Author’s accepted version, please cite as:
Fawns, T. (2020). The photo-elicitation interview as a multimodal site for reflexivity.
In P. Reavey (Ed.), A Handbook of Visual Methods in Psychology: Using and
Interpreting Images in Qualitative Research (pp. 487–501). London: Routledge
The photo-elicitation interview as a multimodal site for reflexivity
Photo-elicitation interviews involve more than the addition of photos as prompts that
serve to augment narratives or enhance the accuracy of participant remembering.
They create opportunities for greater participant agency by allowing some selective
control over what is discussed. More importantly, they are multimodal, social and
material encounters that can foreground past spaces and times within current
discussions, and allow insight into the participant’s navigation of material elements.
In this chapter, I present some reflections on my experiences of using photo-
elicitation interviews in the study of autobiographical memory and photographic
practice, and highlight some opportunities and challenges for psychological research.
In particular, I position the photograph as an element located in relation to historical,
social and material photography practices. This raises considerations around: the
sharing of control within interviews; the term “elicitation” in relation to issues of
truth, representation and source evaluation; and the photo-elicitation interview as a
constructed, multimodal encounter that requires reflexivity around data generation
and the analytical approach adopted. On the basis of this discussion, I present some
implications for visual approaches to psychological research. Firstly, I discuss the
social context of the interview and the researcher's role in allowing for participant
agency. I then highlight the need for reflexivity not only during but also after the
interview, arguing that theoretical precision is important in identifying the
relationship between the researcher’s understanding of photography and retrospective
accounts, what constitutes the object of analysis, and the area of enquiry. Finally, I
caution against analysing the visual and verbal in isolation of each other, since this
can lead to reduced understandings of the social and material context in which the
data are produced, as well as problematic positions in relation to truth and evidence.
By adhering to these principles, visual methods can ask important psychological
questions, and inform the development of reflexive methods that complement more
In the introduction to the previous volume of this book, Reavey (2012) pointed out a
neglect, within psychology, of visual methods. This, she suggested, might stem from a
desire to enhance the status of psychological knowledge through scientific and
However, qualitative research has gained traction within
psychological research over the last few decades as a means of probing the contextual
details and personalised meaning that so clearly shape the way that generalised
psychological mechanisms manifest in everyday life, yet are often removed or
bracketed as “confounding variables” in the design of controlled studies. Visual
methods, as I will argue, can be used to foreground aspects of the environment, and
the social and material context in which people operate.
As Stanczak (2007) noted, despite the crucial role of photography in the emergence of positivism
(linked to the systematic visual documentation of various phenomena), the rise of words in the form of
text-based and verbal approaches, refined through dominant quantitative methods across the social
sciences, saw a turn away from visual data.
Bates et al. (Bates, McCann, Kaye, & Taylor, 2017) suggested that the lack of take-up
of visual approaches in psychology might be explained by a lack of clear guidance
and consensus on how to conduct such research. Yet, if we take up what Stanczak
(2007) calls a reflexive methodology, in which we accept not the direct meaning
contained within an image but the subjective interpretation of it by the participant,
then it may be that each project requires its own unique method (see also Pink, 2007).
In that case, guidance around methods can only take us so far, and effective use of
visual methods requires the development of a sensibility, rather than a systematic
approach, because it is complexity, rather than consistency, that is the greater, and
more important, challenge.
In this chapter, I position environment and context, not just as influencing factors, but
as crucial elements for cognition and behaviour. Visual approaches can help us to
understand this, by foregrounding the material contexts of both past (e.g. via the
objects and environments that can be seen in photographs) and present (e.g. via the
physical movements that can be observed within an interview). However, visual
elements, such as images, photographs, gestures, or physical spaces and objects, are
important not only in and of themselves, but also in combination with other elements,
such as language (e.g. Samuels, 2007). Thus, the sensibility that I am advocating here
includes an appreciation of not only the material, but also the social aspects of the
visual. This requires consideration of the situated sense-making of both researcher and
participant, separately and in combination. Analyses that elide the social context can
be misleading, neglecting important issues of research reflexivity, and potentially
presenting more tangible forms of data (e.g. transcripts or images) as inherently
objective and truthful.
