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7 Digital visual methods: photography and video


The ubiquity of digital smart devices with photo and video capabilities makes it easier than ever to produce visual representations of research situations. Visual image-making and research are broad and complex topics that have been approached from multiple perspectives in different disciplines, from the arts and humanities to the social sciences. Later, in a short video, Emma discusses how visual data not only complements linguistic and textual data, but can also provide deeper insights into particular contexts or situations because it engages researchers, participants and viewers in more sensory ways. Visual methods are therefore increasingly better understood and applied in disciplines such as organisation studies in order to understand complex socially constructed phenomena. See also a brief critique of occularcentrism in the introduction of Section 6, ‘Embodiment’.

Photography and video are more complex and problematic than they may at first appear. Their power and potential should not be underestimated: knowing why, when and how to use them in research is essential to ensuring that they can empower rather than disempower. Digital visual methods raise specific ethical considerations, so it is important to understand what photographic representation is – and is not – to appreciate the role and responsibilities of the visual researcher, before introducing specific visual methods that can be used in empowering ways.

Now that smart devices enable people to capture everything and anything in everyday life, photography and video are taken for granted. ‘Taking’ and ‘sharing’ digital images is easy, encouraged and increasingly socially acceptable. Critically, visual researchers need to understand this in order to appreciate the power of representation and the potential for misrepresentation. A photograph is merely a representation of a particular moment in a particular place from the viewpoint of the photographer – it is basically a picture, likeness, or facsimile obtained by photography (Clarke, 1997). But all photographic images are made in specific historical, cultural, social and technical contexts that give them meaning (Clarke, 1997). Those contextual factors cannot all be depicted in images, and so photographic images take on new and different meanings depending on the context(s) in which they are reproduced (i.e. printed or shared online) and viewed (or, more accurately, read – see Berger, 1972; Clarke, 1997).

Photographic and video images are thus open to interpretation. Visual researchers must be mindful of the possibilities of interpretation, reinterpretation and misinterpretation (particularly when shared online), and the consequent power that they hold over participants when producing images of their everyday lives.

Consider the ‘selfie’ made by the prject researcher, Sumeet, with a research participant – a share-ride driver.

Sumeet’s selfie (1)

What do you imagine he is attempting to show the viewer or reader, and what do you see? What might other readers see? Whilst an uncritical view of the photograph might see two happy people, a critical reader might see a power imbalance between the two subjects: the researcher who is in control of the camera and the participant who is having his image ‘taken’. The key point to note here is that this image, and all other images, are open to interpretation. Despite Sumeet’s good intentions to represent himself and the participant together, some readers might not see the situation the way he sees it.

When reading photographs such as this without an understanding of its various contextual factors, the reader is left to interpret the images. Furthermore, use or appropriation of this image for this online course gives new meaning to it (after Berger, 1972). Being framed as an aid to learning, it has a different meaning to when Sumeet showed it to his colleagues. As Susan Sontag suggests, ‘to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power’ (2002: 4). Photographic images can both speak truthfully and falsely about their subjects (Azoulay, 2014).

Reconsidering photography and video as being ‘made’ rather than ‘taken’ therefore offers a new way of thinking why, when and how to use photographic methods for research. As discussed in Section 4, truthfulness, or verisimilitude, are important for researchers to assure readers of the warrantability of their claims (Butcher, 2013). Photographs and videos attest to events that happened, but their evidence is partial: ‘What was there is never only what is visible in the photograph, but is also contained in the very photographic situation, in which the photographer and photographed interact around the camera’ (Azoulay, 2014:127).

Photographs and videos are socially constructed artefacts: if they are used for research, photojournalism or any other means, Azoulay proposes that a civil contract should exist between the photographer and the photographed (2014). Unfortunately, in a world saturated with making, taking and sharing digital images, any such civil contract is prone to abuse. Images shared online can be appropriated in multiple ways to produce infinite interpretations – internet ‘memes’ are just one example. In the digital age, the ethical responsibilities of visual researchers to account for the specific historical, cultural, social and technical contexts of the images they make are more prescient than ever.

