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date: 23 May 2017

Digital Resources: Audiovisual Social Research Laboratory (LAIS)

Summary and Keywords

The Laboratorio Audiovisual de Investigación Social (Social Research Audiovisual Lab, or LAIS) at the Instituto Mora in Mexico has worked in both audiovisual production and the study of the visual world in which we live today. Constructing research sources from photographic images and audiovisual materials constitutes its fundamental purpose. Research methodologies that incorporate images are its plan of action and reflection, and along with the ongoing construction of alternatives, they are put into practice in diverse types of products that result in human resource training with specialized courses and workshops.

With the ultimate goal of promoting research that uses and disseminates images and audiovisual materials, LAIS has numerous research documentaries in its collection, a Website with photographic libraries, projects with an array of public interest products, publications in both digital and print format, and information technology development for the online publication of research tools, as well as specialized workshops and courses on the subject. An important reference at the Latin American level for years, the Instituto Mora’s Social Research Audiovisual Lab drives the expansion of each of these resources.

Keywords: research with images, audiovisual resources, social research, archival description, documentaries, research methodologies, visual culture, digital tools

What Is LAIS and How Did It Begin?

In 2002, the Instituto Mora’s Social Research Audiovisual Lab—or LAIS, as it is commonly known—was founded with the support of the National Council of Science and Technology. From the beginning, it was conceptualized as a space to study images as resources for social research.

The precursors of LAIS date back to the project Historia Oral (“Oral History”), also from the Instituto Mora. Beginning in the 1990s, researchers in that field ventured into the production of video documentaries, which became a new way to disseminate research results, taking advantage of the possibilities afforded by this medium.

The medium burgeoned. Previously, interviews had been chronicled only on audio tape recorders, and the focus was on oral testimonies, but it soon became clear that video would be necessary in order to record testimony. Likewise, video recording began in the workspace for the LAIS project.1 The most important challenge for the researchers was to incorporate both still images and video into the same audiovisual product. Till then, images had not been a fundamental component of research projects; their use began with the incorporation of video documentary production.

The very nature of an audiovisual project requires a large number of images. In order to meet this necessity, film and photo archives were explored; however, the images obtained were incorporated into the final product as referential resources and, above all, for illustrative purposes. Photographs, films, or videos were integrated in order to replace excess wording or added as decoration, with little regard for the epistemic value of this type of document.

After nearly a decade of producing oral history documentaries, the Institute began to revise its use of images as research resources, a process that was largely theoretic and methodological. This new direction developed from questioning the generalized use of images as illustrations, and eventually led the Institute to prioritize the epistemic value of images and to study the indexical role that they each constitute.2

Beyond their aesthetic (and even commercial) value, which is more greatly appreciated historically, the images generated interest as documents and for their epistemic value, that is, in the possibility they held for becoming research sources. This implied the revision of different kinds of analysis and documentation, and thus the necessity of being capable of constructing methodological designs to approach them from a research angle.

The essential starting point was to avoid tackling these documents solely as expressions of a moment, points of view, casual pictures of an event, or stylistic markers of those who create the records. Rather, it was vital to incorporate an essential component into the research: that there was always something very concrete in front of the camera, in a given moment and a particular space, and that beyond its selection, framing, silences, and other aspects relative to every act of creation, there was an indexical relationship between the images and that which was present in front of the camera at the moment of click or record. (This is true at least in the world of analog images, which were used and are still studied to a great extent.) It is precisely this concern that is the origin of the Instituto Mora’s Social Research Audiovisual Lab. Toward the beginning of the 21st century, a collective research space was conceived whose primary work would be the study of images as sources. One of the first steps taken in 2001 and 2002 was a thorough diagnosis of the ways in which the most important photographic and audiovisual files of Mexico City functioned, underscoring the images’ use by researchers from varying disciplines and foreign and national academic institutions.

The result was discouraging, as it reflected the neglect of these cultural artifacts and the meager interest that existed for in-depth work with these types of documents. In the vast majority of these cases, images were sought only to illustrate publications or documentaries in video and were not incorporated as research sources.3

This collective research space is comprised of a multidisciplinary group of collaborators (in the fields of communication, anthropology, history, and Latin American studies) whose primary task is to work in social research with photographic and audiovisual sources. Framed within this purpose, they develop projects, offer a range of human resource training, and generate products for dissemination based on their research.

Images as a Source of Knowledge

Practically any subject, particularly those that have to do with modern and contemporary history, can be studied with the use of images; it is difficult to find an aspect of social life that has not been recorded visually or audiovisually. Since the invention of photography and, later, of cinema and video, events in large areas of the world have passed in front of some photo machine. The most intriguing part in terms of research is that much of what was recorded is not present in written testimony and reflections, particularly those aspects of social process that have traditionally been silenced.

This is one of the principal reasons that LAIS encourages social research with images and considers that in addition to enjoying these images, it is also possible for viewers to learn from this type of documentation. As previously mentioned, images in the majority of cases are used as illustrations, not viewed adequately or questioned, and many times they are not even contextualized. This tendency disappears when these documents are constructed as a source, when their physical nature, foundation, and chemical photo process, if applicable, are taken into account; however, it also disappears when attention is paid to the content of each photograph, each audiovisual record, when the spatial-temporal context in which they were created is considered.

The images allow us to learn things that would otherwise have been difficult to ascertain. Thanks to these images, it is possible to address subjects that are frequently forgotten by official or national historical accounts, especially those that have to do with the daily life of the most silenced people and social actors.

