Investigative Techniques

Lewis Bush, Workshop – Investigative Techniques, 29th June 2019

Lewis Bush Workshop, 2019.

A key aspect of my project is collection of material relating to urban development projects in different parts of east London. This material (which includes maps, planning documents, studies of the areas, archival accounts and images, developer promotional material, consultation documents, press reports and so on) helps to understand the dynamics of change in these areas and provides material to be used in workshops with residents. Some of the material will also form a part of the final outcome of the project and may be incorporated into the images presented (for instance, in various forms of composite and/or juxtaposed with other images and artefacts). Collection, organisation and analysis of this material require the use of particular tools and techniques, and the development and implementation of an overarching strategy.

The workshop with Lewis Bush focused on the tools that he has used and the techniques he has developed in his own work. The workshop provided insight into Lewis’s practice and opportunity to consider how the tools and techniques might be applied and adapted to my own project. This post will explore some of these tools and techniques in relation to my own practice. I am posting this now because (i) the theme this week is on the development of workshops, and this provides an example of one approach; (ii) I am in the ‘research’ phase in working towards my FMP, and am collecting materials for my own workshops and for use in the development of the project.

Gathering information

Lewis stressed the importance of starting with a clear question to guide the collection of information (drawing on Hunter, Sengers and Thordsen, 2011, he called this a hypothesis, because of the association of this term with positivist science, I would prefer something like question or problem statement). For my project, this statement would be something like ‘There is a disjunction between the experiences and aspirations of residents and the stated rationale for, and effects of, housing development in east London.’ Stated as a question, this would be ‘To what extent is there a disjunction between the experiences and aspirations of residents and the stated rationale for, and effects of, housing development in east London?’ This acts to focus both the strategies used and path taken by the collection and analysis of data.

The focus of the session was on Open Source Research (OSR), in which the information collected is publicly available (but which might hint at things that are not known or immediately obvious). As well as published material, this includes information that can be obtained through means such as Freedom of Information requests and patent applications. A clear workflow is needed to handle the volume of data and maintain a clear direction.

Working with these sources enables a researcher to stay under the radar and to gain credibility through providing readily available evidence to support statements. Bellingcat, as well as publishing their own investigations, publish a toolkit for others to use. The disadvantages of this kind of information, apart from the danger of overload, is that it is open to manipulation and difficult to verify, and thus potentially unreliable and/or invalid. Consideration has to be given to who is impacted by the study and what risks need to be considered (for instance, of legal challenge). Precautions need to be taken to protect the researcher, their equipment and the information.

For this reason, it is helpful to explore anonymously using Tor or a VPN (such as Nord), and to set up ‘burner’ accounts for email (proton mail or guerrilla mail) and social media. Running an ad blocker (AdBlock), script blocker (NoScript), and encrypting (VeraCrypt, or PGP for email, though this will be visible) or air-gapping.

The threats to the photographer may be legal, and it is important to assess the rights, powers and interests of the individuals or groups who are the subjects of the work, and to take appropriate precautions (for instance, if the subject is a private individual, their powers are limited, mostly to legal redress, and the precautions include fact checking, legal compliance and keeping a low profile).

Notable examples of investigative work, apart from Lewis’s and Ed Clarke’s, are projects by Forensic Architecture and Anne-Marie Casteret’s (1992) L’affaire du Sang.

For searches, using filetype (filetype:), site (site:) and operators (and/or etc) help to narrow search. Looking for Excel (.xls) and google earth (.knz) files can be useful. Useful resources: search engines such as, webscapers (zapper, if this then that) and plugins like foxy spider and download them all (can be used together to harvest images), and other tools such as way back machine, recipe generator, dataminer, jeffrey’s image metadata viewer, yandex (reverse image search), user agent switcher (see site formatted for different devices). For social media searching: politwoops, way back machine, twitonomy. Can use social media to do ‘patterns of life analysis’.

For analysis of images can put on an overlay and go square by square. For google map images can take screenshots at highest resolution and stitch together. Using mymaps can upload gps data. For signs of cloning look for repeating patterns. Can use reddit picrequests and whereisthis to get help in identifying places and things.

Public records can be useful (Land Registry, Companies House, Charity Commission – see CIJ Investigative Journalists Guide to Company Records). FOI requests can be made for specific information (though can be refused for specific reasons) and ‘grey’ or leaked information used with caution. Care must be taken with private information that is inadvertently made public.

On the legal side, need to be careful about contempt of court, respect for right of privacy (privacy law), defamation of character (libel law) and protection of sources (on the record, background, deep background and off the record).

This kind of investigation is just a small part of the background to my own work. Much of the information I need is readily available (about planning applications and developments), but this needs to be carefully organised. Working with images available is important, and clarity of what can be used and how is essential.

As well as the content of the workshop, reflecting on the format has also been helpful for the Week 8 activities on designing and running workshops. It has also led me to think about the design of my own workshop space and how this is best configured for the kind of work that I do.


Bellingcat, Digital Toolkit. Online at [accessed 23.07.19]

Casteret, A-M. 1992. L’affaire du Sang. Paris: Découverte.

Hunter, M.L., Sengers L. and Thordsen, P. 2011. ‘Using hypotheses: the core of investigative method’. In Hunter, M.L. (Ed.), Story-based Inquiry: A manual for investigative journalists. Paris: UNESCO.