This ethical dilemma of producing truthful representations of research situations and subjects is something that contemporary visual researchers have sought to address by developing appropriate methodologies. To represent participants’ truths is key. This can be achieved through either:

  • showing photographs or videos to participants and discussing them to understand and report their interpretations of those images
  • empowering participants to make and discuss the images themselves.

These two practical options are commonly known as ‘photo elicitation’ and ‘photo voice methods’, respectively.

Photo elicitation is a visual method of making and discussing images with participants that is particularly suited to understanding how participants make sense of their everyday practices (Harper, 2002). It is particularly suited to understanding why and how people do things such as work in socially and culturally specific ways. After making, selecting and editing images, the researcher shows them to participants and asks them to discuss what they see. Whilst this enables the researcher to gain a deeper understanding of participants’ practices from how they talk about those images, the fact remains that the images were made from the researchers’ perspective. In short, participants in photo elicitation are asked to interpret how the researcher sees them and their practices – not necessarily how they see themselves. Although it is empowering in the sense that it enables participants to give their own meanings to practices that might otherwise be difficult to discuss, the outcomes of any photo elicitation will ultimately always be as having first been seen through the eyes of the researcher.

The photo-voice method addresses that central concern of whose eyes the research is being seen through by making participants the photographers or videographers. Participants are either given cameras or encouraged to use their own smart devices to tell their own stories (Warren, 2005). Whilst commonly used to ‘give voice’ to participants from marginalised communities (Warren, 2019), photo-voice has been critiqued as producing inflated claims of empowering participants (Buckingham, 2013). Azoulay’s (2014) observation that any photograph is both true and false is seemingly inescapable. Nevertheless, photography can engage the researcher, participants and readers in sensory ways through images, which text cannot always do (Bell and Davison, 2013; Warren, 2019). Photographic and video methods, when used appropriately, can offer insights into embodied practices and everyday situations that otherwise would go undocumented in a research project.

Finally, it is worth noting that due to the well-understood problems of visual representation, specific institutional ethical policies, procedures and guidelines for responsible conduct should be followed. Besides adhering to ethical protocols for human research, visual studies usually also involve additional steps to gaining participant consent to make and use their images. For example, images of people cannot be anonymised in the same way textual data can be. Hence, participants need to be aware of and feel comfortable with being identifiable. Empowering participants to co-create images, represent themselves and discuss or present the images made can go some way to overcome any concerns they have about how images will be used. Empowering methodology therefore involves going beyond merely ‘giving voice’ to participants and instead invites consideration of how to co-construct knowledge in ways that enable greater ‘multivocality’ (Hendry et al. 2018).

Visual methods

Visual communication is characterised by mimesis: having the capacity to produce reactions that are immediate and emotional, in contrast to written or spoken words, which tend to produce accounts that are explanatory and characterised by logics of individuation and rationality. Consequently, visual methods can be used to overcome some of the limitations of language as a method for empowering research, including differences of language in the multilingual society of India. We will discuss the use of focus group discussions and video diaries as research methods that can support communication across cultural and power boundaries.

Activity: Film Focus 12, ‘Visual methods’ – Emma Bell

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • List some ‘objects of research’ (two- or three-dimensional data) you have encountered in your research. Did you include them in your research? Why, or why not? What do you think about these objects now?
  • What considerations, technical and methodological, do you need to take into account in the analysis of audio-visual data?
Download this video clip.Video player: 07-250634-35-36-visual-methods.mp4
Skip transcript


I’m Emma Bell, and I work at The Open University in the UK. And in this talk, we’re going to be looking at visual methods in management research. The talk is structured around three questions. What are visual methods? And related to this, why are they used in management research? Second, what kind of knowledge does visual methods create? And third, what does the growing popularity of visual methods in management research tell us about the changing nature of knowledge in our field?

Along the way, I’ll encourage you to think about how visual methods could enable more empowering research. Many qualitative methods in management research involve seeing, looking or observation, including interviewing or ethnographic methods. So a wide range of methods could be considered visual in that sense. Many qualitative methods in management research involve seeing or looking for example, participant observation, interviewing or ethnography, which all involve the researcher using their sense of sight in order to collect data. But often, the data that has been collected through observation is then subsequently translated into words for example, through written field notes.

