Talking about photos: how does photo-elicitation work and how can we use it productively in research? By Dr. Penny Tinkler

People often like talking about photos. It’s not surprising therefore that photo-elicitation is increasingly used in qualitative research projects alongside, sometimes instead of, traditional talk-alone interviews. At its most basic photo-elicitation is an interview in which the interviewee is invited or encouraged to look at, and talk about, one or more photos. These may be personal or found photos or ones generated for the research by the interviewee or researcher.

Proponents of photo-elicitation claim that the dynamics of photo-interviews can be more productive than talk-only ones. They point out that photos stimulate dialogue. They can serve as icebreakers. They can foster a relaxed atmosphere in an interview by taking the pressure off an interviewee; the interviewee is no longer the sole focus of the researcher’s attention. Photos can also help ‘build bridges’ in an interview as the interviewer and interviewee work together to examine the details in a picture and reflect on what it means.

Photo-elicitation is also valued because it can generate very rich data. Photos often stimulate people to talk about what they know, think, experience, feel and remember. They can sometimes nudge people to reflect more deeply than they would in response to a verbal question. Looking at photos and thinking about them can enable people to work through, and express, their experiences and views. For many researchers it’s particularly important that photos can create space for people to talk about what is important and meaningful for them. Photo-elicitation can foreground the interviewee’s priorities and provide space for their voices to be heard, particularly if the photos belong to the interviewee or have been made by them for the purposes of the research. Following from this, making and talking about photos is widely acknowledged as a means for people to identify their needs. This engagement with photography can have radical results. It can, for instance, empower people to bring about personal and social change.

Unfortunately, photo-elicitation doesn’t always meet a researcher’s expectations. Not all photos get people talking; some photos prompt an uninterested response or they silence the viewer. Alternatively, some pictures prompt lengthy, rambling accounts that seem tangential or unrelated to the researcher’s agenda. The radical potential of photo-elicitation can also be elusive. Whether or not photo-elicitation gives participants a ‘voice’ and facilitates change depends greatly on how research is designed. There’s also a tendency for researchers not to make the most of photo-elicitation and to gloss over the complexities of the data that is generated

Understanding how photo-interviews work is pivotal to making good use of them and making sense of them. This is the focus of my webinar. I’ll explain how the visual-verbal relationship is of fundamental importance. This relationship isn’t just about looking and talking, but involves a complex network of sensory and temporal relations. The visual-verbal relationship sets photo-interviews apart from talk-alone ones; it’s also key to designing productive photo research.

Please join Dr. Tinkler Thursday, May 28 1:00 MDT

To register:


About IIQM

The International Institute for Qualitative Methodology (IIQM) is an interdisciplinary institute based at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but serves qualitative researchers around the world. IIQM was founded in 1998, with the primary goal of facilitating the development of qualitative research methods across a wide variety of academic disciplines. Today IIQM offers a wide variety of training and networking opportunities through our annual conferences, courses, workshops, and programs. We have provided this YouTube Channel and video clips as a resource for the qualitative research community at large in order to advance qualitative inquiry. Email: Twitter: @theIIQM Facebook: @IIQMUofA LinkedIn: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology Youtube: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology (IIQM)
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