Photo Elicitation

Photographs are interesting objects to work with and research. It’s because they can be interpreted in so many way, on the simplest level. It’s also because they evoke so many different things by looking at them, prompt emotions, activities, responses and so forth. It means that different people’s responses to the same photograph can be completely different. As As Harper has pointed out, the meanings derived from a photograph “are not fixed, but emerge in conversations and dialogues” (Harper 2002: 158).

During my PhD research with photographs from the Sarawak Museum in Malaysia I used a method called “photo elicitation”, which in simple terms involves looking at and discussing photographs with other people. It’s like an interview based on photographs. Photographs are useful prompts and give the interviewee and interviewer something to talk about, to point at and refer to.

Photo elicitation Long Sobeng, Sarawak

People in Long Sobeng looking at photographs from the Sarawak Museum

Using photo elicitation is a great method to figure out what kinds of topics are important for the people one talks with, in particular if the objects and scenes in the photographs mean something to the person who is looking at them. Because I am not originally from the communities where I carried out my fieldwork it was often difficult for me to guess what elements of a photograph they would consider important, or worth discussing. One of the beautiful things about photo elicitation is that people can decide for themselves what they want to talk about while looking at a photograph. In his article about photo elicitation as a method Harper, again, pointed out:

At the core of cultural studies is the interpretation of signs. A common criticism of cultural studies is that researchers often assume how audiences or a public define hegemonic or other ideological messages. Photo elicitation offers a means for grounding cultural studies in the mundane interpretations of culture users. (Harper 2002: 19)

Even the youngest like to look at photographs of their parents and grandparents, Long Sobeng

Looking at photographs is interesting for everyone, even the youngest. Long Sobeng, Sarawak, Malaysia

Photo elicitation is a very good method for research based on grounded theory because it allows relevant topics to arise out of the discussion or interview. Also, it enables participants to determine the direction of the conversation, which makes the outcomes of the research, and indeed its analysis, more collaborative (Jenkins et al 2008).

As Samuels has put it,

Using photo elicitation in interviews can foreground the experiences, opinions and memories of the interviewee, in particular when using images that reflect the social world of the participants (Samuels 2004).

Photo elicitation interview in Long Jegan

Photo elicitation discussion in Long Jegan, Sarawak

Apart from the aforementioned advantages I also found that photo elicitation interviews can be a lot of fun for both participants and interviewer. The photos I took to the villages showed friends and families of the interviewees which they often had not known existed, and many people were eager to look at them. During my visit I was woken up several times in the middle of the night to bring out the photographs because somebody who had just heard about them wanted to have a look. It was a great advantage because it meant that I never had to struggle with a lack of interviewees.

Photo interviews near Long San

Photo interviews near Long Sobeng

Long Sungai Dua, people looking at photographs from the Sarawak Museum

Talking about photographs with people in Long Sungai Dua

Long Sobeng photo elicitation

Many people were keen to look at the photographs and discuss them with others, and with me. Long SobengLong Sobeng photo elicitation

Group discussions sometimes carried on for hours, here in Long Sobeng, Sarawak

Photo elicitation Long Sobeng, Sarawak

More photo elicitation photographs, also in Long Sobeng

Photo elicitation Long Sobeng, Sarawak

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