Viewing this type of documentation as cultural heritage is a recent development. The world of photography is understood as a shared legacy, and its epistemic value recognized, although we are talking about a period that began only at the end of the 20th century. The audiovisual world, however, is rarely approached from the standpoint of its epistemic value and has only recently been regarded as a type of cultural heritage document; indeed, the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage is a fairly new celebration.

It has been within the framework of the transition from an analog to a digital world—when the possibilities of safeguarding and documentation were transformed extensively—that these documents have entered into a new, accelerated phase of attention, concerned above all with the premise of preservation. Soon it became clear that a great deal of information made nearly inaccessible by changes in format and technological obsolescence would have to be digitalized in order to recover, view, and display those materials that were presumed to be lost. This called for a revision of the term “cultural heritage” in the regional Latin American context.

Another point of departure, essential in the work of LAIS and closely tied to the practice of oral history, was the ability to access visual and audiovisual relics that everyone saves in daily life, a new universe for research. Thus, in personal, family, and community archives, these types of documents tend to appear as well, meriting a revision of their treatment, reproduction, documentation, analysis, and incorporation into the triangulation of research sources.

Both aspects—the reevaluation of the epistemic nature of audiovisual images and materials, together with access to visual documents managed and stored by various social actors and experts—became fixtures of the Lab in its conception and development of an audiovisual cultural heritage. The aim was to transform the current system of accessing images, as well as to take advantage of the possibilities offered for a research-based approach by constructing these images as sources instead of using them simply as illustrations. Just as there is no preexisting written document that contains the answers to all research questions, so too for images. Constructing them as sources implies working with them alongside other types of social endeavors. It also implies searching for relationships and discrepancies among the different sources, and for that, analysis and construction of appropriate methodologies is necessary.

Working with visual and audiovisual sources entails challenges. Thus, LAIS has focused on developing theoretical, methodological, and technical designs to encourage research projects, from their conception to their dissemination, with the audiovisual medium as their primary source.

Research Projects at LAIS

Research projects realized at LAIS use two parallel types of work: field documentation and digital compilation. Thus, a search is performed for everything that has been documented by others and is pertinent for the research project at hand, and at the same time new sources, primarily audiovisual, are produced using cameras, microphones, and video equipment. What this entails is archive work and fieldwork conducting research of this nature. It is important to point out that audiovisual documentation is incorporated from the start of the project; with it, information is obtained that can be revisited when other sources are utilized, such as fieldwork or carrying out interviews.

Working with images, whether from archives or fieldwork, has various technological and methodological implications.4 At the technical level, one must be conscious of the correct settings for the reproduction of analog materials, while also considering the appropriate methods and technology for making video and photographic recordings, as well as the best alternatives for capturing oral testimony.

In every case, digitalization has modified the way in which we work: Until recently, images were reproduced using analog methods, copies were made with a physical backup, photos were taken with video, and video recordings were taken with magnetic media. Likewise, video postproduction was done in linear editors.

With digital technology, everything began to switch over to the binary world. Now people were talking about format, size, bit depth, color spaces, and other technicalities. It was undoubtedly an important change for conducting social research with images, too, considerably broadening the possibilities of knowledge, circulation, and access to documents.

Turning images into research sources implies that they can be analyzed at length, and in the digital world this means creating high-quality digital copies. LAIS has therefore implemented a variety of patterns for the reproduction and use of digital copies. It has created a series of quality criteria based on the documents’ physical characteristics, whether a positive print on paper, a transparent positive, a negative on glass, and so on. In each case, a “digital master” is established that defines the best possible characteristics for digital reproduction.

LAIS works with public and private audiovisual archives; in general, the same institutions are in charge of providing digital copies of the images that they store, in which case the material is requested according to the criteria established by the corresponding digital master.

By the very nature of the projects that are carried out at LAIS, however, they also include work with personal, family, or community archives; in these cases, the Lab itself is in charge of digital reproduction, since it involves a high-quality scanner5 for the digitalization of positives, negatives, and transparencies, and cameras and light equipment in the case of bulky documents, such as magazines, books, and paintings.

All of the aforementioned projects have methodological implications. Developing projects in which the audiovisual source is paramount leads to a consideration of the use of the originals, their documentation, and their accessibility; in many cases, these aspects are conditional upon the possibilities of researching and becoming familiar with the subject matter. In order to make this evident and propel the development of methodologies in this field, LAIS encourages a project that includes photographic cultural heritage not only from Mexico but also from other regions of Latin America, taking advantage of the possibilities that the digital world and technological development offer. This is how Huellas de Luz: Investigación social sobre el patrimonio visual latinoamericano en acceso libre (“Traces of Light: Social Research on Latin American Visual Culture in Open Access”), a Website that houses various digital photo collections with historical and cultural value, came to be.

Traces of Cultural Heritage

One of the main challenges facing anyone who does social research using images is access to the necessary documents. The majority of image files do not have an adequate archival description that allows users to find images relevant to their project, and their catalogs are full of errors and missing information. Some archives are enormous in size and contain millions of images in their vaults that technical and human resources are not able to manage properly. This situation hinders researchers’ access to these types of documents.

In general, researchers work with groups of images that are widely known from frequent previous use. When users conduct a search, they are often referred to photos, movies, or videos that have already been seen many times. In theory, this facilitates access because these are documents that are slightly better known, but it neglects many unknown images and does not encourage research on them. The problem is compounded when decorative use of the images continues to be predominant.

