The practice of photography is closer to the qualitative research inquiry than I had first realised. Maybe this is why they work so well together.
In the paper we referenced the fact that more images have been taken in the last 12 months than the whole of history up until that
point. I have also been asked whether there is a difference between ‘a photograph’ and a snapshot ie any image.
So I wanted to address both of these issues, before drawing our conclusions from our ‘photography-as-research’ experiment.
Anyone can interview someone, press ‘record’, transcribe the interview. So can anyone do qualitative research? Yes. But can anyone be a (good) qualitative researcher?
Similarly, anyone can point a camera (or smartphone) and take a picture. So are we are all photographers now?
Doing a qualitative research project is not the same as collecting and reproducing data. Yes, there is skill involved in collecting data - more than is perhaps always understood. But the real value of qual arguably comes from how the data is collected and processed, how it is interpreted, framed, prioritised, contextualised and communicated.
In the same way, what is involved in photography is more than simply taking images. It’s the way you do it and what you do with it that matters. There are differences between a photograph and any old image (a snap), although a snap could be a great photograph!
I see the differences* as:
- you make a photograph, you take a snap
- structure and proportions matter in a photograph, but not in a snap
- a photograph has interest to anyone, a snap mainly to those involved
- a photograph is about what is left out, a snap is about what is put in
- a photograph can take time to make and can endure, snaps are fast and fleeting
- a photograph has meaning, intention, a point of view, emotion, a narrative; a snap is just data
I think that these qualities are shown in many of these iPhone 6 adverts, seen on billboards everywhere. What marks them out, in an image-saturated environment, I think, is their emotion and their narrative power.
This is what links photography to qualitative research. What a great photograph adds to research is its ability to resonate, to convey things simply and powerfully, to focus our attention and to free our minds.
In his essay ‘Forgotten Women Photographers of the Twentieth Century’, the novelist William Boyd says:
“photography is the most patently democratic of all the art forms … we are (all) capable of producing … a really fine photograph – maybe even a great one ... the camera allows us to create an image that will move, intrigue, startle, disturb and satisfy – that will resonate in some way … billions upon billions of moments seized doesn’t seem like ‘stopping time’ any more. The integrity and the quality of the unique image is what makes photography different, what makes it work.”
‘Integrity and quality’ could mean the thought that goes into it, the planning, the care, the editing, selecting, framing, the (dark art of) post-production. I’d argue that photography, like qualitative research, is a way of trying to interpret or make sense of a subject, rather than simply representing it. There is more to it than meets the eye. To coin a phrase.
Photography uses visual data and qualitative research primarily uses verbal data, but both depend on careful selecting and 'processing'. Which is why it is surprising that we do not make more of the power of images in our qualitative research projects.
To do so, in our opinion, would make our projects altogether richer and more complete. We are all capable of making good photographs (a bit of time, patience, technique needed) but it adds a great deal, when combined with our existing, linguistic skills.
The summary and conclusions of our experiment are coming up.
* with thanks to researcher and photographer Tom Peck for some of these comparisons