I propose that visual methods can be most productive for psychological research by
considering visual elements, such as photographs, in relation to the social and
material, multimodal activity of the site of the research. Put simply, the visual shapes,
and is shaped by, non-visual elements, and cannot be separated out without disrupting
the fabric of the whole encounter. In the next section, I explain how this sensibility
can inform rich analyses of qualitative data. Specifically, I discuss my experiences of,
and reflections on, using photo-elicitation interviews in two recent studies of the
relationship between photography and autobiographical memory.
On studying photographs and photography
In a recent project, I was interested in understanding more about how people use
photography in remembering their lives. In response to the widespread integration of
digital technology into photographic practices, cultures and infrastructures, I decided
to explore how people understood these changes in relation to remembering their
own, particular, idiosyncratic lives. I interviewed a small sample of people (21),
across two studies, as they selected, handled, viewed and talked about how they had
come to have their photographs, and what they had done with them. The first study
involved six participants (including one shared interview with two participants) who
had attended the same wedding 18 months previously, in order to understand different
approaches to remembering a shared event. In the second study, I interviewed 15
people in relation to the practices and beliefs around photography and remembering
that had evolved across their lifetimes. Though my participants were well-educated,
with most of them working in Higher Education, they seemed to have somewhat
vague understandings of how memory works, and of their own processes and
practices of both photography and remembering. Further, much of their photographic
activity involved ad-hoc, unsystematic and spontaneous acts (see Fawns, 2019, for
more details of these results). Thus, my area of enquiry turned out to be more
complex than I had anticipated, and more difficult for participants to articulate
through words alone.
The complexity of how my participants used photography within acts of remembering
has generally not been captured by psychological approaches to understanding
autobiographical memory (i.e. memory for life experiences). Consider the influential
distinction between episodic and semantic memory (Endel Tulving, 1972, 1983).
Episodic memory involves a sense of subjective re-experience, often accompanied by
imagery and emotions, where the person doing the remembering feels like the same
person who did the original experiencing. Semantic memory, on the other hand,
involves the bringing to mind of facts, details and ideas that do not contain those same
kinds of subjective information and feelings. Most psychology studies have focused
on short-term memory for arbitrary elements such as nonsense syllables and word
lists, even when investigating episodic memory (e.g. Endel Tulving, 1984). Prompts
are sometimes used, such as photos (e.g. Koutstaal, Schacter, Johnson, & Galluccio,
1999) or diaries (e.g. Barclay & Wellman, 1986) for longer-term remembering, but
the focus is almost always on the remembered content and almost never on how a
participant interacts with the prompt, other than as a description of the method.
My modest, qualitative studies clearly demonstrated some problems with the
traditional reliance on controlled approaches. For one thing, the interviews revealed
an important distinction between photographs as objects and photography as a set of
practices. This distinction is elided in controlled studies of photography, where the
focus is on what is remembered in response to exposure to a photograph, and the
highly-directive qualities of the viewing practices are rendered invisible. It was
obvious within my interviews that a variety of different behaviours can manifest
through interaction with a photograph (e.g. I saw evidence of a large range of
organising and sharing practices that not only accompanied, but also configured, the
viewing of photos). Indeed, photographs were not even necessarily the focal point of
the material and social interactions in which they were involved. In my studies,
photographs were not just objects to be looked at, they were temporally-located
elements of a complex, historical, social and material constellation of photographic
and remembering activity. For each photograph, the participant may have taken it, or
posed for it, or been given it by a particular friend or relative. That initial encounter
with the photograph was an experience that could, itself, be remembered. Early
interactions were also assimilated into longer relationships with the image that could
be emotive, and that could involve other practices of organising and sharing with
others. This could also involve a variety of mediating and remediating practices:
images had often been both digitally and materially transformed over time through
creative and communicative acts (Fawns, 2019).
