Making Photographs as Part of a Research Project

The chapter titled ‘Making Photographs as Part of a Research Project: Photo-documentation, Photo-elicitation and Photo-essays’ is from the book titled ‘Visual Methodologies: an introduction to researching with visual materials’ by Gillian Rose. Reading this chapter was important because I am planning to use photographs in my research project, which I haven’t done before, therefore I needed to make sure I had an understanding of how photographs can and should be used. From reading this chapter I was able to establish the method that I should use for my research project out of photo-documentation, photo-elicitation and photo-essays.

Photo-documentation refers to the researcher using photography as a tool to make images that document and answer specific research questions they are asking in their research project. The chapter refers to a study in which this approach could be used, which is observing evidence of gentrification in urban areas by documenting the housing, the facilities and the products available in them. The researcher adheres to a shooting script, which is a series of research questions that ultimately shape the kind of photographs that are taken. In addition to the photographs produced, the researcher would also write captions detailing why the photographs were taken and which research questions the photographs appear to answer. Photo-documentation would be suitable for researching a phenomenon that you as a researcher can clearly identify and observe in order to then document it. However the research that I am planning to carry out, aims to engage with a concept that is not clearly observable and it also doesn’t take place in a physical environment, therefore I wouldn’t be able to take photographs of it in the manner that photo-documentation suggests. The phenomenon I am investigating takes place on social media, therefore I need an approach that can operate in a digital environment.

Photo-elicitation is a method that involves giving research participants access to a camera and asking them to document their lives in relation to the research question. Instance where this method has been used is in studies that aim to see what type of products a family uses, or how they experience life as a family. This research method is effective in that it encourages the participants to have an active role in the research, giving them a more powerful voice as they are producing the data. However this more collaborative approach to research can mean that the researcher doesn’t get the type of visual data that they were expecting, or doesn’t get data that is useful to them. In addition to this, the chapter notes that this approach can be time consuming when using analogue camera technology, as the researcher has to wait for the film to be developed before seeing the images. This reference to analogue cameras as the obvious choice, exposes the fact that this chapter is slightly dated in comparison to the current situation; where nearly every individual owns a smartphone with an camera embedded in the device. The crisis of providing a camera to the participant is less relevant today, than it might have been when this chapter was written. Like many writings on photography and visual methods, this particular book was written when analogue photography was the predominate option, therefore I need to consider this chapter in relation to a wider context, most specifically the prominence of camera technology in culture today. It may be that the methods discussed in this chapter, would only suit analogue cameras, therefore I may need to discuss the implications of this method in the digital age and how to possibly rework the methods to my research topic.

What makes photo-elicitation different from photo-documentation, is the interview that the researcher has with the participants who have taken the photographs. This interview allows the researcher have more control over the study and perhaps direct the interview in order to make sure the research questions are answered. The chapter explains that whilst some of the interviews could be structured, usually the researcher would simply identify an image and ask the participant to explain the ideas behind its creation. Whether the images are considered in a linear or non-linear approach is up to the researcher and the participant; the participant may seem enthusiastic about discussing an image that is not at the beginning of the series and likewise the researcher may come to the conclusion that some images may not be as relevant as others. What is interesting about this section in the chapter, is that it suggests the researcher doesn’t look at the developed prints before the interview, they could send them back unseen to the participant, which allows for the participant to remove any images that they feel are unsuitable. This would hopefully maintain the trust between participant and researcher and extend the feeling of control the participant has over what they choose to share with the researcher. However what the chapter doesn’t identify, is that the company or person responsible for developing and printing the images, would have definitely seen the content of the images, meaning that there is no complete confidentiality in the subject. In order to conduct an ethical research project, the participants should be introduced to the idea that the developer/printer will see the content of the images, to make sure that they have the chance to mediate the content of their images. Though some may argue that this would affect the sort of images the participant would take and make them less truthful or instinctive, I would argue that the participant already knows they are being researched, therefore the possibility for full instinctive behaviour would always have been affected.

This section also discusses the photograph as an object; it is a tool for both representation and performance. The photograph represents both the content that it is depicting, and the cultural significance behind it, which is drawn out when the photographer has the chance to explain the meaning behind it. It is this needed for explanation that prompts the idea that the photograph is dependant on the context in which it is being viewed. You can consider the photographs that would be produced by the method of photo-elicitation; in the context of social media, family photographs would be considered and viewed as the documentation of memories, the viewer can choose to communicate that they like/dislike the image or ignore it. However in the context of a research paper, these images would be picked apart by the reader and considered as a critical visual artefact. In addition to the environment, it is the accompanying explanation (or lack of) that is important in communicating meaning. The relationship between photography and text is an interesting concept to consider in the context of art. However in research, the meaning communicated from the image must either be completely clear (like you would expect from photo-documentation) or accompanied by a detailed explanation from the photographer. In terms of analysing the content produced from these visual methods, I didn’t give this section too much attention because Gillian Rose has written another book that is about the interpretation of material produced from visual methodology. I have downloaded the book and will be reading it in order to find out how to use the visual material once it has been produced.

 

It is clear from reading this chapter, that photo-elicitation is the method that would best suit my research project, however the are several elements that pose a complication. First of all, as I have identified earlier on in this blog post, this chapter was written when analogue photography was the predominate technology and therefore the text is shaped around the practice of analogue photography. I need to redefine how the method of photo-elicitation would operate in a digital context, this involves identifying the cameraphone as a research tool and the fact that the process of making, sending and analysing the images would be much quicker. I need to consider how the accelerated practice of digital photography, compares to the slower, considerate practice of analogue photography and what the implications could mean for the visual data that is produced. Second of all, I have decided on conducting autoethnographic study in my research project, which means that there is no collaboration between researcher and participant, because I am both. This complicates the idea of having an interview with the participant to find out more about why the specific photographs were taken, because as the photographer I would already know. The answer to this issue would be to have periods of self-reflection, where I as a participant, explain the reasoning behind the images I have created. Then I, as a researcher can build on this reflection and critically analyse it. This would be extremely complicated, as I can’t draw a definitive line between the researcher and participant. I can’t expel the researcher from my mind when I am attempting to consider my photographs as a participant, likewise I wouldn’t be able to get rid of my own personal opinions when attempting to critically analyse the material. This is not necessarily bad, as it is impossible to observe the world as an objective individual, because I am in the world. I need to make sure that I am incredibly self-aware when carrying out this research. The idea of reflexivity is incredibly relevant here, which I analyse further in other blog posts.

 

Bibliography:

Rose, G. (1962) ‘Making Photographs as Part of a Research Project: Photo-documentation, Photo-elicitation and Photo-essays’ in Visual Methodologies: an introduction to researching with visual materials  London: Sage

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