Visual methods with young people: encouraging creativity or bad photography?

I have just seen my final paper from my PhD project be accepted for publication, which offers me a chance to reflect back on the five publications that project prompted (all linked to at the end of this piece). It was a visual ethnography with secondary school students over one academic year, with students creating photo diaries of their engagement in physical activity (and also what they do when they are not active). The creative and participatory elements of this methodology gave me plenty to write about in these publications and I noted the additional insight into young people’s worlds that a photography project can provide – especially their lives outside of school or otherwise beyond the ethnographic site where we cannot physically go. I was also keen to share the participants’ photos as much as possible by reproducing representative pictures alongside the interview data we generated in talking about the photos and the participants’ experiences of physical activity. It felt important to share because this was something that the participants put time into making – and perhaps in some way it would work to deprivilege words in academic publication.

Participatory methods are often active or creative, and work to engage participants in the research process (Enright and O’Sullivan, 2012); they are a part of listening to and privileging student voice over doing research ‘on’ young people. For Gauntlett and Holzwarth (2006), visual creative methods are enabling, reflective, and a good starting point for examining identity and self.

What happens if participants engage with these methods but aren’t particularly … creative? What are we really looking for, something pretty or artistic or evocative?

There were indeed many wonderful photographs created by my participants, who wanted and were able to tell a story with or through their images. Examples include the boy I called Mitesh in Hill (2013 and 2015) who brought back more than 50 photos of his attempts in PE and out-of-school play to work on a body that would provide him with more status. It was really easy to decide to share some of these photos to add emotion to his verbal explanations. The visual was really powerful.

If this doesn’t happen, should we not bother reproducing the images in our publications?

In this project, of a total 539 photos created by the 25 participants, I received 78 photos of empty spaces, 75 photos of objects, and 112 self-portraits or snaps of friends. Many of them would not go in a photo album nor would they be chosen for an art exhibition. In short, they are not ‘great photography’.

Collectively, they contribute to telling stories about these young people’s engagement with and access to physical activity, its importance to them and how they try to fit it into their lives alongside school work, visiting family, relaxing with friends, worship and helping out at home. This side of the story showed that finding time for physical activity was difficult; it also showed that taking photos during physical activity is not always possible; and importantly the ‘storyless’ photos prompted some participants to explain that this was not all they did – they were able to talk about their other activities that the photos did not show. Photos in that sense provided elicitation, prompting further ‘feelings and memories’ as Douglas Harper has discussed (2002, p. 13).

I think the risk is that the ‘boring’ images that are not shared become the story not told, the hidden elements of the research project, and we might find ourselves at risk of not telling the whole story, simply because the data itself has little to ‘show’. This is obviously something that can happen with other forms of qualitative data, with mundane accounts or short answers possible in interviews. But I feel that there is still something to prove with creative methods, something that needs displaying to prove they are worthwhile forms of data generation, in the face of scepticism. I want to be proud of the project as a whole and that means reproducing elements of the data, not hiding it because my 13 year old participants had bad photography skills. In a journal publication where reproduction of four or five images might be possible, how do we make choices about what to show? If you claim to have used visual methods, but only reproduce the text or verbal data, that might render readers disappointed or confused as to what the visual data were for. In order not to privilege verbal accounts over visual, even if they are contradictory or less … instantly valuable? … the visual should, in my view, be shared.

Perhaps ultimately, this reflection contributes to calls for accessible datasets – provided we have ethically prepared for this – to let viewers see for themselves. Leonard and McKnight (2014, p. 2) highlight that the ‘seemingly mundane’ image is open to interpretation and might be seen differently by different viewers (citing Pink, 2007).

All data reproduction, whether from qualitative or quantitative projects, is a manipulation of the whole that will always involve some level of subjective decision making on what and how to present snippets of data in publication. In analysing and sharing data, researchers distill, shorten, concentrate, categorise – however you would like to call it – meaning that even the bad photography should be chosen if it contributes to emphasising the story or the decisions you’ve made for that publication.

References

Enright, E., & O’Sullivan, M. (2012). “Producing different knowledge and producing knowledge differently”: rethinking physical education research and practice through participatory visual methods. Sport, Education and Society, 17(1), 35–55.

Gauntlett, D., & Holzwarth, P. (2006). Creative and visual methods for exploring identities. Visual Studies, 21(1), 82–91.

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Anthropology, 17(1), 13–26.

Leonard, M., & McKnight, M. (2014). Look and tell: using photo-elicitation methods with teenagers. Children’s Geographies, 1–14. doi:10.1080/14733285.2014.887812

Pink, S. (2007). Doing visual ethnography: Images, media and representation in research. 2nd ed. London: Sage.

The five publications from this project

Hill, J. and Azzarito, L. (2012). Representing valued bodies in PE: a visual inquiry with British Asian girls. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 17(3), 263-276.
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17408989.2012.690381#.U5yyKfldWSo

Hill, J. (2013). Rejecting the weak Asian body: boys visualising strong masculinities. In L. Azzarito & D. Kirk (Eds.). Physical Culture, Pedagogies and Visual Methods, 76-91. Abingdon: Routledge. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415532778/

Hill, J. (2013). Using participatory and visual methods to address power and identity in research with young people. Graduate Journal of Social Sciences, 10(2), 132-151.
http://gjss.org/images/stories/volumes/10/2/GJSS%20Vol%2010-2%20Hill.pdf

Hill, J. (2015) ‘If you miss the ball, you look like a total muppet!’ Boys investing in their bodies in physical education and sport. Sport, Education and Society 20(6), 762-779. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13573322.2013.820695#.U15a1VVdWiw

Hill, J. Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education. Gender and Education 27 (6), 666-684. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09540253.2015.1078875#.V2RNQrsrLIU

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