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2.5 Visual research methods

In a world becoming increasingly saturated with visual imagery, ignoring the potential that these techniques might offer the researcher would be remiss.  Although images have been used as illustrative additions in research since the turn of the 19th century, it is only with the digital evolution of photography and mechanisms for storing, processing and evaluating media, that the ease and simplicity of use have made it accessible as a technique to almost any researcher.  But just because we can, doesn't mean we should.  Employing visual methods should be undertaken because of the advantages they bring:
  • freezing and capturing fleeting moments in time that would otherwise be lost (Prosser & Loxley, 2008)
  • introducing a visual element to the process of data collection which might thereby provide different ways of knowing and understanding (Darbyshire et al, 2005 Gauntlett, 2007)
  • facilitates access to places and spaces, which the researcher might not otherwise be privy
  • help researchers to overcome the problems of Insider-access
  • assist in the processes of formulating ideas, work through emergent concepts and help represent them to others (Neilsen, 2002)
  • support greater mental processing through visual and dialogic interactions than through dialogic alone (Harper, 2002)
  • gives a 'voice' to individuals/groups who might struggle to articulate what they know through more conventional means (Mannay, 2010)
Introducing a visual element to the data collection technique offers a different epistemological approach; one in which the researcher is provided with a more informative window on the experiences of the participant since the participant from the outset has some degree of autonomy (Darbyshire et al, op cit). Use of visual techniques, whether drawings, photographs, concept maps, cartoons, graffiti, maps,  video, film, art, dance offer the possibility of a shift from researcher-centred or -led construction of the world, to one over which the participant has far greater control.  In addition, a camera can provide a less intrusive recorder on a participant's world then a human observer might.

Researchers working with human subjects, especially children, are in a dominant position of power. Using visual media through techniques such as photo-elicitation (Harper, op cit) or photo-voice (Wang, 1999) hands back some of the control to the participants.  In photoelicitation, photographs are used as a stimulus around which a discussion hangs.  The images can be provided by the researcher to 'create a 'bridge' between their (ethnographer and the informant) different experiences of reality.' (Pink, 2007)  Yet researcher-provided images may not evoke deep reflections by the participant on the issues in which the researcher is interested (Harper, op cit).  However when the participant is provided with a camera which they use to capture their images, they are provided with a far greater degree of empowerment and have the opportunity to steer the direction from which the results will emerge.  The photographs themselves become the centre of discussion, rather than the researcher's questions. (Belin, 2005)

This can even be taken a stage further in what Heisley and Levy (1991) refer to as Autodriving where the participant 'drives' the subsequent interview by commenting on the images they have recorded.  This helps the interviewer avoid the pitfall of using pre-structured questions which may miss the meaning systems of the participant entirely - especially true where children are concerned and an adult has a communicative advantage.  As Clark, (1999: 41) observed:

"Autodriving brings a "perspective of action" as the interviewee attempts to make the visual material meaningful to the outsider."

As she also observed, the photos themselves could become tangible artefacts for generating a second level of interaction in which the participant categorises them to provide a different layer of meaning.

Visual methods like the ones explored here are not without problems, not least introducing an element of technical and practical complexity.  Quite clearly, images are open to interpretation depending on the social, cultural and political background of the observer, yet provided the methodological stance acknowledges these issues, they can provide a rich source of multiple viewpoints and interpretations.