Scaping the Social

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  • Title: Scaping the Social: Understanding the Waterscapes of the American Southwest through Panoramic Photography
  • Author(s): Brian O'Neill
  • Publisher: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Collection: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Series: The Image
  • Journal Title: The International Journal of the Image
  • Keywords: Visual Sociology, Waterscapes, American Southwest, Panoramic Photography, Built Environment
  • Volume: 14
  • Issue: 2
  • Date: December 14, 2023
  • ISSN: 2154-8560 (Print)
  • ISSN: 2154-8579 (Online)
  • DOI:
  • Citation: O'Neill, Brian. 2023. "Scaping the Social: Understanding the Waterscapes of the American Southwest through Panoramic Photography." The International Journal of the Image 14 (2): 81-97. doi:10.18848/2154-8560/CGP/v14i02/81-97.
  • Extent: 17 pages

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This visual essay, based on three years of visual ethnographic research in the American Southwest, asks: What social-analytical interpretation can be made from landscape photographs, and even more generally, of panoramic depictions of the world at the intersections of the social and natural? The essay tackles some of the complexities of this question by examining “waterscapes,” defined as water infrastructure, technology, and geography as they are shaped by human experience with nature. Deploying the method of panoramic photography in these “liminal spaces,” the essay argues for a visual sociological approach that should not limit photographic confrontations with reality to obviously photogenic urban or humanistic scenes. Furthermore, the images illustrate how photography, can be used not only as an “ethnographic passport” to people(s) as a means of gaining privileged access, but also in a broader sense of encountering spaces, processes, and institutions, thus assisting in unpacking various layers of society. The images are presented according to their depictions of (1) provision and regulation, and (2) nature and culture, which have become key axes of struggle in the ongoing “water wars” of the American Southwest and Borderlands region.