more appealing to complete or engage with.
Anticipation of challenges, constraints and resources
As my feedback suggests, there are interesting questions here – but too many. Further reflection reinforces this as the case, and focusing down my research area is my main concern. Following my research plan, I will continue taking images regularly and, through this, develop a more precise goal. Right now, I am considering focusing solely on latrinalia, but I will need to continue visiting facilities to ensure that such phenomena actually exists on a scale I believe it does. I will continue reflection regularly to ensure my workload is managed effectively and my project is a success in the time-scale available.
Understand your limitations
This is something I constantly battle with in academic and personal life – taking on too much – and is perhaps the most valuable piece of feedback to me right now. I understand that analytical and critical depth is becoming more important as my degree progresses, and so I will be sure to focus on careful curation and scaling back the scope of my research projects to ensure realistic and manageable goals. I will also think about my use of photography and how I can practise in a more creative and innovative way.