Visual Communication in Society

Current research

Drones in Visual Culture

Research aims and overview

This Fellowship aims to understand whether and how the use of drone technology in society is changing the way people see the world and visual culture more broadly, and to extend and innovate current theoretical approaches to visual mobile communication. It is underpinned by exploring i) the aesthetic characteristics of drone visuals, ii) how drone visuals circulate and iii) public perception of drone visuals.

Drones are widely understood as unstaffed aircrafts, generally fitted with cameras that can be remotely controlled and used for recreational and commercial purposes. As flying robots, drones can capture images that would be difficult to take with ordinary cameras, providing a wealth of new visual information that would be otherwise unavailable. Aerial photography/videography is not a new phenomenon. What is new and different is that increasingly drones are used not only by drone operators with valid CAA permission, but also by amateurs, noticeably expanding the potential to capture, share and store new visual content.

Research into drones to date has focused on technical aspects and the implications of their use in warzones. There has also been a small amount of research into the issues they raise in terms of surveillance, privacy and ethics, but surprisingly the significance of drones for visual culture has not been addressed. Therefore, I plan to use this Fellowship to address the overarching research question:
– In what ways are drones contributing to or changing contemporary visual cultures?

I will also address the subsidiary research questions:

  1. What are the aesthetic, textual, semiotic characteristics of drone visuals?
  2. How do drone visuals live? Where are they seen and shared? How widely? By whom? With what implications?
  3. What do the general public think about drone visuals? How do they perceive them?
  4. What is the impact of drone visuals on culture more widely? What are the main issues they raise?

Through these questions, I will add a digital arts and humanities perspective to the current understanding of drones, and will showcase how such a perspective can move academic research on drones beyond existing analyses of technicalities and safety considerations. For this purpose, this Fellowship will adopt a ‘visual culture’ approach that pays attention to the visual object and the active experience of the individual in the optical experience. This will be combined with a ‘technological mediation’ approach that acknowledges the importance of thinking of visuals in the digital age in direct conversation with media and new technologies. In this way, the Fellowship will bring visual communication and culture studies into conversation with other fields, especially internet, digital and mobile media studies.

Methodologically, this Fellowship employs a mixed methods approach that is novel in its integration of three strands. First, online participant observation will be conducted on drone users and how their visuals circulate online. Second, a survey will be conducted within a public exhibition to collect public perceptions of drone visuals. Third, qualitative content analysis on drone visuals will be conducted to explore their aesthetic characteristics and meanings.

This project builds on the insights and experience of a British Academy funded pilot project (Small Grant Ref SRG18R1\180618) where I explored users’ and developers’ perspectives on drone usage.

AHRC Leadership Fellowship
Grant Number: AH/T012528/1

Research Associate

Dr Lauren Alex O’Hagan is a historical sociolinguist, with expertise in the application of visual social semiotics and multimodal critical discourse analysis to such artefacts as book inscriptions, postcards, advertisements, food packaging and rock memorabilia. She obtained her PhD from Cardiff University in 2018 with a research project entitled ‘Class, Culture and Conflict in the Edwardian Book Inscription: A Multimodal Ethnohistorical Approach’. Before joining the ‘Drones in Visual Culture’ project, she held postdoctoral researcher roles at Örebro University (Sweden) and Cardiff University (UK). She is particularly interested in tracing the historical origins of seemingly novel contemporary visual practices in order to better understand how their linguistic/semiotic features have shaped representations of discourse over time and made people think about the world in a particular way. Her first monograph The Sociocultural Functions of Edwardian Book Inscriptions: Taking a Multimodal Ethnohistorical Approach was published with Routledge in March 2021.

List of selected publications

In Preparation

Transhistoricizing the Drone: A Comparative Visual Social Semiotic Analysis of Pigeon and Drone Photography


Drone Views: A Multimodal Ethnographic Perspective (Visual Communication)

Drone visuals are rapidly becoming part of our sociocultural imaginaries, generating distinct images that differ from traditional visual conventions and producing unexpected perspectives of the world that reveal hidden aspects of our surroundings. Despite the growing use of camera-laden drones in a range of commercial and non-commercial activities, to date, little scholarly attention has been paid to the semiotics of drone visuals. This article is the first to draw specific attention to the compositional structure of drone visuals, combining social semiotic analysis with ethnographic insights to assess how they are changing the way we think about the world. Exploring drone hobbyists’ and developers’ perspectives on drone usage and the visuals they generate, we identify and examine three frequently occurring characteristics of drone visuals: top-down views, 360-degree panoramic views and ‘classic’ landscape perspectives. The critical analysis of these peculiarities leads us to argue for the potential of these innovative visions to reshape our visual culture. In its conclusion, we aim to open a conversation about the way technological advancements mark important sociocultural changes in sense-making processes, geographical imaginations and everyday life experiences.