It is also worth remembering that my understanding of my participants’ photographs
was bound by the contexts attributed to them within the interview. Outside of
interviews, photographs can have very complex social lives, and there can be value in
exploring the ways in which they move around, undergo material transformation, and
propagate. For example, along with colleagues, I mapped the ways in which
photographs of the wedding (study 1) had moved around, showing how different
participants acted, at different times, as directors, creators, gatekeepers, consumers,
critics and archivists (Fawns, Macleod, & Quayle, 2012). Elsewhere, I discussed the
growing complexity of digital contexts; the places and spaces that photos come to
inhabit, often becoming detached from their intended and traditional contexts, and
changing their meaning in relation to where and how they are encountered (Fawns,
2014). Photographs are not just passive objects, looked at in interviews to remind
participants about past times, places and happenings. Each photograph has a social,
material and emotional history in relation to the participant and, potentially, beyond.
The interview as multimodal, social, and material encounter
If photography is a social process, then at least some sharing of the control of the
interview may be appropriate so that both researcher and participant can mutually
determine the direction and topics of conversation (Bates et al., 2017; Rose, 2012).
Similarly, the importance of material engagement with photography suggests that
there is value in allowing participants some physical control over how photographs,
albums, cameras, computers, etc., are accessed and manipulated. In my interviews, we
moved between physical albums, Facebook, cloud-based digital archives, mobile
devices, desktop computers, framed displays (both digital and analogue), and more,
each producing different kinds of interaction. By engaging meaningfully with these
material and social aspects of the interview, we brought to the foreground issues that
would be lost by concentrating only on the image. For example, viewing images
within a Facebook platform prompted discussion around concerns of privacy and
constrained identity formation. Pulling boxes of photographs from a loft space
prompted discussion of the influence of physical accessibility on engagement with
photographs. Looking at framed photographs prompted discussion of the status
afforded to grandchildren by virtue of being displayed in prominent locations within
While it is increasingly recognised that an appreciation of the social aspect of
qualitative (if not yet quantitative) psychological research is crucial to methodological
reflexivity (e.g. in which the researcher acknowledges her active role in the research
process), the material is rarely accounted for in any kind of reflexive way. Yet, as
these examples show, the social and material are not separate, but are mutually
configuring. Participant agency is engendered through an entanglement of social and
material activity, and this requires skill on the part of the researcher. The participant
cannot simply be given agency: the researcher must work with the participant to
create a dynamic in which the participant feels able to and is willing to interact, as
well as to share thoughts, feelings and beliefs. The desired distribution of agency
between researcher and participant requires consideration of the research question,
and whoever is in command of navigating the photographs being discussed, for
example, has considerable power to configure and structure the conversation. In my
studies, I had sought a balance of allowing my participants to prepare in advance of
the interview (both to enable greater agency, and to increase the likelihood that they
would find the photos they most wanted to talk about) and asking them to search
through their collections during the interview. Since my study was about engagement
with photographic practices, watching them look for things provided valuable insight
into their approaches to navigating their collections and archives.
In my case, I found that the available photographs and the process of looking through
them presented my participants with a range of options to talk about, and this
sometimes led the conversation away from the points that I had intended to focus on.
At the same time, the process of participants navigating their own albums and
collections provided other information about how they could engage with and even
mobilise photographs as a conversational move. For example, some participants
seemed to prefer to tell stories associated with the images rather than discuss more
complex issues of memory or photography, and they could use photographs as a way
of moving the conversation away from more challenging topics. Consider the excerpt
below, from the shared interview in the wedding study.
TF: And does it bother you, or are you happy to continue to skip [through
large collections of photos]?
IO: It annoys me slightly
YS: It's tiring, well it's a bit annoying if you're skimming through them but
there's so much - data storage is not an issue because the hard drive is big
enough on this and then we've got an external hard drive to save things on at
home … which is why bad ones like these ones are still there, so..
IO: That's a nice one..
YS: ..lovely picture, yeah.