Two intertwined processes determine the construction of images as a research source: access and documentation. LAIS has taken both of these issues into consideration since its inauguration, posing an endless wave of questions regarding how to conduct research using images without clear access to the documents and with scarce archival descriptions that are often incorrect. Against this background arose the need to construct a computer tool that would allow working with and disseminating image-based or visual culture. An informational system was proposed that would contain correctly documented images to enable the user to access them and incorporate them into his or her own research.

In order to accomplish this task, two essential aspects had to be addressed: creating an archival description database related to the necessities of research and determining the best software for presenting the images.

At first, the idea of proprietary software was considered, as that was the tendency of the institutions and archives dedicated to image preservation. However, it soon became clear that this would lead to an unsustainable dynamic of licensing fees and developmental limitations that did not fit with LAIS’s philosophy, whose principles rely upon striving for the free flow of information and knowledge.

Proprietary software is related to the commercial notion of cultural heritage, in which images are someone’s property, including public institutions. This is a decisive factor for those who seek to conduct research with such documents, because they are often charged a large sum of money in order to obtain a digital copy of each piece or title.

With this situation in mind, LAIS decided to develop its own technology using public domain software. The idea was to create a system that would allow users to view images with a thorough archival description by means of a search engine that was built with research needs in mind, enabling the establishment of relationships among different images.

From the beginning, the goal was for this system to appear online, to be accessible to anyone who was interested, and to be the result of collaboration among a wide range of people and institutions.

One of the first steps was to design the archival description database. Following a period of inquiry and reflection, the conclusion was reached that the best option would be to use an adapted version of the International Standard of Archival Description ISAD(G). With this standard, a multilevel description for everything from collections to single units could be produced.6 Additionally, the database is divided into seven areas that allow the documentation of images as visual elements as well as physical objects.7

Documenting each image is the basis for constructing these types of documents as sources. For such broad cataloging requirements, it is necessary to investigate, consider the contexts of production, establish links, create questions, and arrive at the answers. Therefore, it is best to work with groups of images, in addition to considering the physical characteristics of each piece. The Lab begins by asking basic research questions and establishing precise spatial–temporal coordinates in order to create a guideline of cross-referencing with other sources later in the research.

To make room for a tool related to research processes with a database that keeps track of detailed information, a flexible system is required that goes beyond creating lists or simple associations. The initial technology, which was originally the Sistema de Información para Archivos de Imágenes (“Data System for Image Archives”), was designed in 2003 using the unconventional “semantic Web,” which allows relationships between each image to be established, paying attention to different criteria that may be related to theme, space, author, origin, physical characteristics, or even aspects of its framing.

The informatic design came to be known as Pescador (“Fisher”), and has been in development for a number of years. It was implemented with two previous versions, the first of which was made in collaboration with the Lafragua de la Benemérita Universidad de Puebla library for its branding catalog, and the other with the Photo Library of French Photographers and Editors in Mexico of the 19th century, managed by LAIS itself.

In 2006, LAIS launched the project Preservación de Imágenes, Sistemas de información, Acceso e Investigación (“Preservation of Images, Information Systems, Access, and Research”), with the aim of strengthening the Lab’s designs regarding research with images, documentation, and computer development, supported by the preservation and accessibility of photographic cultural heritage. It was a project involving collaborators from varying disciplines and from various institutions in Latin America.

The most notable result of the project was the Website Huellas de Luz, which hosts six digital photo libraries with close to 1,700 images from public and private archives in Latin America, the United States, and France. Through the Website, images and their archival descriptions can be accessed using the database generated by LAIS. The photo libraries are organized with multilevel descriptions, from collections to single units. Thus, the information shared by one group is not repeated in each entry, thereby achieving greater clarity and association among images.

Huellas de Luz runs on the latest version (2012) of the Pescador system. The Website displays images by library and documentary group; however, thanks to its semantic Web-based design, it also allows for grouping separate units according to shared characteristics. Users can thus establish relationships among different images according to their own research interests.

One noteworthy element is the way that searches are displayed within the site due to the presentation of results using a natural language with phrases that make clear not only the presence of a word but also the relationship of that word with the whole system. For example, if someone searches for the word zócalo (“plaza”), the system generates the following result:

One photograph whose title contains the word zócalo and whose secondary support has an inscription containing zócalo, 1 group that includes zócalo in its institutional/biographical history; and that includes zócalo in its source file; 7 photographs whose description contains zócalo and 2 photographs that appear in Aguayo, Fernando, and Lourdes Roca, Entre portales, palacios y jardines.

A project like this has taken a stance for open access and circulation of photographic cultural heritage with the firm intention of promoting social research with images, working as a collective with common goals, and ensuring interdisciplinary practices beyond the discipline of training. The aim is to work with the images, construct them as sources, and present results with a wide range of projects, not only written ones. It is a plan that has been outlined and practiced for a number of years, with early examples such as the Website Huellas de Luz, considered one of the first contributions to the field, along with the book Tejedores de Imágenes (“Image Weavers”).8

A brief revision of a fundamental component that characterizes this Lab—its trajectory as a space for producing various results in research by creating documentaries and other types of projects—is now in order. It highlights a particular case that had different outcomes based on different public needs.

The Possibilities of Audiovisual Production in Social Research

From the time that the first documentary was produced at the Institute in 1994, the groundwork was laid to create a global project that would include new ways of constructing a source, using videotaped interviews, and implementing an audiovisual production area, all with the necessary technical equipment and staff. In 1995, with a project backed by the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACyT), the Instituto Mora acquired equipment for video production and postproduction, still with analog technology, in Hi-8 format and later in Betacam. Both were supported by a multidisciplinary staff and experts in audiovisual media.

