Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The photograph

Smart phones have made taking pictures an everyday form of communication. Charlotte Barratt examines the photograph as a tool for overcoming language and communication barriers.

The photograph changed the way we share experiences. From the first images in the 1800s, photography captured moments to be shared with people who were not there at the time and these images create evidence of our own perspective of what we saw for later reflection and reminiscence. Formally, they are used to document events from graduation to genocide and capture emotion to location in a fraction of a second.

Researchers can use cameras too, and they can allow experience to be understood in new ways. Visual methodologies use images as a centre point to the research being conducted. With readily accessible modern editing technology and the widespread use of phone cameras, photography holds a number of new opportunities for researchers. An image can reach across language or communication barriers, be used to demonstrate another person’s experience and bring greater understanding to the researcher. Images can also give children and people with learning disabilities a tool to be able to explain their experiences to others.

The analysis of images can bring to light differences in perspective between audiences and individuals. By allowing the audience to explain themselves and their visual choices, researchers can access tacit meanings that might otherwise escape notice or be difficult to articulate. By presenting other participants with a common theme, differing views can be explored. Through discussion and further questioning about, for example, the significance of the subject and what the photographer has captured inside (and left outside) the frame, researchers can more fully explore how an individual experiences an event. This can be particularly effective with groups of children or intergenerational groups.

In a study looking at how family groups share experiences in a museum setting, the use of cameras allowed each member of the group to share their experiences with the researcher and each other. In comparison to normal interviewing techniques, visual elicitation interviewing provides a platform for every member of the group to have an equal voice in the process. When compared, the similarities come from the shared interests in the group, or at points where an interest has been communicated within the group. This often comes from school projects or a long held interest from an older member of the group that may have prompted the visit.

The differences are the starker contrast. Parents or guardians focused initially on practicalities, such as toilet facilities, the weather that day or the café. The children had comments to make based on those images although they had not provided the images themselves. Following the basic needs, the adults’ next focus was the subjects that they thought would interest their children, usually in relation to the school project or they captured something that the child was doing.

Based on these findings it would be easy to imagine that children may only document the objects or activities that they were most interested in, however this is the point at which having the images from the childrens’ cameras allowed them to express their opinions and describe their experiences. In addition to the objects and subjects they were personally interested in, the children included images of security guards and situations that they felt were a barrier to their full enjoyment of the museum. It became apparent that the children felt they were not trusted and may cause damage or trouble.

The 'photograph' broadens the methods of communication with intergenerational groups or groups where communication could be difficult and can make them feel heard. It allows experts to tailor services to their needs across a range of disciplines, such as health care, education and the cultural sector. Photography is now a method of seeing the world that we take for granted and it can also be used to give everyone a voice, when put into the right hands.

Charlotte Barratt

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