Photo elicitation

What is it?
Photo elicitation is a qualitative research method, where photographs are used to stimulate a conversation between participants and researchers in interviews. These photographs can be taken by participants or researchers, or obtained from other sources. By taking their own photographs, participants record what may not be available to researchers and directly control how their observations are documented and framed. Photographs are used as a medium to record a wide range of information including observations about a place, people and events. Researchers use the photographs in an interview with participants to elicit the emotional currents and cultural meanings within situations, social relationships, as well as participants’ perception, attitude and personal experience.

What is needed?
1) Camera(s). The number of camera required would depend on how many people will be photographing and the extent to which the camera(s) can be shared among all the photographers. Simple point-and-shoot digital or phone cameras will be sufficient. Digital and phone cameras have the advantage of letting photographers to review and delete their photographs.
2) A way to share photographs during an interview. Photographs can be printed in-house with a photograph printer or at a print shop. If there are more photographs than there is time to discuss them, it may be necessary to ask the participants to select a subset of photographs. Researchers can also share photographs by projecting them on a monitor or a projector.
3) A voice-recording device. This would depend on whether the interviews need to be recorded.
4) Notebooks. Researchers may want to take notes in addition to voice recording during interviews.
5) Handout. It may help photographers to remember the photograph topics by giving them a hardcopy of the topics. For those who are unfamiliar with using digital or phone camera(s), it may also be helpful to give them a handout of the basic instructions for how to operate and maintain such camera.

Time and actors
1) Time. If participants will be producing the photographs, it is important to budget in some buffer time in addition to the amount of time for logistics – e.g. time to get to the photographing locations and to experience the research topics. The buffer time will help to mitigate the risk of putting unnecessary burden on participants’ regular activities. This is even more critical for those who had no prior experience with photographing because learning to capture one’s thoughts in photographs is like learning a new language.
2) Researchers. The researchers should be comfortable to explain the research, the topics for the photographing exercise, and instructions for how to operate the cameras to participants if they would be taking the photographs. If researchers are taking the photographs, then they should have basic photographing skills to comfortably use photographs to capture information as indicated by the research parameters.
3) Interviewer(s). At least one of the researchers needs to be comfortable with conducting semi-structured interviews.
4) Participants. These depend on the research design. They may be randomly or purposively sampled individuals.

Is an expert needed?
No, no expert needed No prior experience with photo elicitation is required for researchers to use it in their research. Having some background in semi-structured interviews and being comfortable to engage with participants could help researchers to acquire the necessary skills to conduct photo elicitation. It is important to bear in mind that the objective of photo elicitation is not to take professional photographs. Instead the photographs are merely used as a tool to stimulate a discussion on the research topics. Therefore, there is no right or wrong interpretation of the photographs. The researchers’ role is to make participants feel comfortable and confident to render their narratives for the photographs.