This infrastructure motivated the production of more documentaries. Little by little, research projects began to incorporate these new tools that allowed them to cover all aspects, from realizing searches to recording oral testimony and audiovisual postproduction.

A total of seven documentaries were made before LAIS was created, among them Mi Multi es mi Multi: Historia del Multifamiliar Miguel Alemán (1949–1999) (“My Multi Is My Multi: History of the Multifamily Miguel Alemán (1949–1999)” in 1999, and Km. C-62: Un Nómada del Riel (“Km. C-62: A Railway Nomad” in 2000.9 These two stand out because, over the course of their research process and audiovisual production, they laid the groundwork for methodological and technical suggestions that would later be developed in the Lab, particularly in the creation and processing of audiovisual sources.

Since the creation of LAIS, the intention has been that every research project should have a corresponding product for dissemination, with documentary videos the first choice most of the time. As noted previously, the project that started the Lab was a diagnostic tool to learn how the photographic and audiovisual archives worked in Mexico City and to see if the images could be used for research. The result was the 2002 documentary Revelando el rollo: Los usos de lo audiovisual en la investigación social (“Revealing the Reel: The Use of Audiovisual Sources in Social Investigation”), which, via interviews and dramatization of unforeseen events for the researcher, presents the main problems and shortcomings that any researcher interested in visual and audiovisual documentation faced and continues to face. Revelando el rollo was the last documentary made at LAIS with analog technology and linear editing.

In 2003, with the project backed by CONACyT for the creation of LAIS, a budget was designed for the configuration of the Lab and the procurement of digital production and postproduction video equipment. A DVCAM video player/recorder was acquired, as well as editing equipment with AVID-brand software and hardware. This project allowed for LAIS’s autonomy and up-to-date equipment for a research space, with all of the technology necessary for production and postproduction, as well as the realization of products for dissemination.

The first documentary made completely with AVID was El triángulo de Tacubaya: Historia del cine Hipódromo Condesa (“The Tacubaya Triangle: History of the Hipódromo Condesa Theater”) in 2005. From the beginning, the project included audiovisual sources; it rescued materials stored in public and personal archives and used fieldwork and video recordings of oral testimonies. For the first time, a complete digital project was disseminated in DVD format. From then on, every documentary that was distributed in VHS was duplicated in DVD, the format still used by the Institute for dissemination.10

With the introduction of audiovisual production, the possibilities broadened for sharing the results of research with audiences that cannot access written materials for a variety of reasons, further popularizing knowledge. This in turn heightened the importance that LAIS assigns to its technical infrastructure and staff for the development of projects with audiovisual sources, from their conception to the publication of their results.

In the years that followed, LAIS published three more documentaries,11 one in 2008 entitled De la tele a la boca: Una reflexión sobre desarrollo infantil y salud (“From the TV to the Mouth: Proposals for Reflection on Child Development and Health”). It is worth reflecting on this work, since it is an example of interdisciplinary research that was developed over the course of several years, whose results were presented in various formats, both physical and digital.

A Social Project with Diverse Outcomes

Even before it became known as LAIS, the Lab had a concern for promoting so-called media education or audiovisual literacy that drove it to support a study project on children’s health carried out in a conurbation zone preschool in Mexico City. LAIS was convinced that the analysis of the televised documentary De la tele a la boca could help people better understand the serious public-health social issue that childhood obesity represented. The case of this population in particular was analyzed for several years in order to assess the relationship between childhood obesity and physical inactivity due to excessive consumerism associated with TV exposure.

From the outset, the project had an implicit interest in social impact that went beyond the sphere of academics. The sources generated were oral, written, cartographic, visual, and audiovisual. They allowed for the untangling of a complex health problem in which television exposure played an important role, especially in the commercial, advertising, and discriminatory predominance of its contents, since it produced an increase in physical inactivity in young children. Mothers, fathers, and teachers at all levels of elementary and secondary education were also studied, inasmuch as the problem begins in the first years of life and lasts until well into adolescence, when the situation becomes even more complicated, with illnesses that stem from eating disorders.

With a variety of sources constructed, especially in fieldwork, the ideal medium for introducing the problem seemed to be a physical exhibition, ¿Cómo la ves? Infancia y televisión (“How Do You View It? Childhood and Television”), disseminated to elementary schools on a three-year tour. However, it soon became clear that the results gathered would interest an audience beyond those who attended the exhibit, and that a continued tour was an impossibility.

The best way to promote the diffusion of this work, therefore, would be through a digital product that could circulate independently and be available at any moment. Thus, an “interactive exhibit” was designed, under the same name, available both on CD-ROM, for families or schools without Internet access, and on a Website accessible online.

Unsatisfied with the results of the exhibit in comparison with all of the audiovisual material recorded in the field and all of the analysis of the most-followed TV programming by this population (multiple broadcasts of thirteen programs on various channels), the Lab decided to create one more product. Unlike the exhibit, the product would incorporate the most ethnographic aspects of the project, with fewer informational or educational objectives. The aim was to document a social problem audiovisually and to communicate the results gathered by analyzing multiple audiovisual messages.

The result was the aforementioned documentary, which incorporated the three interactive audiovisual segments that also made up part of ¿Cómo la ves? In addition, it also condensed the main results of the analysis in the exhibit, that of the relationship between television viewing and physical health, as well as between the discrimination that characterizes the majority of TV programming and health, which has only worsened among Mexican families.

Years after the research was concluded, the products with audiovisual and interactive components continue to be accessible to a large number of people, and are still valid to the extent that they alert the public to a serious, ongoing health issue that had been worsening for quite some time. It is surely a time bomb, responsibly for the appearance and proliferation of many illnesses that had not previously been common in children.