So the focus in this talk is on visual data of a different sort. What we’ll be considering is visual methods that produce data that may be two-dimensional for example, photographs, participant-produced drawings, and diagrams and organisational charts that might exist in an organisation. Also, thinking about film as a moving set of images. In addition to this, we can think of visual data that may be three-dimensional in nature, such as the architecture of a building or an object that might be found in an organisational setting. And all of these can be considered as objects of research.

So visual data can be produced for the purpose of research. An example of this concerns a study of child labour which involved researchers giving a small disposable camera to each child who worked in a factory and asking them to go and take pictures of their working day and the things that they saw and experienced. Now, clearly, this enabled the researchers to gain access to a social setting that they wouldn’t otherwise have encountered or been able to reach, and to experience it from the vantage point, from the angles and the experiences and the everyday encounters, of the children, rather than of adults. So that’s a very powerful example of how research-generated visual data can be used.

Visual data can also be pre-existing. It can be part of the research setting. It can be something that a researcher finds in the course of their research. So some of my work has involved collecting images about loss and death in relation to the closure of factories. And it has involved, sometimes, images that are produced anonymously. So in one case, I was researching the car manufacturer, Jaguar, and I was in a factory, and I was in an office, and on the back of the door was a picture produced on a computer and printed out on a sheet of paper and stuck to the back of the door.

And it was at a time when the factory was facing the threat of closure. And the Jaguar brand, the Jaguar cars, are very closely associated with a very clear set of visual images, the iconography of the brand, which is ‘The Leaper’. It’s a wild cat that’s springing as it jumps. And someone had taken the imagery that’s associated with the brand and created a new image. In this case, it was an image of a Jaguar cub, a baby, that was having a gun held to its head. And the gun was a Colt 45, which is a gun which is associated with Western movies. And this was a reference to the fact that the owner of Jaguar at the time was Ford.

So it was owned by a parent company, an American parent company, Ford. And Ford was threatening to close this factory. And so in this single image, someone had conveyed a very powerful message: a message about the murderous intentions of the organisation and the violence that they were doing through the decision to close the factory. So very powerful, emotional content in the image.

And so this is an example of a found image, something that existed before I entered the field work setting. And I came upon a quote. I came across it and used it in my research as a basis for analysis. ‘Visual data is often multi-modal.’ And what this means is that the process of communication often involves different modes simultaneously. So it often involves language as one mode, as well as the image, and potentially also sounds, in the case of film. And so you can have different messages being communicated using these different modes.

So in the case of the Jaguar car factory, another image involved a graphic design which was produced by the union as part of a campaign to protest against the planned closure of the factory. And this featured a Jaguar wildcat, the brand mascot, being held by Uncle Sam. And in Uncle Sam’s embrace, there was a knife. And this was being used to pierce the heart of the cat, and there was blood droplets of blood running from the wound. So a very visceral, very powerful, very graphic image, again, of the violence that was perceived to have been perpetrated through this decision of the parent company to close the factory.

And yet, against the background of this image as part of the design that featured on placards, were the words, ‘Jaguar workers fighting for a future.’ Quite a different message. So when we analyse visual data, we need to pay attention to the words that accompany the image and how they interrelate with one another.

But how are we to handle this complex data? We need to think about different ways of collecting, analysing and presenting it. So why are visual methods used in management research? This is about the relationship between seeing and knowing. We’re constantly looking at the relationship between things, including living things and ourselves. So the visual is an increasingly important medium of communication in society, of equivalent importance to that of language as a way of conveying meaning.

We can see this from the role of the internet in communicating using imagery and the way in which those images circulate rapidly. In the context of organisations studies, we have already experienced a linguistic turn: a turn to language as a recognition of its role in constructing the meaning of organisations and management practices. So the linguistic turn suggests that organisations are socially constructed verbal systems which are actively constructed by social actors through discursive activity. Perhaps now what we are experiencing is the pictorial turn, as Mitchell refers to it a recognition of the role of images in constructing meaning. And potentially, it’s also about recognising that the linguistic turn is only useful up to a point, that we need to recognise images and their role in constituting meaning.