TF: Who's that?
IO noticed an attractive photograph (“nice one”), and immediately the conversation
shifted from a discussion of excessive photo-taking and storage capacity to a focus on
who is shown in the image. Even so, these conversations remained relevant to the area
of enquiry, and could provide tacit information about the relationship between
narrative, photography and remembering.
The photo-elicitation interview as multimodal encounter, then, benefits from
reflexivity in relation to what should constitute data. For me, alongside a commitment
to thinking about the interrelatedness of visual elements and language, it was
important, within my analysis, not to confuse the events described in the interview,
the descriptions of those events, and the interview itself. All of these were relevant,
but I needed to be clear in my mind how each element was used within the analysis.
In my studies, I used the photographic practices described in the interviews as guiding
examples of what participants had done in the past. The descriptions of those past
practices served as a basis for developing a sense of how participants saw the
relationship between remembering and photography. The interviews – understood as a
multimodal encounter in which participants engaged in social and material practices
of sharing and remembering – helped me to contextualise the described past practices,
by providing a sense of the materials and photographs being discussed. Indeed, the
photos and materials present in the interviews were, mostly, those being described.
The interviews also provided a more immediate sense of how participants interacted
with their materials in a social context, albeit within a formally-structured research
setting. The interactions that I saw during the interview gave me a sense of interaction
that I could apply to those descriptions, thereby accounting for elements of materiality
and embodied practice that are often absent from narratives.
Some photo-elicitation researchers have positioned photographs as aids to, or shapers
of, discussion, preferring to analyse only the resultant textual narratives (e.g. Bates et
al., 2017). Yet, by watching my participants engage with their photographic
paraphernalia – printed photos, albums, boxes, cupboards, loft spaces, displays,
cameras, posters, phones, tablets, computers – I developed a sense of how they moved
in and around their materials, constructing social spaces in which to remember and
communicate. After each interview, I synthesised – via a written summary - what I
had interpreted from what they said (and how they said it), my impression of their
social and material activity, and the space in which the encounter had taken place.
These summaries were later used as counterpoints to the more decontextualized
groupings of excerpts according to my thematic coding. This was extremely helpful in
bringing the context of the interview back to my interpretation of each excerpt. It
reminded me, for example, of how the participant had handled and manipulated the
objects discussed, the physical challenges and skills involved, and how they had
positioned themselves when looking
. One participant was interviewed in his work
office, and had gathered photographs from a range of sources onto an iPad to make it
easier to share them with me by passing the device back and forth. Another,
interviewed in her home, sat at a desktop PC with only one chair, meaning that I – her
partner in conversation - stood and looked over her shoulder. These situations showed
how environments and artefacts could configure the material and social activity of
remembering. It follows that the location of the interview (home, office, meeting
room) is important, and an area deserving of greater research attention.
All interviews - whether they involve photographs or not – are multimodal, embodied,
physical and social experiences. However, after interviews such as mine, there is a
risk that the researcher attempts to understand transcripts or photographs in isolation.
Neither transcripts, nor photos (nor even both together) sufficiently represent the
multimodality of the interview. They are useful reference points, but when analysing
one or both, it is worth also considering the interaction between what was said and
what was going on, within the interview, at the time. For example, was this
photograph talked about because it holds significant meaning for the participant, or
because it was next in a series of images that happened to be in focus? Did the
participant skip over potentially relevant photographs because they were difficult to
access? Taking such questions into account can reveal important material elements of
engagement with photography and how it can structure conversation and
The term elicitation suggests that photographs can be used to draw something out of
the participants, such as more information or more accurate information. Certainly,
there have been claims that photo elicitation methods can generate more detailed
Note that video recording could also be helpful here, not as a replacement for the analytic summary
but as an additional opportunity for remembering and noticing social and material elements. The
combined practical challenges of organising equipment, processing and storing video, and the time
required to review the footage led me not to pursue this.
