Using Photography

From OER in Education

Warning: Display title "Using Photography" overrides earlier display title "Using_photography".

Introducing photographs in research

researcher photograph of a school in Kenya

Time: 40 minutes


  • To provide a general introduction to the use of photography in research
  • To assist researchers in recognising appropriate opportunities for the use of photography in research



Begin by asking the participants the various reasons for using photographs in research. Brainstorm these as a big group and write all the reasons on a flip chart so that everyone can see them.

Leading on from these discussions, introduce participants to the three main ways in which photography can been used in research. You can use the Presentation 1 on visual images in research handout to further illustrate these points:

  • Researcher photography: when researchers take photographs to capture contexts, as the research text itself, or in order to later write thick description. Photographs that the researcher takes acts as an aid memoire, allowing for later description and analysis not possible in real time. The examples provided in the powerpoint are images that were captured by the RECOUP researchers when undertaking a field trip in the partner countries.
  • Photoelicitation: where photographs or images are used as elicitation materials in the course of an interview. Photoelicitation acts as a stimulus or trigger to discussing topics that a simple verbal question might not uncover. Photographs may have been generated by the researcher, research participants or from printed or electronic media. Example provided in the powerpoint is a collage of images taken from popular magazines used by a researcher to discuss notions of love.
  • Autophotography (also called photovoice): when research participants are asked to take photographs of a phenomenon. Autophotography is usually accompanied by the research participants' commentaries on their photographs, which is recorded and transcribed, prior to analysis. A very useful example of this approach is illustrated in the video clip provided for this session, Born into Brothels.

Introduce Born into Brothels to the participants

Born into Brothels is a documentary about Zana Briski’s use of photography in the red light district of Calcutta (India). She is not a researcher but a documentary maker and photographer, but the film - which won an the Best Documentary Oscar in 2005 – raises many of the issues relevant to researchers proposing to use photography (especially auto-photography).

  1. Play the Born into Brothels video clip
  2. Ask the group to work in small groups of 4/5, reflecting on the following issues: Strengths of using photographs in research
    • Weaknesses of using photographs in research
    • Potential dilemmas in asking research participants to capture visual images
  3. Bring participants back into the main group and ask each group to report their perspective. These discussions should shed light on the following issues:
    • Is the use of visual images in research exploitative?
    • What are the issues around confidentiality?
    • Can the use of visual images intrude into the privacy of people?
    • What are the issues around the use of visual images and the safety of young people?
    • How can researchers deal with 'dangerous' information?

Setting up the use of photography in research

Time: 30 minutes


  • To discuss the process of setting up the use of photography in research
  • To discuss ethical issues which need to be considered in setting up such projects



These are the points which need to be discussed in this primarily didactic session. Some aspects of these discussions can be supported by the use of the attached Presentation 2 on visual images in research handout

Clear indication of the usefulness of photographs in your research focus

It is important to be clear about the research questions/topic that you would like to base your photographic exploration around. It is important to state it in a clear and an unambiguous manner. Even though analysis happens after the data collection, it is important to begin with a clear idea about how these will be analysed. There are many different ways in which images could be analysed – the content of photographs, the quantities of specific artefacts produced or the proportion of people who produce photographs about various themes or indeed what has not been represented.

An approach that is greatly recommended where research participants take pictures is to conduct a one-to-one discussion with them to make sense of the pictures they have clicked. Why they have clicked? What does it mean to them? What is important in it? These discussions can be recorded and transcribed or one can rely on good note taking.

Choosing the type of camera

You need to make decisions about what kind of camera will you use - digital cameras, or conventional film cameras, or even disposable camera. Deciding on either one has important implications in terms of costs, feasibility to develop the pictures and storage issues. Some researchers have also argued about the ethical dimension of using one type over the other.

Explain clearly the functions in the camera. As a researcher using a camera you need to be clear about its functions. If handing over the camera to the participants then you need to spend time explaining them how to use it. You need to make sure that they are comfortable about using the camera.

Ethical issues around using photography in research

Despite its growing use, and the powerful data it produces, the use of photography in research is not without ethical and paradigmatic challenges (Emmison & Smith, 2000; Harper, 2000; Ziller, 1990). These challenges are best articulated as a series of questions relating to each of the three types of photography useful in research.

  • When researchers take photographs in the field:
    • How do they position themselves?
    • How might this affect the research process?
    • What distinguishes the researcher from a tourist?
    • How do young people respond to being photographed?
  • When photographs are used to elicit data:
    • How might this affect the results of research?
    • Introduce new knowledge?
  • When participants engage in autophotographic activities:
    • How might participants who take photography’s in their communities be perceived?
    • What might be the risk to which they are exposed?
  • In addition to some of these questions, other ethical issues remain such as:
    • how anonymity might be ensured;
    • the issue of ownership of visual materials and subsequent publication);
    • depiction of dangerous and/or illegal activities and the challenges of representation.

On the issue of how young people’s lives are represented by researchers, especially those in developing countries, Alam (1994) draws attention to the many ways in which the developing world is portrayed, often by Westerners rather than local researchers or journalists. She warns about how images have been used to construct stereotypes and one-dimensional pictures of the lived realities of people living in contexts of poverty. Becker (1986; 2002) draws attention to how the camera can be used to distort truth by being selective of what it portrays (and fails to portray).

Besides these ethical quagmires, how photographs are presented is also fraught with difficulty. Researchers need to be particularly careful that not only the spectacular images make it to conference presentations and reports. If these ethical considerations are negotiated with care photography can be an enormous asset to research, socially in allowing young people to represent their own lives.

Post session

It would be useful for the workshop participants to get a copy of the Checklist for researchers handout handout as a reminder of things that need to be considered in setting up an auto-photographic project.


Alam, S. (1994). The Visual Representation of Developing Countries by Developmental Agencies and the Western Media. Retrieved 7 March, 2007, from

Banks, M. (2007). Using visual data in qualitative research. Los Angeles, CA and London: Sage.

Becker, H. S. (1986). Do Photographs Tell the Truth? In H. S. Becker (Ed.), Doing things together: selected papers (pp. pp. 273-292.). Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Becker, H. S. (2002). Visual evidence: A Seventh Man, the specified generalization, and the work of the reader. Visual Studies, 17(1), 11.

Coover, R. (2004) ‘Using digital media tools in cross-cultural research, analysis and representation’, Visual Studies, 19(1), 6-25.

Dodman, D. (2003) ‘Shooting in the city: An autophotographic exploration of the urban environment in Kingston, Jamaica’, Area, 35(3), 293-304.

Abstract: This paper reports the results of an autophotographic study carried out in Kingston, Jamaica. Cameras were distributed to high school students from different social backgrounds in order for them to record their own impressions and interpretations of the urban environment. This combination of an unusual methodology with a high level of youth participation provides a unique insight into the human–environment interactions taking place in the city, and reveals a variety of information about the ways in which social class, age and gender influence perceptions of and relationships with the urban environment

Emmison, M., & Smith, P. (2000). Researching the visual: images, objects, contexts and interactions in social and cultural inquiry. London: Sage Publications.

Harper, D. (2000). Reimagining visual methods. In Y. S. Lincoln (Ed.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications.

Ziller, R. C. (1990). Photographing the self: methods for observing personal orientations. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

Cc-by-nc-sa-narrow.png Singal, N., and Jeffery, R. (2008). Qualitative Research Skills Workshop: A Facilitator's Reference Manual,, Cambridge: RECOUP (Research Consortium on Educational Outcomes and Poverty, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. (original page)