The photo studies method asks people to submit photos or images based on a prompt, often asking participants to document specific moments throughout their days or artifacts they encounter in their lives. This research method provides rich glimpses into users’ real life experiences that might otherwise be difficult to observe. Photo studies allow for diverse perspectives and interpretations that can often inspire additional research ideas and directions. The photo studies method works well when paired with diary studies or follow-up interviews that allow researchers to delve deeper into the qualitative significance placed by the participants on their respective images.
The photo studies method is a variation on the photo elicitation method used widely in sociology and occasionally in anthropology. The photo elicitation research method, pioneered by John Collier in the 1950s, introduces photos during an interview to “evoke deeper elements of human consciousness” (Harper 2002, 13). There are two main approaches to photo elicitation. The first provides the participant with photos that the researcher has pre-selected. The second uses images that the participant has identified, thus “empowering stakeholders” who might not otherwise be involved (Van Auken et al. 2010, 374). Caroline Wang furthered this participant-driven research method called “photovoice” by integrating elements of Paulo Freire’s participatory education along with feminist theory (Given et al. 2011, 1). Photovoice generally brings people together in a focus group to discuss, contextualize, and acknowledge gaps in what is represented in the photos.
Harper also notes the existence of elicitation methodologies that use film or video rather than photographs, namely Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch who filmed participants while they were being interviewed, played the interviews back to them, and then recorded their reactions to their initial interviews ( 2002, 14).
- Define the research inquiry and sample population.
- Determine whether you will provide cameras to participants. (This is particularly important if your participants do not have access to cameras or camera phones.)
- Construct the prompt. (What should participants take photos of? When/where should they take photos? How and by when should they submit photos? What else should they include with the photos (written description, contact info, time of day photo was taken, etc.)? It may be important to include instructions on the ethics of taking photos as well as a disclaimer about how/when/where the photos will be used.)
- Distribute the prompt to participants and set a deadline for submittals.
- Follow up with participants as appropriate. (This may be asking participants questions about your interpretation of their photos to validate your research or it may include further research such as interviews, focus groups, etc.)
- Analyze results.
Advantages: useful for recording behaviors, values, and life as seen through users’ eyes (events that are often otherwise difficult to observe); unique/creative nature may entice more people to participate; may lend itself well to crowdsourcing and snowball sampling.
Disadvantages: limited to physical realm (what people can take photos of); limited by researcher’s interpretation of photos (asking participants to include a written description or participate in a follow-up interview or focus group can counteract this limitation); biased towards those with time or interest to participate
A crowdsourced photo study website where anyone around the world can submit photos and text based on an active “mob.”
An organization based out of the UK that uses participatory photography among marginalised commun ities to give individuals voice and representation in their own advocacy and communication .
Instagram A photo-sharing social media platform where public photos are searchable by hashtags .
Given, Lisa M., Anna Opryshko, Heidi Julien, and Jorden Smith. “Photovoice: A Participatory Method for Information Science.” Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 48, no. 1 (2011): 1 - 3.
Harper, Douglas. “Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation.” Visual Studies 17, no. 1 (2002): 13 - 26.
Martin, Bella, and Bruce M. Hanington. Universal Methods of Design 100 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2012. 134-5.
Van Auken, Paul M., Svein J. Frisvoll, and Susan I. Stewart. “Visualising community: using participant-driven photo-elicitation for research and application.” Local Environment 15, no. 4 (2010): 373–388.