#SOCRMx: Week 3 – Working with images

I have found the working with images resources in the Introduction to Social Research Methods MOOC very stimulating. According to the information provided in this course, visual methods are becoming increasingly popular.  I have always been interested in images, knowing that they can elicit ideas and feelings that words cannot. John Berger in his series of programmes on “Ways of Seeing” showed that the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.

There are three kinds of visual data

  • researcher created, e.g. diagrams, maps, videos, photos
  • participant created, e.g. video diaries
  • researcher curated, e.g. a photo essay, cultural anthropology

Digital technologies have greatly increased the possibilities for working with each of these kinds of data. Images can also be used to elicit information in interviews.

Key considerations when working with visual images for research are: Why use this method? How can it address the research question? What are the best images for the given question? How can the image/s be accessed? What are the ethical implications of using images, e.g. research participant anonymity and right to privacy?

With respect to photos, further considerations relate to how a photo is conceptualised. Is it a copy or is it a more complex construction? Does the camera never lie or do the eye and brain perceive differently to the camera? Do we accept that the photo is evidence or do we consider how the photo was produced, what choices were made, what is included/excluded, what was around the photo that cannot be seen?

The strengths of visual research methods are thought to be that they can:

  • Generate more talk
  • Evoke sensory, affective and emotional responses
  • Encourage reflection on what is taken for granted, what is hidden, what is visible, what is not visible
  • Engage with people who find talk challenging
  • Reduce power differentials
  • Are inherently collaborative and interpreted through communication

This week’s task

The task for this method is to spend an hour or two engaging in a small-scale image-creation research activity. I have not taken a photo specifically for this task, but have trawled back through my own photos to find one that might fit the task and raise some of the issues that need to be addressed.

I have selected this photo that was taken in 2012. I could envisage this photo being used for example with Indian tourism students to explore perceptions of inequality.

Source of photo – here

We have been asked to consider six questions.

  • What is depicted in the image(s)?

I think this would be an interesting question to ask the tourism students. For me the image shows an Indian woman carrying a small child apparently unaffected by a white woman sunbathing. This appears to be a normal situation and each appears oblivious of the other, maybe indicating that they live in separate worlds even though they are inhabiting the same space.

  • What were you trying to discover by creating your image(s)

At the time I was on holiday in Mamallapuram, South of Chennai in India. This photo was not planned, but I noticed the incongruity suggested by the scene, probably because I am a white woman and was a tourist. Neither subject was aware of me taking the photo. I don’t think there were any ethics concerned with taking the photo – lots of unknown people appear in my holiday photos. I’m not sure what the ethics would be of using this photo for a real research project, given that there is no way that I could identify or contact either of the subjects.

  • What did the process of image creation involve?

I was in the right place at the right time with my camera ready. This photo was not staged. It was a snapshot in time, but nevertheless I was aware at the time that it conveys a message beyond a beach scene.

  • What is not seen, and why?

The photo is as it was taken. It might have been cropped and sharpened – I don’t remember, but just looking at it through this frame makes it appear that there are just two people on the beach. In fact I was sitting in a restaurant on the edge of the beach, full of tourists, and the beach was full of people, both Indians and tourists from around the world. There were also fishermen with their boats on the beach. It was a lively location and was situated within walking distance of the exquisite Mahabalipuram stone carvings. Does knowing this change how the photo is perceived?

  • How is meaning being conveyed?

Through the proximity of the two subjects who are so near but so far from each other. They are back to back, facing in opposite directions, but don’t appear concerned, or even to have noticed this ambiguity. Further opposites are conveyed through their clothing and through their posture – one is walking and the other lying.

  • With respect to the photograph, how might the image convey something different to your experience of ‘being there’.

The image appears still and quiet without sound, or the sound of the sea, but it was busy and there was plenty of sound, chatter, laughter, shouting, music, the sound of the sea and so on. Indian tourism students may have seen this type of scene so often that they do not notice it or if they do it may not concern them. Alternatively it may concern them greatly. As tourism students are the contradictions evident in this photo something they should be concerned about? What issues are raised?

4 thoughts on “#SOCRMx: Week 3 – Working with images

  1. paulineridley October 20, 2017 / 7:41 pm

    I really enjoyed this post Jenny (and signed up for this Mooc because of an earlier post from you, though I haven’t really engaged properly yet.) Y u may be interested in some online resources on drawing for learning and research – at http://about.brighton.ac.uk/visuallearning/drawing/ . The site also has a section on visual research (but it’s a legacy site and I haven’t checked links recently) and some case studies including one with tourism students who were asked to produce visual narratives to help their understanding of exactly the kind of issues you raise. Thanks again

  2. jennymackness October 21, 2017 / 9:25 am

    Hello Pauline. Thanks so much for your comment and particularly for the link. I have only skimmed it so far and haven’t yet managed to find the case study with tourism students, but there are some great resources in there which I hope to return to.

    It’s good to know you have joined the MOOC. Hope you find the resources as interesting as I have – and in my last post I made a list of some of the blogs I have found, which are also interesting.

  3. Helen October 21, 2017 / 11:14 am

    I’m working with images this week too, Jenny, and I’m finding it incredibly interesting.

    This is a fascinating post on a really thought-provoking image. I’m particularly interested in how your reflections flag up the fact that the scene was much busier than this one snapshot suggests. This threw up lots of questions for me (none of which I have ready answers to!) Is omission manipulation? How does the way we frame an image affect its impact? And how much does the researcher’s own biases and subjectivity affect how an image is framed?

    Thanks too for the link to Berger. I’ve just about recovered from the trauma of him taking the knife to the canvas…

  4. jennymackness October 21, 2017 / 3:55 pm

    Thanks Helen. I have enjoyed reading your post on this which I will put here for others to read – http://www.helenwalker.org/working-with-images/#comment-1897

    Your questions are great. Given that all photos must surely always omit something, then are all photos a manipulation whether or not this is deliberate. And I would think that a photo can’t avoid being a subjective view.

    And just to say – as you probably know – that there are a number of Berger videos on YouTube.

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