Yet management research has been relatively slow to pick up on this trend in comparison to other social science disciplines. In management research, we tend to be quite conservative and restrained in our use of methods. And treating the visual as a source of data of equivalent status to that of language is something that has been perceived to be somewhat risky. But this is changing. In recent years, there has been much wider recognition of the role of visual data in constructing meaning and knowledge about management and organisations. And this presents opportunities for those of us interested in ways of creating research that’s more empowering.

So what kinds of knowledge can visual methods help to create? What we need, first of all, to overcome the myth of transparency – the realist assumption that the camera never lies. We know this not to be the case from the way in which digital images can be manipulated, distorted, so that the idea that the lens is a window on the truth is something that needs to be problematised.

This is important in avoiding naive realism: the idea that because you present an image, its meaning is self-evident and shared. Instead, images are polysemic. They contain multiple meanings. They can be read in different ways potentially to a greater extent than written or spoken words. The way I interpret an image may be quite different from the way that you do. This depends on my cultural and historical location, the points of cultural reference that are important to me and that I bring to my reading of the image.

And so we have to be very wary about assuming that there is an objective truth in an image. As Gillian Rose explains, ‘There is no essential truth awaiting discovery in an image. Instead, it’s a matter of developing a convincing interpretation.’

However, there are distinctive characteristics about the visual which differentiate it from written and spoken words. Visual communication relies on mimesis. It’s more literal, immediate, and powerfully emotional in its effects. When we encounter an image a shocking or a violent image for example, a photograph from a war zone where we see the horror of what violence creates we are struck by that image in a direct and immediate way. This is quite different from the way in which communication happens through language. This is characterised by diegesis by telling an explanation, often a rational one, which explains something to the audience.

Visual methods often focus on representation on portraying or representing someone or something in a particular way. In my research, one of the analysis that I conducted related to the death of the former CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs. Following the death of Steve Jobs, we noticed that there were a huge number of images circulating online taken by fans of Apple who were commemorating what they saw as his leadership. This included constructing shrines outside Apple stores, of showing images of lit candles on iPads and iPhones, using religious commemorative memorialising iconography to celebrate Steve Jobs’ leadership and to commemorate his passing.

So we started to collect this data. We collected it and we analysed it, and that formed the basis for an analysis of how leaders are represented not only in their life, but also in their death and post-mortem. What this highlights is that visual methods are useful in capturing different kinds of knowledge and experience. They enable access to emotional experience, to pre-discursive and embodied forms of knowing. How the world is experienced through the body is something that you could photograph more easily than you could explain using words alone.

Finally, visual methods are useful in communicating with research participants in empowering ways. They potentially enable language differences to be transcended. It can be more empowering to give someone a camera and allow them to determine what they represent. It enables people to overcome issues of literacy through drawing pictures. And we’ll come on to give some examples of how these methods might be used.

The diary method is established in management research as a way of encouraging research participants to reflect on the processes of work as they unfold over time. However, video diaries fulfil some additional purposes. They can be helpful to encourage reflection on embodied practices through the representation of people’s movements and activities.

The diary method is also a way of encouraging people to reflect on their own identities by talking to camera or vlogging. They can also be useful to generate insights into the work worlds of participants, by asking participants to film the places and settings where work happens. Finally, research diaries can be used by the researcher to keep an account of their research experiences. This is a form of reflexivity: a way of reflecting on the process of doing research and considering how who you are as a person influences what you find.

In a recent article, Zundel and colleagues make a series of recommendations for researchers who are interested in using video diaries or some method. First, they suggest that the method is best used in conjunction with others, rather than in isolation. Other methods are important in enabling the researcher to give direction to the research process, to understand the sequence of events and to clarify issues with participants. When research participants keep a video diary, they are keeping a personal record on camera of their thoughts, reflections and experiences. Because of the lack of interaction with the researcher, this limits the opportunity for the researcher to direct attention in certain directions to clarify issues or to guide the participant in certain directions. So it’s best to use more than one method.