From this work one can see the importance of spreading the results to parents and teachers of young children, since the greatest challenge is changing the habits and ways of thinking of the generations who care for them; any other method would make the implementation of short-term qualitative change very difficult. These products are available to all audiences, and may also be utilized in schools or workplaces, with teachers or parents helping to guide young people on the subject.

Audiovisual production can contribute greatly to social research, although its possibilities are often ignored. At LAIS, better researches have always considered the potential utility of the technical tools at hand as research sources; similarly, they emphasize the possible contributions of previously published and produced materials. This is why documentary filmmaking is also studied as a source.

Documentaries have always been a reference for LAIS—not only the idea of producing them but also of analyzing them. Therefore, along with promoting its own production, the Lab considers documentaries key vehicles for carrying out research. This is why LAIS has a collection of more than 800 documentary titles from different corners of the world, a large number produced over the course of more than a century, and compiled from 1995 onward.

In order to encourage scholars to conduct research with these documentaries, LAIS has developed another digital tool: a database compatible with, and storable in, Pescador, which captures the way in which these audiovisual works are analyzed The end goal is to make their archival descriptions accessible, thereby encouraging use of the database as a social research source.

Documentaries as Documents for Research

Currently, images are circulated at a dizzying speed; a photograph taken thousands of miles away can be seen in an instant on the other side of the world, and personal devices can be filled with fixed and moving images. However, we hardly pause to view them, we do not analyze what the screen is showing us, nor do we reflect upon the significance, present or future, of this combination of pixels.

Since its creation, the Lab has dedicated itself to working with audiovisual documents as a source while also recognizing their epistemic value. There is also another way to approach the images, via the work of other people with wide-ranging interests who have taken it upon themselves to produce a documentary.

Documentaries are an audiovisual product in which a topic or issue is developed and different visual and auditory elements are used to address it. Even before the creation of LAIS, the Instituto Mora was interested in studying this type of production. The first step was to organize four “Film Forums” between 1995 and 1997, during which documentary filmmakers participated in the screening of their productions before an audience interested in the subject, mainly students and researchers, followed by a commentary by two specialists and an exchange of opinions and reflections. All of the filmmakers donated their documentaries to the Institute. These events marked the beginning of a collection of documentary films.

As the collection grew, the Lab began to offer “Audiovisual Language and Social Research” courses, two courses on the history of the documentary and recycling images, a forum on documentaries and research, and twelve “Audiovisual Equipment Management for Social Research” workshops. At each of these academic events, the participants contributed documentaries produced in a variety of different time periods and countries. The Lab continues to add these accumulated titles to the documentary film collection.

The Lab’s interest in the collection went beyond simply viewing the productions. It was obvious that research could be carried out using these materials, but that it would be necessary to learn about them on a deeper level, to know how they were made, and to suggest ways to incorporate them into research and analysis.

In 2000, design began on a documentation datasheet focused on the needs of research. It would enable any interested party to get an idea of how a documentary was made from the information contained in the datasheet. However, a traditional technical datasheet turned out to be inadequate; it would have to go one step further.

One of LAIS’s fundamental concepts is that of research sources, and this idea became central to the design of the new archival description tool. The most important aspect would be the identification of the sources used to create the documentary and the resources used to present the information.12

With the documentaries, as with the photographic datasheets, the Lab searched for alternatives to the tool’s design and consulted international catalogs and standards on the matter, but none of them placed emphasis on the productions’ internal structure. For this reason, the decision was made to resort once again to the International Standard of Archival Description ISAD(G); the documentation is now divided into seven areas in which information and characteristics of each production are recorded.13

Among the different areas, “content and structure” must be highlighted, since it is here that the sources and resources used in the documentary are recorded. For example, Km. C-62: Un nómada del riel was produced by the Instituto Mora utilizing the following sources: oral testimony, field recordings, newspapers, photography, cartography, film registries, fiction films, and music of the period; the resources used in its production included voiceover, music, background music, and animation.

The collection is currently bursting with its almost 850 titles, some of them unfamiliar in Mexico. The goal of LAIS is to be the facility that one turns to for conducting analyses on the different forms and characteristics of documentary films and, of course, for its use in the educational sphere and in organizing series of film screenings for discussion and debate.

The documentation is constantly being upgraded because the collection continues to grow. It has been determined that the best alternative is to systematize all of the information in order to offer it upon demand under the system of open access. Rather than making the documentaries themselves available online, the idea is to make the data about them available. In order to achieve this, a database is being constructed that will have the same outcome as Huellas de Luz, via the Web. This database integrates a form for continual updates, allowing it to remain open to constant growth. The software used is also an open code that guarantees its performance, scalability, security, and ease of development. In the future, the documentary database will have a semantic search engine similar to that of Huellas, enhancing its possibilities.

That way, the Lab hopes to promote the use of the documentaries and other documents as a research source. The collection’s potential resides not only in the information it contains that cannot always be found in other documents; the ways of displaying this information also merits being discussed and analyzed, as with any other research work. With in-depth analysis and especially comparisons with other sources and even other documentaries, new paths open up, as well as new possibilities for social research itself.

Sharing Knowledge

Up to this point, several of the projects undertaken by the Social Research Audiovisual Lab at the Instituto Mora and by its antecedents have been mentioned. Each was a product of the interdisciplinary work carried out by multidisciplinary work teams from the fields of history, anthropology, communications, and computer science, and the Lab recognizes their contributions. The philosophy of LAIS has always been to share with these and other disciplines any knowledge acquired, not only by way of its research and dissemination work, but also by offering a teaching program.