accounts (Collier, 1957; Harper, 2002; Samuels, 2007). Accuracy, on the other hand,
is a problematic concept, and the tension between accuracy, memory and photography
It has been proposed that photographs, by being generated through the action of light
reflecting off real objects, are “indexically” linked to their referent
Yet, their capacity to directly and objectively represent the past is confounded in a
number of ways. Firstly, the action of the light is mediated by the particular
mechanics of the camera and the properties of the photographic material (for rich
examples of how important the mechanics and materials are to what can be produced,
see the essays on early photography in Trachtenberg, 1980). More importantly, the
content of what is shown, or what Rose (2012) called the site of the image, is only one
factor in relation to how a photograph is understood, along with the site of production
(i.e. the taking of the photo, where photographs are spatially, temporally and
politically framed through composition, orchestration, and posing) and the site of
audiencing (i.e. the viewing context, where interpretation is contingent on the context
of who is viewing the image, and in what circumstances, as well as the history of the
viewers’ interactions with that photo).
If the photograph does not present objective truth, memory is now seen as a
notoriously unreliable instrument for accurately recording and replaying the past (see,
for example, Schacter et al., 2008 on eyewitness testimony). Foreshadowed by the
earlier work of William James (1890) and Frederick Bartlett (1932), psychologists
have come to recognise that this is not necessarily due to memory flaws or errors, but
because the primary function of memory may not be to accurately remember the past.
For example, to support effective decision-making, and the simulation and prediction
of possible futures (Conway, 2009; Glenberg, Witt, & Metcalfe, 2013; Nairne &
Pandeirada, 2008), memory must be constructive, taking account of the subsequent
accumulation of knowledge and experience, as well the rememberer’s current
perspective. To borrow from psychologist Martin Conway (2005), it is not only
correspondence to the past that is important in memory, but also coherence with the
present sense of self.
In light of these challenges, I could not be overly reliant on the accuracy of my data in
relation to the actual past practices of my participants. Instead, my focus was on
understanding how participants understood their photography practices in relation to
remembering, and on what I could learn from that about the nature of socially and
materially distributed memory. In any case, thought should be given to whether the
researcher is actually trying to establish a truthful account of the past, and to what
kind of truth is important. My interview narratives were taken, not as precisely
accurate records of the past, but as indicative accounts of ‘contemporary relevance’ to
the participants (Brown & Reavey, 2015, p. 137). I also understood them as socially
produced: photos provide a common frame of reference for participant and researcher
to examine a past scene, and while each must interpret the image according to their
own experiences and sensibilities, they must also negotiate a shared meaning within
This is a particularly contestable notion in relation to digital photos, where there is no direct chemical
reaction on the photographic material, nor any fixed photographic material, since digital photographs
manifest on whichever device is used to access them (e.g. Mitchell, 1994). Whether they are displayed
on a screen or printed on paper, digital photographs are produced from the reading of a file, not the
chemical reaction of reflected light.
the conversation. As Bates et al. (Bates et al., 2017) pointed out, the reason for using
images is not just to promote recall but to promote dialogue, and photo elicitation
allows the researcher to get a sense of what the photographs mean to the participants
(Harper, 1986). Yet if, as Stanczak (2007) noted, the subjectivities that photographs
elicit can be productively probed and analysed, then it should be acknowledged that
these are actually socially-produced intersubjectivities. As Harper wrote: “When two
or more people discuss the meaning of photographs they try to figure out something
together. This is, I believe, an ideal model for research.” (2002, p. 23).
More important than accuracy and detail, as Harper (2002) argued, is that photographs
elicit a “different kind of information”. Stanczak’s (2007) book on visual research, for
example, contains a series of case studies highlighting “new knowledge that might
have gone unnoticed had these methods not been employed” (p. 10). Photographs can
prompt a participant to think about something that was not necessarily forgotten or
unknown, but that would not otherwise have been thought about (Fawns, 2019). In
some cases, it may involve the researcher pointing out or asking about some element
of an image that the participant had not previously noticed or given much thought to.
