The Life-worlds and Journeys of a Flip-Flop Sandal

Article

Through an intensive one month period of fieldwork and photography we unpacked the biography and hidden social substance of the flip-flop from raw material to disposal stage.

Someone's feet walking through a corridor.

About the project

This project was funded by the British Academy for £7,500. Through an intensive one month period of fieldwork and photography we unpacked the biography and hidden social substance of the flip-flop from raw material to disposal stage. The biography of a flip-flop begins in the Special Economic Zone of Fujian in SE China, the world's leading centre for flip flop manufacture. It begins with the raw materials that go into plastics, design, manufacture and distribution networks that move in many directions.

These processes implicate Chinese workers lives and at each stage and we will document this process through a single worker-biography at each stage in ways that extend beyond the social relationships of production to other areas of social life. Ethiopia, which combines a large population - in excess of 72 million - with one of Africa's lowest GDPs and relative political stability, is an important destination for Chinese-manufactured flip-flops.

Shipped into Ethiopia the flip-flop moves around distribution routes to wholesalers, to retailers and then to a pair of feet. On Ethiopian feet they travel many miles in the routines of everyday life. They may change feet and be repaired. They will end up in the land-fill or recycled and have an afterlife as some other object, before being finally discarded. At each stage we used flip-flops to access the social processes and lives entangled with it. This is what we mean by the hidden social texture of the flip-flop; the things that can be excavated from it, that are not necessarily on its surface.

This project combines photography and action interviews, situated in the flow of activities documented. Michael Tan, artist, based in Singapore is experienced in using photography to explore everydayness and its material objects. Michael has been photographing flip flops in various places and states over the last few years. He photographed all stages in the flip-flop's biography and documented its many appearances in Ethiopian material culture.

Action interviews take place in the context under investigation and probe for information about people and places. The result will be a textured visual ethnography of the flip-flop at all stages of its biography and interactions with human biography and the social worlds in which they are set. We see this as an innovated use of photography in the task of generating social commentary and exposing social relationships: working at the intersections between sociology, anthropology and art.

Publications

BBC4 Thinking Aloud Podcast

'Journey of the Sole' article (PDF download)

Contact

For more information about this project, you can email Michael Tan or email Caroline Knowles.