The tasks of research and production have been complemented and enriched by the designs and activities of human resource training that LAIS promotes; in recent years, they have been fundamental to its growth. Since its creation, the Lab has understood that more is required than merely diagnosing the state of audiovisual archives or highlighting the poor use of the images. It has always recognized the necessity of sharing these concerns and proposing a plan of action according to the experiences that were generated.

In order to encourage these ideals, the Lab’s courses on “Audiovisual Language and Social Research,” taught by specialists in the audiovisual medium beginning in 1999, paid special attention to social research originating from different countries in Europe and the Americas. These courses favored dialog and reflection by students, creators, archivists, and researchers interested in developing research projects with audiovisual sources.

Likewise, since 2002, LAIS has organized an annual “Audiovisual Equipment Management for Social Research” workshop, in which its team of collaborators present the theoretic, methodological, and technical designs assembled in the Lab to groups of students, academics, and others interested in the topic. This way, it can popularize its research method, while continuing to emphasize the construction and incorporation of audiovisual sources. Guests at this workshop have come from many different universities and research institutes in Mexico, Central and South America, and the United States.

LAIS has also impacted curriculum training within study programs at the Institute, with classes related to social research offered toward a degree in history, as well as for the Master’s in Regional Studies program. Classes such as the following are taught: Image Studies, Audiovisual Design and Production, Qualitative Research Techniques, and thesis seminars.

The following are also offered: a specialization course on Social Research with Images, designed in particular for students and researchers with projects underway that utilize photographic and audiovisual resources (still largely unavailable in curricular study programs), and a “Social Research Project with Audiovisual Sources” workshop, in which participants develop projects based on LAIS’s designs, taking advantage of cost-efficient digital technology for capturing and processing images. As part of the workshop, several projects near completion have been documentaries selected for postproduction support.

Today, LAIS is in a period of consolidation. Its many offerings as well as recent publications such as Tejedores de Imágenes14 have been fundamental for encouraging human resource training in this field.

Discussion of the Literature

In addition to work being done in this field from many different regions and diverse disciplines, ranging from the anthropological to the archival, several horizons stand out as important to LAIS in its construction of theory and methodology concerning images as sources, their documentation, registry, preservation, and research.

In the Mexican context, curiosity dates back to the 1980s when interest in this field began to stir; countries like Brazil or France already had a head start by several decades. Researchers like Aurelio de los Reyes and John Mraz, to mention a few of the principal names, were key in this incipient process.

The panorama began to expand from a near-exclusive concentration on art history to the incorporation of social history, anthropology, sociology, archival science, semiotics, Latin American studies, performing arts, and audiovisual arts, with recent contributions toward the formation of tracks such as Image Studies or Visual Culture Studies.15 This trajectory of multidisciplinary convergence has improved interdisciplinary practices, which are viewed as more and more necessary despite their increasing complexity. It is on this route that LAIS finds its particular trajectory, due to its conviction that there is no research without documentation.

Several key developments that originated in Brazil and Spain have overtly transformed the approach to visual and audiovisual documents, especially from an archivistic standpoint. We wish to highlight the first steps taken by Boris Kosoy and Félix del Valle Gastaminza, respectively, and the more recent fundamental contributions from researchers such as André Porto Ancona from Brasília; Solange Ferraz and Vania Carvalho from the Paulista Museum in São Paulo, Brazil; and the Centre de Recerca i Difusió de la Imatge (Center for Image Research and Diffusion) in Girona, Spain. We would also like to emphasize the positions that have been essential to construction itself, such as that of Philipe Dubois on the photographic act and the nature of the index that introduces photographic documents and, by extension, audiovisual documents as well.16

As for audiovisual archival science, initiatives such as those by UNESCO and authors such as Ray Edmondson guided the first steps in courses on archival description that would form the bases for research practices with this type of document. Immediately after came the International Standard Archival Description, known as ISAD-G, which became the practical basis for our own documentalist designs.

The paths taken at the regional level in Latin America—in Colombia, Peru, and Argentina, among others—have begun to shed considerable light on experiences in research, documentation, accessibility, production, teaching, and back to research—a type of permanent ellipsis concerning the ways to treat and use these documents. Experiences and trajectories that have been scarcely understood, especially those that are local or independent, are becoming increasingly visible because of the network.

Naturally, in the national context itself, studies that seek to incorporate images as sources have been on the rise, shedding light on the diverse theoretic and methodological challenges that lie ahead. With a few advanced fronts in northern Mexico, the Federal District, and neighboring states, experience continues to grow in almost every Mexican state, above all beginning with thesis or thesis projects, as well as projects that explore this type of document more deeply, with ever more difficult questions.

The proliferation of spaces dedicated to revision and reflection upon these types of documentation and their construction as sources has led to a number of meetings and discussions, both academic and otherwise, the result of which has been greater circulation and entirely new uses for digital production. What before was an emerging field is now central to social research, with now-regular meetings and discussions planned, as much remains to be done.

It is also worth noting that several Mexican institutions have incorporated or are trying to incorporate spaces similar to LAIS, a pioneer in its field, with varying degrees of success. They have faced multiple difficulties in sustaining these spaces, particularly in two key aspects: human resources that allow for the continuity of projects, and the technical infrastructure necessary for operation.17 Awareness of its importance for social research and its dissemination will depend largely on the immediate future of this recent field of study.