Sometimes, by presenting information that challenges the coherence of a participant’s
current perspective, photos can disrupt established narratives or create new ones
(Brookfield, Brown, & Reavey, 2008; Reavey, 2012). Thus, visual cues do not just
augment narratives but can unsettle and question them, leading to new ideas of past
experience that may be more complex and nuanced (Reavey, 2012). In this sense,
elicitation is not so much the drawing out of more information, but of a different,
potentially troublesome, view of the past.
Similarly, memory can nuance and challenge what appears to be shown in a
photograph. Even quite open lines of questioning, combined with photographic
stimuli, could “elicit” elements of the emotional history of the participant and their
photographs. For example, one participant, in response to a very simple question,
demonstrated her ability to control the digital photo frame on her wall. This led to her
selecting a particular image to look at. Here is the beginning of a rich discussion of
her emotional history with the image.
“So I can get all of them like that [multiple photos displayed as squares], and
then I can just choose which one I want . So this is one that I really like. So
this is a photo of my dad, and the dog, and it was a hard photograph – printed
photograph – that I carried round with me for years when I was travelling, of
my dad and [the dog], and it got all kind of crumpled up and I didn’t have the
negative, I didn’t have another copy of it . And my brother-in-law did this
lovely thing, which you see in the top right-hand corner where it’s clouds, that
was actually all kind of just crumpled torn paper, and he put it on the
computer, fiddled around with it and made it like that as a gift for me, and then
sent me the electronic copy like that. And I just love that photo, really, really
The materiality of the photograph was clearly important here, and played a role in the
elicitation of emotions and reflections. For example, the participant suggested that the
image felt more real displayed within her digital photo frame than the printed
“perhaps because it’s a bit bigger… you know, it’s not terribly good quality
the way it reproduces photos, but there’s something very kind of vivid about
them, as if it’s kind of lit from the back, rather than looking at a photograph.”
Here, then, we can see that it is not just the image itself that elicits accounts of the
past but the historical, social, material and emotional relationship between participant
and image (which also includes other people, such as the father and brother-in-law).
As Fenwick (2014, p. 45) argued, in relation to educational research, “materials tend
to be ignored as part of the backdrop for human action, dismissed in a preoccupation
with consciousness and cognition, or relegated to brute tools subordinated to human
intention and design.” Indeed, even in approaches that pay attention to the social
elements of psychology, materiality is often forgotten
. Yet holding, looking at, and
talking about photographs are activities richly connected with remembering (Samuels,
2007). Using photographs within interviews can help us to shift attention toward the
social and material contexts of past experience, rather than the predominantly
temporal contexts on which verbal, narrative accounts tend to be focused.
Photographs can highlight elements that are not captured by verbal accounts, and that
the participant may not even be aware of. They can resurface the physical settings of
past experience, facilitating “a more complex and layered account, and one that is
more seeped in emotional resonances and reminders” (Reavey, 2012, p. 6).
Perhaps, then, it is emotional and embodied, social and material complexity that can
be elicited. Rather than a way of producing more accurate accounts, my photo-
elicitation interviews were multimodal encounters that could be studied in relation to
how engagement with images shapes what is talked about and how it is remembered.
In many cases, the stories of my participants were prompted by a particular
photograph, but would normally go well beyond what I – the researcher – could see in
the image. Narratives also spread across multiple photographs as we continued
looking through collections (or would be cut off as the participant navigated to the
next image and was prompted in a different direction). What emerged was a curious
combination of memory, inference, photographic content, association and generalised
commentary on memory and/or photography. This was instructive for my particular
area of enquiry, but might have been problematic if I had been focused on actual,
historical photography practices, since the interview was, simultaneously, the site of
study, and a source of information about other, less immediate and less reliable, sites
Going forward with visual methods in psychology
In this section, I consider some implications for visual approaches to research. My
focus is specifically on psychological research in the context of remembering, but
many of these issues apply to visual research more generally.