How to
Implementation steps
1) Determine whether photo elicitation is an appropriate method for a research. The research questions influence the research design, which includes the selection of research method to address the research questions. Whether participants or researchers had prior experience with photo elicitation should not be a consideration. Photo elicitation is a very versatile qualitative method that has been applied in a wide range of research projects and context. The decision should be about whether photo elicitation would be more effective than other candidate methods at addressing the research questions given the available resources such as time and equipment. I have listed some of the advantages and disadvantages of photo elicitation in the Success-stories section that may help to in deciding whether photo elicitation is an appropriate method for a research.
2) Determine photograph topics. The research questions again should help to determine the appropriate subject matters to photograph. The explanation of the photograph topics can be given during recruitment if the participants would be producing the photographs. As little directives as possible should be given regarding the content of the photographs. Rather, the emphasis should be on simplifying the photograph topics to eliminate any technical jargons and to sufficiently discuss the topics with participants to ensure that there is a common understanding of what they are asked to photograph.
3) Apply to the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB is a committee that reviews and approves applications for research projects involving human subjects. The primary purpose of the IRB is to protect the rights and welfare of the human subjects. If your research institution has an IRB, then you would have to submit an application for conducting a research with human subjects. You can complete a training course for conducting a human subject research online at Researchers should carefully plan for procedures to protect the rights and welfare of the participants. If the research topics involve photographing children, youth or other vulnerable populations, extra care must be taken to protect the rights and welfare of these people. This includes discussing ethical issues with the participants and researchers early in the project (see item 5). Note that if your institution has an IRB, you cannot start participant recruitment until you have received an approval from the IRB.
4) Recruit participants. The research design should include sampling method and approach for recruiting participants. Sampling can be random and purposively. An example of purposively sampling technique is snowball sampling, where researchers rely on the referrals of participants to identify new participants. During recruitment of participants, researchers should give a project briefing, where the project objectives and the photo elicitation process are explained. It is also at the recruitment when the consenting process is conducted with the participants to ensure that they understand the nature of their participation and that their participation is voluntary and confidential.
5) Safety and ethical considerations. Researchers should discuss safety and ethical considerations with the photographers early on for example during recruitment. The central principles to discuss include not putting oneself in a dangerous position while photographing, and only taking photographs of other people if they would be comfortable being similarly photographed. Photographers need to exercise careful judgment when photographing people, particularly if the photographs can lead to embarrassment and/or legal implications, because people’s identities can be easily recognized in a photograph.
5) Camera instructions. Whoever will be photographing should be familiar with how to operate the research project camera(s). If not, basic operational instructions -- such as taking and playing back a photograph and zooming in and out -- for the cameras could be given either during recruitment or before the start of photographing. A handout of these basic instructions can be handy to have.
6) Produce or procure interview photographs. Photographs used in photo elicitation can be produced by participants or others including researchers or procured from a public source. For example, Atwell et al. used photographs generated by non-participants to interview participants what they noticed, liked and disliked about each photograph of the U.S. Corn Belt agricultural landscapes. In a different example, Kong et al. asked participants to photograph their land condition and management, and evaluation criteria for land management practices.
7) Select photographs for an interview. Researchers need to consider a reasonable number of photographs to be used for each interview to give participants sufficient time to discuss each photograph. If participants are producing the photographs, they may generate more photographs than what could be discussed in an interview. It would not be advisable to place a limit on the number of photographs that a participant can take because this may worry some participants and stifle their creativity. The decision of selecting which photographs to discuss should be made by participants if they are the one generating the photographs. Researchers can simply ask participants to choose however many photographs that they consider as most important or illustrative of the research topics.
8) Interview participants with photographs. The research questions should influence interview questions to discuss the photographs with participants. The main purpose of these interview questions is to elicit the meaning and information captured in the photographs or participants’ reading of these photographs to answer the research questions. Researchers may ask a set of standard questions, or improvise questions based on key themes. Either way, it helps to ask the simpler questions first to give participants a chance to warm up to the more difficult questions. Participants may be interviewed individually, in pairs or in groups; the decision should depend on the research objectives and considerations for cultural norms and social and political dynamics among participants.
9) Document participant narratives and match them to photographs. During interviews, researchers need to have an approach to document what participants said about each photograph. Some researchers prefer to record interviews, for which permission should be obtained from participants; while others prefer to keep written notes. Either way, researchers should take care to capture the richness of the narratives as fully as possible and to allow a free-flowing interview that minimizes interruptions to participants. Researchers should also have a process to match each narrative to the respective photograph. One way is to number the photographs and use the number to organize the narratives.

Data analysis
In most photo elicitation, the analysis is done on participants’ narratives accompanying the photographs. It is seldom for researchers to conduct a visual analysis of the photographs because photo elicitation is about participants’ interpretation instead of researchers’ interpretation of the interview photographs. One can use common qualitative analysis techniques such as coding and content analysis to analyze narratives elicited with the photographs.

Data management
Researchers have a responsibility to protect the confidentiality of participants and those named in photographs as a part of data management. This entails using procedures to disassociate participant identities from their narratives during data analysis. Researchers can use numeric or alphabetic codes in place of participants’ identification in notes and data analysis files. Upon conclusion of the research project, any documents that contain identify information about the participants need to be destroyed according to guidances by Institutional Review Board on research involving human subjects (See item 3 under Implementation steps).

Dissemination of the results
The confidentiality issue would have an implication on the dissemination of the photographs produced by participants in that researchers need to secure permission from the individuals in the photographs prior to reprinting them in public spaces. Participants also have to secure permission from individuals in the photographs if they want to disseminate the picture in public spaces. Similarly, participants’ identities need to be kept confidential from narratives accompanying photographs, when they are being disseminated.
There are a number of channels to disseminate results from research using photo elicitation. These include peer-review journals, conferences and forums, exhibitions, grey-literature and online platforms including blog pages and webinars.