Primary Sources

The study of images is conditional upon access to documents. The Instituto Mora’s Social Research Audiovisual Lab has worked for years with public, private, and personal archives, depending on the current project.

For the Huellas de Luz Website of digital photo libraries, materials came from Latin American archives related to the diffusion of visual cultural heritage, as is the case with the Paulista Museum at the University of São Paulo in Brazil; the Bernardo Graff Photo Library at the Archivo Histórico Provincial (Professor Fernando E. Aráoz Provincial Historical Archive) in La Pampa, Argentina; the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Fine Arts Academy) in Argentina; the Centro de Documentación de Arquitectura Latinoamericana (Latin American Architectural Documentation Center) in Argentina; the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (Institute of Aesthetic Research) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM); the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico; and the Mapoteca Orozco y Berra de México (Orozco and Berra Map Library).

In addition, images were used whose originals are stored in the National Library of France and in U.S. collections, such as the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas; the Getty Research Institute; the University of Connecticut Photo Collection; the Digital Collection at Southern Methodist University; and the U.S. Library of Congress.

Materials from the National Photo Library and the National General Archive were also used, both Mexican institutes. In each case, the selected images have a direct relationship with the content of one of the six digital photo libraries that are online.

It is important to note that many of the projects that LAIS takes on have to do with topics related to Mexico City; therefore, the primary sources are often collections located in the vicinity. Among them are the aforementioned photo library at the National General Archive, Mexico’s largest collection of images with approximately 8 million items, and the National Photo Library that, though not in Mexico City, has an office there where requests can be made for materials using their online catalog.18 Also added to this list are the Museo Archivo de la Fotografía de la Ciudad de México (Mexico City Photo Archive Museum) and the Fototeca de la Coordinación Nacional de Monumentos Históricos del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) (Photo Library of the National Coordination of Historical Monuments at the National Institute of Anthropology and History).

As part of the research work and the work on dissemination materials—primarily audiovisual—newspaper sources were consulted, most of them from the Hemeroteca Nacional de México (National Newspaper Library) and the newspaper library at the Ministry of Finance’s Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library.

Images in motion, especially film, are another important source for the development of research projects at LAIS: In this case, the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Film Library is the most important collection, for both the number and quality of the materials that it hosts.

Lastly, it should be noted that LAIS’s own collection was utilized, both still and moving images that were recorded during fieldwork for a variety of projects and important video-recorded interviews on the wide range of topics addressed.

Further Reading

Aguayo, Fernando, and Julieta Martínez. “Lineamientos para la descripción de fotografías.” In Investigación con imágenes: Usos y retos metodológicos, coordinated by Fernando Aguayo and Lourdes Roca, 191–228. Mexico: Instituto Mora, 2012.Find this resource:

Aguayo, Fernando, and Lourdes Roca. “Estudio introductorio.” In Imágenes e investigación social, coordinated by Fernando Aguayo and Lourdes Roca, 7–16. Mexico: Instituto Mora, 2005.Find this resource:

Boadas, Joan, Lluís‑Esteve Casellas, and M. Ángels Suquet. Manual para la gestión de fondos y colecciones fotográficas. Girona: CCG ediciones/Centre de Recerca i Difusió de la Imatge (CRDI), 2001.Find this resource:

Casellas, Lluís‑Esteve, and David Iglésias. “Nuevas tecnologías y tratamiento de fondos y colecciones fotográficas.” Paper presented at the 2nd Conference on Image, Culture, and Technology, Madrid, Universidad Carlos III, 2003.Find this resource:

Cuelas Zúñiga, Valeria. “El espacio audiovisual en la ciencia social del siglo XXI: Imagen, investigación social y antropología visual en el contexto académico de la Ciudad de México.” Undergraduate thesis, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2013.Find this resource:

Dubois, Philippe. El acto fotográfico: De la representación a la recepción. Barcelona: Paidós Comunicación, 1986.Find this resource:

Edmonson, Ray. Filosofía y Principios de los Archivos Audiovisuales. Mexico: UNESCO/Fototeca Nacional, 2008.Find this resource:

Félix del Valle Gastaminza.” Available at Análisis documental de la fotografía.

Florescano, Enrique. El Patrimonio Nacional de México. Vol. 2. Mexico: FCE/CONACULTA, 1997.Find this resource:

García, Idalia, and Bolfy Cottom, coords. El patrimonio documental en México: Reflexiones sobre un problema cultural. Mexico: Miguel Ángel Porrúa, 2009.Find this resource:

García, Rolando. Sistemas Complejos: Conceptos, Método y Fundamentación Epistemológica de la Investigación Interdisciplinaria. Barcelona: Gedisa, 2006.Find this resource:

Iglésias Franch, David. La fotografía digital en los archivos, qué es y cómo se trata. Gijón: Trea, 2008.Find this resource:

Laboratorio Audiovisual de Investigación Social. Tejedores de imágenes: Propuestas Metodológicas de Investigación y Gestión del Patrimonio Fotográfico y Audiovisual. Mexico: Instituto Mora-FONCA, 2014.Find this resource:

Mraz, John. Ensayos sobre historia gráfica. Mexico: Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 1996.Find this resource:

Novelo, Victoria, coord. Estudiando imágenes: Miradas múltiples. Mexico: CIESAS, 2012.Find this resource:

Pérez Vejo, Tomás. “¿Se puede escribir historia a partir de imágenes? El historiador y las fuentes icónicas.” Memoria y sociedad 16 (January–June 2012): 17–30.Find this resource:

Roca, Lourdes. “Historia videoral: Un campo interdisciplinar a desarrollar.” In Historia oral: Ensayos y aportes de investigación, coordinated by Jorge E. Aceves Lozano, 49–63. Mexico: CIESAS, 2000.Find this resource:

Roca, Lourdes. “Investigación social con imágenes: Revisión de una búsqueda interdisciplinar.” In Imagens e narrativas, coordinated by Clarice Peixotoet. Río de Janeiro: INARRA-UERJ, 2012.Find this resource:

Roca, Lourdes. “Preservación de imágenes y sistemas de información, acceso e investigación: ¿Un nuevo futuro para el patrimonio fotográfico?” Ulúa: Revista de Historia, Sociedad y Cultura 9 (July–December 2011): 179–204.Find this resource:


Garay, Graciela de, Paris García, Carlos Hernández, Lourdes Roca, Concepción Martínez, and Patricia Pensado. Mi Multi es mi Multi: Historia Oral del Multifamiliar Miguel Alemán (1949–1999). Mexico: Instituto Mora, 1999.Find this resource:

Hernández, Carlos, Felipe Morales Leal, and Lourdes Roca. De la tele a la boca: Una reflexión sobre desarrollo infantil y salud. Mexico: Instituto Mora/CONACYT, 2008.Find this resource:

Laboratorio Audiovisual de Investigación Social. Revelando el rollo. Mexico: Instituto Mora, 1999.Find this resource:

Morales Leal, Felipe. El Triángulo de Tacubaya. Mexico: Instituto Mora/CONACYT, 2005.Find this resource:

Roca, Lourdes. Km. C-62: Un nómada del riel. Mexico: Instituto Mora/CONACYT/FONCA, 2000.Find this resource:

Roca, Lourdes. Un Pueblo en la Memoria. Mexico: Instituto Mora/CONACYT/CONACULTA/Delegación Benito Juárez, 1994.Find this resource:


(1.) The first documentary produced by the Mora Institute was Un pueblo en la memoria in 1994.

(2.) See also Philippe Dubois, El acto fotográfico: De la representación a la recepción (Barcelona: Paidós Comunicación, 1986).

(3.) The results of this first project by LAIS can be seen in the documentary Revelando el Rollo, as well as in the Estudio introductorio de Imágenes e Investigación Social (Introductory Study of Images and Social Research).

(4.) See also: Laboratorio Audiovisual de Investigación Social (LAIS), Tejedores de imágenes: Propuestas Metodológicas de Investigación y Gestión del Patrimonio Fotográfico y Audiovisual (Mexico: Instituto Mora-FONCA, 2014).

(5.) iQSmart 2 scanner 4300x8200 dpi optical resolution.

(6.) The multilevel description allows information that is common within a collection not to be repeated in each item. Each photo is considered a single item.

(7.) For more detail, see Fernando Aguayo and Julieta Martínez, “Lineamientos para la descripción de fotografías,” in Investigación con imágenes: Usos y retos metodológicos, coordinated by Fernando Aguayo and Lourdes Roca, 191–228 (Mexico: Instituto Mora, 2012).

(8.) The Pescador system’s source code is accessible for those interested in continuing its development. It can be downloaded using the Git tool, under the terms and conditions of the GPL license here.

(9.) Document shorts can be found here.

(10.) Today, the Lab uses high-definition production equipment and has postproduction stations with the latest AVID systems.

(11.) Ciudad Olimpia: El año en que fuimos modernos (2007) and Historias para no Pensar (2012). The first stands out because it focuses on a document made by a grantee working with LAIS, beginning with an undergraduate thesis on history. The second stands out for its unique audiovisual material, as it does not have the form of a typical documentary. This is largely due to the nature of the source material—a television commercial—which was studied in light of gender relations and the numerous discriminatory practices that characterize our society. It is important to note that in addition to these two projects, LAIS has worked with other researchers from the Mora Institute in the creation of four more documentaries.

(12.) “Sources” are understood to be any document used to support, contrast, demonstrate, or explain aspects of the topic presented in the documentary and that make the research process explicit. Sources may be constructed with archive documents that are very diverse in nature, or created in the process of research. Among them may be interviews, documents, photos, film records, and fiction “Resources” are any element created or used for audiovisual production, used for expressive or narrative purposes, according to the needs of the specific audiovisual style. Resources are not themselves research elements, but rather a way of communicating a topic, with expressive intentions or clear narratives. Some resources are integrated to lend a certain degree of purpose or tone to the documentary, and others are constructed to explain an audiovisual product’s argument more clearly. They can be staged scenes, animations, narrative resources such as voiceovers or conducting, certain uses of music, or graphic elements, to name a few.

(13.) The areas documented are Identification, Context, Content, Structure, Related Documentation, Notes, and Description Control Area.

(14.) LAIS, Tejedores de imágenes. Propuestas Metodológicas de Investigación y Gestión del Patrimonio Fotográfico y Audiovisual (Mexico: Instituto Mora-FONCA, 2014).

(15.) Today, magazines such as Revista Chilena de Antropología Visual and Sans Soleil: Revista de Estudios Visuales, as well as Luna Córnea or Alquimia, can be key references. Each one reflects the variety of perspectives that converge or differ in their approach to images as research sources.

(16.) To explore further along this path, see also LAIS, Tejedores de imágenes.

(17.) See also Valeria Cuelas Zúñiga, “El espacio audiovisual en la ciencia social del siglo XXI, imagen, investigación social y antropología visual en el contexto académico de la Ciudad de México.” (Undergraduate thesis, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2013).

(18.) El catálogo de la Fototeca Nacional puede consultarse aquí.