To begin with, in order to value the social and material activity of engaging with
visual elements such as photographs, it may be important to allow participants to
make choices and to have relative freedom in how they move around and manipulate
Consider the progressive work of Harris and colleagues (2011) on shared remembering,
or Brockmeier’s (2019) revolutionary summary of collective remembering, both of which focus on
social aspects of language, neglecting material interactions as integral elements of configuration.
the interview environment. For some research, the participant’s home or a familiar
space will constitute a more appropriate remembering environment, allowing insight
into how they have configured an important material and social space, and how they
operate within it. Another reason for using familiar environments over which
participants have some control, is that they are more likely to contain the kinds of
technologies that are actively used by those participants in everyday contexts. As
Reavey (2012) pointed out, in relation emerging technologically-mediated practices, it
is important to bring these “everyday forms of communication and representation” (p.
6) into research settings if they are to be authentically understood.
Allowing participants to choose which photographs they will talk about gives them
more agency in the research process (Bates et al., 2017; Samuels, 2007), provides
opportunities for structuring the interview in a way that is relevant to their interests
(Reavey, 2012), can help them get around blocks in conversation (Pink, 2007), and
allows participants to discuss practices in ways that are not predictable by the
researcher. Selectivity is a crucial element both memory and photography, so paying
attention to how participants select which photographs to talk about and which stories
to tell can be illuminating. For example, it was relevant to some of my interviews that
in talking about the participant’s historical relationship with photography, we would
proceed room by room, starting with the most comfortable or the most interesting
space first. However, although I have argued for participant agency, there are often
good reasons for the researcher to be actively involved in the social and material
interactions being researched. Both remembering and photography practices are social
activities, and a researcher who tries to adopt a passive approach (e.g. in the service of
an objective or neutral position) may be just as artificial, or, indeed, more artificial,
than one who takes an openly active role.
In any case, it may not be ethical for the researcher to maintain neutrality. In research
into memory, for example, the potential to unsettle established narratives or surface
uncomfortable memories means that the comfort and emotional safety of the
participant should be considered, and the possibility of challenging and, potentially,
transformative conversations should be discussed before the interview begins. It is
easy to underestimate this point: I, for one, did not expect my research to be
particularly challenging or emotional for my participants, since it was focused on
general beliefs and ideas about photography and memory. During the analysis,
however, I began to appreciate my responsibility for the welfare of my participants,
and to question the possibility of informed consent. For example, it became clear to
me that participants could not simply avoid problematic photographs, because they
did not always know what images they were about to stumble across, nor the
emotional effect that even seemingly innocuous photos could have. Further,
participants could not anticipate beforehand how reflecting on their photographic
practices and on their ways of remembering might shape their perspectives, beliefs
and future practices. The research interviews were certainly not a neutral form of data
collection that left the participant unchanged. Indeed, in a subsequent email exchange
(inserted here with permission), one participant explained the significant effect that
the interview had had, not only on her photographic practices but also on her sense of
“I was inspired by our meeting to organise all of my photos into huge
chronological albums (including printing pics from Facebook!), which was a
massive reflective study in itself. I have a very odd sense of satisfaction about
my life that was missing before, or felt chaotic. My past felt chaotic, like the
random albums and boxes of loose pictures. All tidy now….there is a logical
story told in the albums, of an adventurous little girl that grew into a worldly
woman. The chaos is gone. Thanks for being a big part of that.”
Fortunately, this seems to have been a positive change, but it is equally possible that a
participant might become distressed or anxious, or might change their practices in
problematic ways after spending a period of concentrated time discussing and
reflecting on their personal history of photographic activity. While it has been argued
that giving the participant agency over the topics of discussion and the photographs
shared can reduce the likelihood of distress (Bates et al., 2017), I found that it was not
a simple matter for participants to predict what they would choose to talk about or
how they would react.