Imagining the Social Future of Drones (Convergences)

Despite growing attention to the use and management of drone data and visuals, to date, little consideration has been given to the perspectives of civilian drone users/developers and their experiences of drones. The views of civilian drone users are essential because they represent a significant part of drone buyers, while drone developers are responsible for imagining how drones will be used. To address this gap in knowledge, the current paper draws on literature from media studies and science and technology studies, bringing together Taylor’s (2004) concept of social imaginary and Pink’s (2013) notion of visual practices to develop a theoretical framework that explores (i) civilian users’ and developers’ perspectives on drone usage; (ii) their knowledge of relevant regulations; and (iii) how they imagine civilian drone use should be regulated. Obtaining their viewpoints will help develop a greater understanding of the way users consume, change and domesticate technological developments and, in turn, the way users are shaped and transformed by technology. Furthermore, the findings have the potential to improve the match between technology and its users with a vision to further opportunities and potential challenges in drone applications from sociocultural perspectives.

Drones in Visual Culture: Anna Jackman converses with Elisa Serafinelli and Lauren Alex O’Hagan about their work (Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present Journal)

This paper presents the transcript of a Q&A discussion between drone scholar Anna Jackman and Elisa Serafinelli and Lauren Alex O’Hagan about their AHRC-funded project ‘Drones in Visual Culture: Developing a New Theory of Visual Mobile Communication. Elisa and Lauren discuss the aims and main findings of their project, as well as its broader implications for the fields of visual studies, digital media studies and cultural studies.


Views from the Blue: A Glimpse into Drone Photography

This exhibition seeks to encourage a reappraisal of drones as instruments of surveillance and warfare by showcasing drone visuals produced by amateur drone users and shared on social media platforms. By shining a spotlight on their aesthetic, textual and semiotic characteristics, it aims to encourage viewers to reflect on how drones have created new ways of visualising and embodying our world, acting as intermediaries between humans and nature.

Perspectives on Drone Usage

Research aims and overview

Drones are an increasingly important social phenomenon. As flying robots, they can capture images that would be difficult to take with ordinary cameras or in risky situations, providing a wealth of visual information which would otherwise be hard to access. Increasingly, drones are used not only by drone operators with valid Civil Aviation Authority permission, but also by civilian users.

Despite the opportunities afforded by drones, their civilian use causes concern as they can capture, share and store images of events and people without following an established set of norms. In fact, the sharing of aerial images across communicative channels relies on drone users’ individual ethics and reflexivity, which suggests that we need to know more about these.

This study generates such knowledge, by investigating users’ and developers’ views on: i) domestic drone usage; ii) the images that it generates; and iii) how it should be regulated. The project uses qualitative interviews and visual content analysis to explore users’ and developers’ thoughts about this particular technological advancement and related risks and opportunities. Yet such imaginaries play a vital role in the eventual take up of new technologies like drones.

British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant funded project.
Grant Number: SRG18R1\180618

Data collection
Michael B. Rasmussen, Bridge.

‘Even on a daily basis, yeah. I can’t go anywhere without thinking about how that area would look, how that would look from the sky. But it’s constantly for me a plan and a new shoot, a new image. So it has changed my way of seeing the world, yes!’ (Michael).

Iain McCallum, Sunset Avenue.

‘I also love taking the images from straight above looking directly downwards, again I’m a member of a local camera club I gave a talk there the other week, I had quite a few images looking straight down on things, and people hadn’t…they just couldn’t work out where it was then I showed, like, a more traditional view and, like, oh yeah! I know it now, and it just really messed with people’s minds a bit ‘cause you don’t get to see that perspective’ (Iain).

Romeo Ducher, Maloja Pass Switzerland.

‘You have the ability to move a 3D space and you have the ability to look in areas where you were not able to look before, mainly like straight down, and so you have to, kind of, train your brain on utilising this capability more’ (Romeo).

List of selected publications