Doing urban ethnography in Brussels during a pandemic is, indeed, a strange experience. Gone is the hustle and bustle of the city that would usually provide the sensory overload that you’re meant to unpack. Instead, you have relatively empty exteriors coupled with interiors that are, at least for the most part, closed off from the public to prevent further infections.
This has an even more emphatic effect if you’re walking around the city with a camera.
First, you’re mainly stuck with pictures of next to empty exterior spaces without ‘social actors’ who would normally engage with and in those spaces. This focus on empty exteriors does something to the sensory experience that one is meant to convey. So photographs that are meant to express and interpret the ways in which the spaces of public power – or ‘constituted space’ as I’ve called it here – affect us may turn out to be too ‘architectural’ and aestheticised.
Second, walking around the city with a camera during the pandemic as supposedly the ‘professional stranger’, to borrow Michael Agar’s description of the ethnographer (Agar 1996), is next to impossible. With practically no tourists around, my tools for recording the spaces I’m investigating make me stand out like a sore thumb. So, for example, while photographing details of the Belgian Constitutional Court which, I would imagine, is a more or less benign thing to do in normal times, I was approached by a suspicious representative of the Court and asked what my business was. The opportunities for blending in and disappearing into a crowd are minimal.
The short texts and photographs from my walks in Brussels were completed over a period of two weeks in early September 2021, the first time I was abroad since the pandemic began. In the end, eight days of wandering around were compressed into four thematic walks that are each accessible through the drop-down menu. These should be regarded as the ‘raw material’ from which my ‘thicker’ interpretations will eventually be made. Further fieldwork in Brussels is already being planned. But for now, the texts and photographs serve mainly as my personal provisional fieldnotes. Because on certain days the harsh sunshine made the light so hard, the RAW files were sometimes manipulated with softening filters.
Also, as most will know, making a plan like this public establishes a regime or a work ethic that pushes the project forward.
Agar, Michael (1996) The Professional Stranger. An Informal Introduction to Ethnography. 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.