Another kind of reflexivity after the interview may be required to establish clarity in
relation to the object of analysis. Is it, for example, the events described in the
interview, the descriptions of those events, or the interviews themselves? This might
usefully be decided in relation to the area of enquiry or research question, and the
epistemological position taken up by the researchers. Choosing one of these elements
as the primary focus does not discount the others, but positions them as informing that
focus. For example, one of my participants described a family holiday, during which
he took some photographs. If the object of analysis is the described event (the
holiday), then the interview in which that holiday was described becomes important
contextual information, since it determines what of that past event is discussed, and
thus reveals important points of emphasis and limitation. Similarly, if the object of
analysis is the narrative of the holiday, then the social and material activity of the
interview configures what is described and how. If the object of analysis is the
participant’s social and material activity within the interview (i.e. navigating and
talking about photos), then that activity moves beyond context to constitute important
elements for analysis, which structure the articulation of secondary, past events such
as the holiday.
During analysis, I also needed to maintain awareness that the content of my interview
transcripts was, in part, a product of what was looked at and how it was navigated.
This was aided by taking notes on the material and social interactions during and
immediately after each interview. These notes were referred to and added to
throughout the analytic process so that the focus was not too much on the text-based
records of verbal information in the transcripts, nor on the visual information present
in the photographs. As I have noted, analysing visual or material elements in isolation
of the social can lead to problematic positions in relation to conceptions of truth and
meaning. A multimodal analysis (one in which consideration is given to the
interactions that produced the transcripts and made sense of the photographs) can
avoid the analysis becoming reliant on decontextualized readings of short transcript
excerpts. This may be particularly useful if there are multiple members of the research
team engaged in analysis). In my case, field notes acted as a glue that bound
transcripts and photos into a multimodal conception of the interview.
It is worth noting that the kind of analysis I am advocating here can be onerous and
time-consuming, and so it may be necessary to limit the overall sample accordingly.
This is particularly the case for research in which the context of remembering
(historical, cultural, technological, spatial) is taken seriously. However, even with a
small sample, such research can ask important questions of traditional psychological
understandings, and can inform the development of methods that complement more
traditional approaches in important ways. In psychology, it can help us to move
beyond a focus on the isolated individual. People engage with photographs through
acts that are social and communicative, and so one does not study photography by
attempting to remove confounding variables, but by taking note of the context,
recognising that it is not only unavoidable but essential. Thus, the interview can have
a kind of social validity, not in spite of the researcher's intrusive role, but because of
it. However, the researcher must consider the backdrop of this engagement (i.e. the
research agenda and approach, and the particular context of the research interview),
because the environmental and social context in which interactions with visual
materials take place matters. For example, the interviews I did in people’s homes with
their technology and their photo displays produced a very different context from those
I did in the workplace. Similarly, the materials matter: looking at a photo on Facebook
is different from looking in a physical album, which is different again from being
presented with a bundle of photographs by a researcher. In this way, rich
understandings of memory and photographic practices resist generalisation, especially
when historical practices, culture, and beliefs about memory, photography and
technology are taken into account.
I have argued that photographs are not just images but elements of wider discursive
and historically and culturally-situated practices. They are engaged with through
multimodal, social and material activity, and understood in relation to a range of
interconnected practices of taking, sharing, organising and viewing. As such,
analysing visual aspects (e.g. photographs) and verbal data (e.g. transcripts) in
isolation from considerations of the interview as multimodal, can lead to reduced
conceptions of participants’ acts of remembering within the research. Thus,
theoretical precision is required in relation to how photography and remembering are
understood, what is analysed, and how that analysis is conducted, in order to create a
sound basis for negotiating the contestable production of evidence and conclusions.
While photo-elicitation interviews can create “a richer picture of the topic” (Reavey
2012, p. 5), allow more participant agency, selectivity and reflection, they also present
challenges for epistemology and reflexivity, requiring researchers to think through
their assumptions of truth, representation and source evaluation. As challenging as
this may be, such approaches can ask important questions of traditional psychological
understandings, and can inform the development of methods that usefully
complement traditional approaches.
Thank you to Daphne Loads and Claire Sowton for comments on drafts. Thanks to
Hamish Macleod and Ethel Quayle for research guidance.
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