Photo elicitation interviews: Research participant involvement

PIF 28th February 2019

Matt Fossey, Director of the Veterans and Families Institute at ARU, discussed the photo elicitation interview method that he is using in his doctoral research.

Using examples, he first demonstrated the power and meaning of photographs. For example, the photo of “The Kiss” is internationally iconic and is often used to represent soldiers coming home from war to their significant others; however it is in fact misinterpreted as this soldier did not know the women he is kissing. Other images discussed were evocative, brought back memories, may capture reality in that moment, but are also interpreted differently and have different meanings for different people.The Kiss

When used as a research method, photographs can be a stimulus during qualitative interviews – providing a visual reference point for discussion, focusing on a specific issue, and bringing narratives to life.

Anthropologists began to use photography as a research tool to capture how different cultures live (Mead and Bateson, 1942) and photography was first used in interviews with French Maritime communities to look at migrant housing conditions in Canada (Collier, 1957). Heisley and Levy (1991) represent the first example of participants producing their own photographs for research into understanding eating habits. Photo elicitation interviews may use photographs selected by the researcher to generate dialogue around a research topic, but may alternatively reflect on the participant’s own photographs taken specifically for the research or already existing from throughout their lives.

Matt shared a number of aspects of photo elicitation interviews that align with participatory inquiry and this generated a group discussion:

  • There is a subjective interpretation of what’s going on – it’s about how the participant feels about their own photograph.
  • Because of the subjectivity, the researcher needs to be reflexive and aware of their own position in response to those images and how that influences the interview.
  • Visual semiotics are important, especially in the military context for example where rank and structural organisation is fundamental to interaction.
  • Symbolism within language and symbolism within images can help the researcher to understand the context and the participants better.
  • Photographs can remove some uncertainties surrounding a situation, but they can also be misleading as you only see part of the full picture.
  • It’s important to recognise the difference between images that are reporting a public event or that are in the public domain compared with personal images in terms of who took them, for what purpose and what they mean to others.
  • Assumptions that photographs are understood universally, but different cultures and communities have a different visual education and may not have seen a photograph before.
  • There are issues around the power of photography and the way that “the other” has been constructed through photographs to be seen as different or exotic, or how particular events are shown to give a certain impression depending on who is behind the camera.
  • There are also issues around power in terms of the representation of photographs taken by participants and how this is rearticulated. Participants can present a certain image of themselves or their experience be selecting certain photographs – through this is true of other qualitative research methods too.
  • Finally, photography can sometimes transcend verbal language so it may be a useful tool in researching experiences that people find very difficult to talk about, such as loss or trauma.

Author: annadadswell

As a Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at Anglia Ruskin University, I manage the Participatory Research Blog. Please feel free to contact me with questions and suggestions at

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