Editor’s note: Inanna Caterina Riccardi is a freelance multicultural ethnographer-anthropologist for Photo Workshop Consultancy, Copenhagen, Denmark. 

In marketing and insight research, more and more attention is given to visual materials, both due to the fact that part of everyday life is performed on social media, where images are crucial, and also because it has been widely recognized that we are – at least in the West – a highly visual society, in which images and visual inputs invade and influence many aspects of our lives.   

Agencies often hire professional photographers or videographers to ensure that the respondent’s life is captured. This method has well-known advantages, such as producing aesthetically beautiful and pleasant content to look at, and visual inputs that can catch moments and expressions which may otherwise slip away.

In fact, being a photographer or videographer means to respect certain rules as concerns the composition of a shot. Using a set of principles which aims at creating a result that can be considered beautiful, and in which symmetry is key, is common across documentary photography and art photography.

A photographer is also trained in selecting the best camera for a given situation. While digital is a must, the exact camera can vary based on the context of fieldwork and on the aim of the research. For example, a camera that is small in size and performs well in low light, meaning that it can shoot on a high ISO, would be a better choice than a bigger camera, if the research is about clubbing or alcohol consumption. Due to its smaller size the camera would be seen as less intrusive.

Photographers, specifically if they have specialized in street or documentary photography, know how to catch the moment of interaction, and they are able to predict where the following action or interaction is going to occur. Consequently, they can place themselves in position to catch the scene from the best possible angle.

Furthermore, most of them know how to make the respondent feel comfortable when pictures are taken. 

Nevertheless, in taking a picture, the photographer decides what is important and what is not. By doing this they frame the scene and apply their own extra layer of understanding to the picture. 

A more recent strategy, which has become more common due to the pandemic, consists of asking the respondents to upload their pictures on different platforms, created specifically by agencies or third parties. Through these platforms, the researcher is able to combine and integrate the visual material with other data, extracted through interviews or other methods.

Both scenarios imply limited interaction with respondents regarding the visual aspect of their everyday life, meaning that both strategies do not necessarily give the respondents the opportunity to further contextualize their pictures. However, every researcher knows that context is crucial!

A deep understanding of the context allows the researcher to better unfold the worlds of the respondents while generating compelling insights.  

Self-representation and marketing research 

In addition, these strategies might overlook the notion of self-representation and the practice of memory, which have a strong impact on the shaping of identity and behavioral responses, and can be considered part of the larger context in which the research is situated.

In this regard, it is relevant to comprehend how the practices around personal photography – meaning the images that we create as part of our future memories – have drastically changed, influenced by the digital revolution and the use of social media.

These phenomena have also influenced the perception and generation of self-representation. The selves that are performed as digital representation also create a “biographical illusion,” as French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would say, where respondents seek to make life’s chaos into something one-dimensional and ordered. From Bourdieu’s standpoint, life is falsely viewed as coherent, straightforward and – particularly in Western cultures – inescapably individual. He argues that this is actually an artificial way of structuring and presenting narratives about selfhood. 

This coherent narrative about selfhood is echoed in the core tenet of digital anthropology as outlined by Daniel Miller and Heather Horst, which warn us to avoid falling into the trap of only considering the analogue as authentic sociality. Instead they invite researchers to consider the digital self as a particular mechanism and site for the production, extraction and consumption of value. These reflections are essential elements to take into consideration when discussing photography as a research tool.

These coherent narratives entail an understanding of memory as unilateral and well defined; they do not necessarily unfold the nuances of the respondent’s daily life.

In addition, practices connected to sharing visual memory have become less common; spending family time on the sofa, looking at a family album and sharing stories about certain images, has migrated to individual family members looking at their social media accounts and occasionally sharing comments regarding specific images.

In a similar way, using photographs without talking to the respondents or without giving them the agency to be responsible for their own narratives might lead to poor insights.

How can these scenarios be subverted and give agency back to the respondents to improve the final insights?

Photovoice could be the answer you are looking for!

Photovoice and consumer research

Photovoice was conceived in 1992 by Caroline C. Wang of the University of Michigan, and Mary Ann Burris, program officer for Women's Health at the Ford Foundation, headquartered in Beijing, China. The idea was structured on the principle that images combined with words can effectively convey the needs, challenges and desires of communities and individuals alike.

Person preparing to develop film

Since then photovoice, also known as participatory photography, has been included in visual anthropology and as a sub-category of participatory visual methods, which are inspired by methods based in participatory art. This tool allows research respondents to convey visual narratives that capture their individual perspectives as part of the research process.   

I have been working with photovoice since 2014, with and for different socially-oriented organizations, and I can assure you that the depth of insight that this method has provided me with has been astonishing!  

First, since photovoice workshops are shaped together with the client, they allow the researcher to generate a collaborative climate, where the sense of ownership is extended to the client and the respondents.

Second, photovoice workshops are presented as a collaborative research tool. In this way the respondents are introduced to various stimuli, which are specifically created to retrain their eyes, by teaching them how to look for details and the unexpected. During this process, the respondents acquire new skills, which contribute to generating a sense of ownership of both the process and results, while acting as a tool of empowerment.

The learning curve also includes one or two sessions where the respondents are taught how to curate their own visual narratives. These visual narratives are always accompanied by a text written by the individual respondent, in order to generate a clear insight, which does not overlook context and specific explanations of the respondent’s world.

Finally, by structuring the photovoice workshops as a combination of individual photo sessions and group discussions, the researcher has the opportunity to truly connect with the respondents, generate a collaborative climate, and allow the respondents to actively shape the results of the research, while providing them with a sense of ownership and entitlement.

By using photovoice the researcher can access and collect a diverse array of insights while generating engaging and empowering fieldwork, and a collaborative atmosphere in which ownership is shared with the client.