Good practice tips
I have discussed good practice tips such as building in buffer time and explaining ethical considerations, as well as practical tips for documenting narratives, data management and dissemination in the What-is-needed and How-to section. Please refer to these sections for the good practice tips.

Success stories
Photo elicitation has been applied in a wide range of research fields and contexts including health, landscape, psychological, behavioral, cultural and natural resource studies because of its numerous strengths. For example, photographs are particularly effective at conveying the texture and feel of a place, because they can document the material reality precisely. Additionally, photographs can help participants who lack fluency of words to make clear statements about complex processes and situations. Researchers have found that using photographs to elicit participants’ responses in interviews resulted in greater amount and richer details including information about their perception, attitude, emotion, cultural and indigenous knowledge, social relationship and recollection of past events. There is a familiar element to sharing stories captured in photographs because humans are naturally drawn toward story telling. This may explain why using photographs during interviews could help to put participants at ease and build rapport between researchers and participants. Furthermore, by asking participants to generate photographs for the interviews, this allows them to share power with researchers in producing research data. The degree of power sharing with regards to knowledge co-production would vary between projects; however, it is an important aspect that participatory research would aspire to promote.

Like any research method, photo elicitation may not always be the best choice for every research project. Along with its numerous strengths, there are drawbacks to this method. Among these, the biggest may be its requirement on time resource. Unlike conventional interviews, photo elicitation would at the very minimum require one additional visit to the participants if they are producing the interview photographs. The additional visit can be challenging if participants live in very remote places. As indicated in the How-to section, it is important for researchers to build in buffer time for those who are taking the photographs, especially for those who are new to photographing. This may be less of an issue if researchers are using photographs that they took or from other sources. Another drawback to this method is the requirement for cameras and a mean to share the photographs, which would increase research costs. A drawback that is on the flipside of empowering participants to co-produce research data is the risk of omission in that participants determine the content of the photographs and narratives, which sometimes may not match fully with research objectives. One possible way for researchers to mitigate this risk is to have specific discussion questions to cover omitted topics with participants.

These are just some of the strengths and weaknesses of photo elicitation for consideration when deciding whether it would be an appropriate method for a research. Ultimately the research questions and context will determine the research design and the most suitable method for that particular research.

To learn more
Collier, J.J. 1967. Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.
Harper, D. 2002. Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Vis. Stud. 17(1):13-26.
Hurworth, R. 2003. Photo-interviewing for research in Social Research Update. Sociology at Surrey in the University of Surrey.
Pain, H. 2012. A Literature Review to Evaluate the Choice and Use of Visual Methods. Int. J. Qual. Methods 11(4): 303–319.

Selected references to show examples of where photo elicitation has been applied in research:
Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. 2009. Landscape, community, countryside: linking biophysical and social scales in US Corn Belt agricultural landscapes. Landscape Ecol. 24: 791-806.
Collier, J.J. 1957. Photography in anthropology: a report on two experiments. Am. Anthropol. 59(5):843–859.
Dandy, N., and R.v.d. Wal. 2011. Shared appreciation of woodland landscapes by land management professionals and lay people: An exploration through field-based interactive photo-elicitation. Landscape Urban Plan. 102(1):43-53.
Meo, A. I. 2010. Picturing Students’ Habitus: The Advantages and Limitations of Photo-Elicitation Interviewing in a Qualitative Study in the City of Buenos Aires. The Int. J. Qual. Methods 9(2):149-171.
Oliffe, J.L., and J.L. Bottorff. 2007. Further than the eye can see? Photo elicitation and research with men. Qualitative Health Res. 17(6):850-858.
Sherren, K., J. Fischer, and I. Fazey. 2012. Managing the grazing landscape: Insights for agricultural adaptation from a mid-drought photo-elicitation study in the Australian sheep-wheat belt. Agricult. Sys. 106(1):72-83.
Warner, E., L. Johnson, and F. Andrews. 2016. Exploring the Suburban Ideal Residents’ Experiences of Photo Elicitation Interviewing (PEI). The Int. J. Qual. Methods 15 (1):1-9.


Created on 29 Sep 2016 20:48 by Taryn Kong
Updated on 29 Sep 2016 20:48 by Taryn Kong

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