Using photography in research
“Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt,
seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.”
Susan Sontag (1977). On Photography.
One of the first photographs ever taken was in 1826 from the upstairs window of a house in eastern France. You can just about make out the online of some houses in the distance.
Figure 1: Original 1826 photograph 'View from the Window at Le Gras'Since then, photographic techniques and technologies have developed enormously. The photo below was the result of around eight hours of exposure, to make an impression on a metal plate coated with a type of asphalt.
Since then, photographic techniques and technologies have developed enormously. The photo below was the result of around eight hours of exposure, to make an impression on a metal plate coated with a type of asphalt.
Figure 2: Manually enhanced version of the same photograph
Today, most of us carry a camera around with us (together with a phone, Internet access and much more), which can take dozens of photographs or films every minute and can store literally tens of thousands of images. Even with a very basic non-smartphone (my trusted Nokia C2!), I was able to take three photos in very quick succession of oranges being distributed from a wholesaler to smaller fruit sellers at a market in Cochabamba, Bolivia:
Figure 3: Wholesale distribution of oranges to re-seller in a market in Cochabamba, Bolivia (2017)
The ease of taking photographs and videos has led to an explosion of image-making. The fact that it is so easy to take photos means that people take many of them. But how often do we organise them, filter them, group them, curate them? And, when it comes to fieldwork, what are we actually taking photos for?
We know that fieldworkers and researchers will regularly take photos while in the field. Usually we do this to remind ourselves of where we travelled (many cameras today have an inbuilt GPS for geotagging), what we saw and who we talked to. We collect photos to refresh our memories and share them with our colleagues. But we rarely use photographs in a systematic and considered way to improve the quality of our research process as a whole. For instance, we don’t really use photographs as part of data management or analysis.
In the newly published resource Using photography in research, I outline a list of some of the ways that photography can be used to collect data (note that I use the term photography to include both still images and video). The longer list is available in the document itself, but here I want to give you an overview of them and show some examples.