This is an enquiry into the relationship between familiarity and distance in semiotic and related studies. In parallel, it explores our relationship to cities: the familiar as the ground of our daily lives are invisible, while the unfamiliar become vivid in proportion to our ignorance of them. Learning and research may at first appear to involve a process of gaining greater proximity to the subject matter. There are indications from the semiotic and phenomenological traditions that suggest, however, that greater distance is required, in order to question taken-for-granted semiotic bonds and to step outside in order to examine quotidian life experience. The article explores these issues through the experience of a joint project, between a photographer and a sociologist, which documented and analysed a specific urban area in Melbourne, Australia. The results of the project were presented at two gatherings, one in Melbourne and the other in Torino. The different relationships of the two protagonists to the subject matter, and the different degrees of proximity of the two audiences provide the opportunity to reflect on distance as a methodological element in the human sciences. The study draws on phenomenological and semiotic principles to consider whether distance may provide a necessary critical fulcrum, or may trigger insights across the gap of εποχη that are unavailable in the ‘natural attitude’. The methodological and pedagogical points are drawn out of a discussion of the photographs themselves.