family frames

June 5, 2012 at 10:48 am

Above: Family photo belonging to Lida, from the Czech Republic and now living in Salford.


I was considering going back to my ‘subjects’ [I hate that word] with photographs even before I learned the term ‘photo elicitation’ from my MA research.

The basis for this approach – where images created by the photographer or taken from a family album are used as an interview prompt – is summed up by Clifford Geertz: “The ethnographer does not, and, in my opinion, largely cannot, perceive what his informants perceive…In the country of the blind, who are not as unobservant as they look, the one-eyed is not king, he is spectator” (Geetz, 1983: 58).

Since knowledge is culturally defined and meaning depends on who is looking, it makes sense that insiders will interpret photos in a different way from the researcher.

Used in this way, photography takes on a dual role within ethnography – both a means for engagement with a subject and a means to obtain deeper knowledge. “A shocking thing happens in this interview format; the photographer, who knows his or her photograph as its maker…suddenly confronts the realisation that she or he knows little or nothing about the cultural information contained in the image,” says Douglas Harper (Harper 1998: 35).


Geertz, C. (1983) Local Knowledge, USA: Basic Books Inc

Harper, D. “An Argument for Visual Sociology.” In: Prosser, J. ed., (1998) Image-based Research, London: Falmer Press, 24-41