By Tamar Oderwald
Photo elicitation, also known as participatory photography, is a visual ethnographic method in which research participants are asked to take photos regarding a specific topic, which will then be used as interview prompts (Clark et al. 2019, 211). I first heard about this method during my second year of study. For the course Gender, Sexuality, and the Body, we were invited to attend a guest lecture by Dr. Katy Jenkins (2019), an interdisciplinary feminist scholar whose research focuses on – among other things – women’s activism in Latin America. For a project about anti-mining activism in Peru, she gave DSLR cameras to twelve female activists and asked them to take photos of anything they deemed important under the scope of the research project. The results are displayed on the project’s website (link in reference list). That lecture gave me a whole new perspective on what ethnographic research can look like.
Over the course of my studies, the method of photo elicitation coincided with a branch of anthropology that I found myself interested in: phenomenology. In essence, phenomenological anthropology focusses on individual, lived experiences, though always acknowledging those experiences as existing in intersubjectivity. Topics often considered in such research are bodily or sensory experiences, and the meaning attributed to them (Jackson 1996; Smith 2006). This ontological branch is the lens I used during my fieldwork and bachelor’s thesis. I researched food-triggered body memory among Indian migrants in the Netherlands. My research partner and I used photo elicitation to gather some of our data. Below, I will expand on our reasons for using photo elicitation, as well as my experiences with the methodology.
Why photo elicitation? (and how?)
Have you ever heard the expression: “a picture is worth a thousand words”? That, in a nutshell, is why I see so much value in photo elicitation. When designing our fieldwork, my research partner and I took into account the nature of our research questions. Mine especially focused heavily on bodily and sensory sensations, about the meaning of food(ways) and other related objects. We anticipated that these questions would not be easy to answer over the span of a one-hour interview. Participatory photography allowed us to go just that little bit deeper, and for our interlocutors to be able to take more time to visualize and formulate answers to our questions. It also strengthened the collaborative nature of our fieldwork, and it gave us explicit first-person data from our participants, which is what we specifically strived for with our phenomenological approach.
We gave some participants disposable cameras. Why? Because we wanted to implement some physical aspect in our research (it transpired during a strict lockdown with curfew – most of our research took place through a screen). And because we did not want the photos to be edited in any way. Composition or photographic quality were not important to us. The meaning of the photographs bore immensely more value.
We instructed the participating interlocutors to take photos of anything they deemed important in relation to food(ways). A purposely broad question, so that we could see as many different (figurative) angles as possible.
Us using disposable cameras brought with it many logistical obstacles. It’s a multistep process: buying the cameras, delivering them to the participating interlocutors, giving them ample time (usually about two weeks) to take the photos, coming by to pick the camera up, bringing the camera to the Hema to get the photos developed, picking the photos up, going back to the photographer to do the interview, transcribing the interview and coding the photos... I get tired just writing all this down. We were very ambitious with our admittedly limited time. It worked, but it definitely took longer than we expected.
I noticed that some of my participants were confused with the assignment. “But what do you want me to photograph exactly? Can you give me some examples?” It’s understandable. I got the sense that they were trying to figure out what we wanted to see from them, so that they could provide it. Of course, the purpose of this assignment was to not give too much direction, so that the photos they provided were as “authentic” as possible. I tried to explain this, but if I noticed a lot of hesitation, I would give examples of what other participants had photographed, though still emphasizing that I was looking for objects, people, spaces, etc. that they themselves deemed important.
Other participants were confused with our use of disposable cameras. “But my phone has such a great camera. Can’t I take photos on there?” Ultimately, my research partner and I decided to be a little more flexible. We recognized that we were asking quite a lot from our participants. If they requested to use this simpler, more accessible medium, they could do so.
All of that being said, the photo elicitation was a great success! It actually exceeded my expectations. Because of our photo-heavy methodology, some participants started sharing photos with us through Whatsapp, outside of the formal photo elicitation structure. If they saw or made something interesting, they forwarded it to us. This is exactly what we wanted to achieve: unprovoked data from our participants’ point of view.
The photos our participants took were immensely diverse and somehow also very similar. I collected a total of 113 photos, excluding ones I took myself and excluding ones my research partner gathered for her photo elicitation interviews. The contents range from mangoes to pressure cookers, from fresh parsley in a basket to a photo with friends. Each with their own unique and tantalizing story. Things perhaps hard to express in words are captured in the images. The photographer, in a sense, becomes an anthropologist themselves: being forced to take a step back from their everyday doing, and having to contemplate the meaning of the objects that unconsciously play such a crucial part in their lives.
On top of that, photo elicitation interviews were (and will continue to be) a wonderful experience for me as an anthropologist. The conversation basically leads itself, and the interviewee can take the wheel. All I have to do is listen, nod, and ask a few questions here and there. The conversation tends to tap into emotions a lot more than during the ‘regular’ interviews I conducted. This extra layer of data has proven immensely valuable to my research.
In short: despite its logistical challenges, photo elicitation is a method that enriches ethnographic data, one I will definitely continue to use in my future projects.
Clark, Tom, Liam Foster, and Alan Bryman. 2019. How to do Your Social Research Project Or Dissertation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jackson, Michael D. 1996. Things as They are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
Jenkins, Katy. 2019. "Unearthing Women's Anti-Mining Activism in the Andes: Pachamama and the “Mad Old Women”.” Lecture, Utrecht University, March 28, 2019.
Mujeres, Minería y Fotografía Participativa / Women, Mining and Participatory Photography. Accessed January 14, 2022. https://womenminingandphotography.wordpress.com
Smith, David Woodruff. 2006. "Phenomenology." in Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, edited by L. Nadel. New York: John Wiley & Sons. https://doi.org/10.1002/0470018860.s00153
If you’re interested in reading more about photo elicitation, or visual anthropology in general, I recommend the following sources:
Grimshaw, Anna. 2001. “The Modernist Moment and after, 1895–1945” in The Ethnographer's Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology: 15–31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511817670.003.
MacDougall, David. 1997. “The Visual in Anthropology.” In Rethinking Visual Anthropology. Edited by Howard Morphy and Marcus Banks. Yale: Yale University Press: 276-295.
Wright, Christopher. 2003. “Supple Bodies: The Papua New Guinea Photographs of Captain Francis R. Barton, 1899-1907.” in Photography's Other Histories, edited by Christopher Pinney and Nicholas Peterson: 146-169. Durham and London: Duke University Press.