The second recommendation is that you give participants clear instructions about what you would like them to film, such as their work surroundings or events as they unfold. This casts the participant as a documentary filmmaker of their own organisation or situation.

Thirdly, they emphasise the importance of trust. The method of using video can be seen as quite intrusive, as an invasion of privacy, and therefore, building trust enables participants and researchers to work together using this method. Without trust it’s unlikely to be successful. This takes time and effort. Sometimes, the level of personal disclosure that is enabled by the video diary method may be greater than was intended or envisaged by the researcher. This raises ethical issues about the status of that information and whether it becomes public the need to protect research participants from any possibilities of potential harm.

A final consideration is a practical one, related to the technical issues that can arise. The wide availability of smartphone video recording potentially means that this is a method that can be widely used. However, there are questions about how the data is stored and uploaded and shared. For example, in the study done by Zundel and colleagues, they asked research participants to upload their video diaries on a weekly basis. But there were problems with the YouTube channel, which was a private channel, which meant this wasn’t always successful. So always, in advance, think about how you’re going to enable the data to be collected and shared.

So what does the rise of visual methods tell us about the changing nature of management studies as a field of inquiry? Visual methods are a valuable way of gaining insight into organisations and management as performative, as embodied, as emotional and aesthetic spaces, rather than as rational and logical processes and practices. They can also be useful as a way of overcoming differences of language and engaging with non-linguistic, non-numeric ways of knowing. And because of this, they can be particularly valuable in engaging with Indigenous communities and cultures.

The growing importance of digital media and the internet means that visual methods are needed in order to understand these new domains of social life and experience. In the past, there has been a questioning of whether these are as real as other organisational contexts. However, when we see the effects in terms of meaning-making, I would argue that these are contexts that we need to study. And therefore, we need visual methods in order to be able to make sense of them.

Finally, visual methods have the potential to enable the production of more engaging and engaged research. There is a risk in management studies that the production of academic papers involving the use of technical language and read by very small numbers of researchers creates a referential system of knowledge production – one that is internally focused. Through the use of visual methods, we potentially open up opportunities to communicate to wider audiences using a medium that is readily understood by wider audiences.

End transcript
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We recommend that you keep notes of your answers to these questions so you can return to them during the course.

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Stories from the field

Sumeet Anand: studying migration and movement among share ride drivers from Bihar

Sumeet, a researcher on the project team, is an avid user of ride-sharing services in Delhi. On previous rides, he had chatted with drivers and discovered that many have migrated from the state of Bihar in north-east India. Sumeet was therefore interested in their stories of economic migration – moving to the urban metropolis ‘for a better life’.

Sumeet began to interview drivers as they drove him. This created meaningful dialogue in the same way as the drivers would with other passengers. Sumeet also decided to use photography, specifically making ‘selfies’ with drivers in and around their cars. (An example is shown below.) In doing so, he made images that show himself and the drivers in meaningful moments and spaces, but also interestingly illustrate something of the ephemerality of their shared experiences.

Sumeet’s selfie (2)

Besides talking in the car, Sumeet shared tea with participants at roadside tea stalls. This enabled them to talk at greater length. It was in those situations that he was able to learn more about how they make sense of their migrations and work. As they talked about what their work means to them and their families and particularly their children’s futures, Sumeet noticed the embodiments of participants, such as the way a driver smoked a cigarette whilst discussing meaningful things. The practice of taking photographs on a smartphone thus provided Sumeet with a way of understanding how the drivers engaged with space and place, and helped him to form meaningful connections with them in the research field.


Make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • Do you think that this methodology could work in other organisational contexts and everyday situations?
  • What limitations to making selfies might you envisage in other contexts?
  • Can you think of situations where photographic methods would be the most appropriate way of collecting data?

We recommend that you keep notes of your answers to these questions so you can return to them during the course.

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Recommended reading

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books.

Harper, D. (2002) ‘Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation’, Visual Studies, 17(1), 13–26. Available at: permalink/ f/ gvehrt/ TN_informaworld_s10_1080_14725860220137345 (accessed 1 October 2019).

Sontag, S. (2002) On Photography, London: Penguin Classics.