on qualitative research and photography


Of late, I have been spending a lot of time on photography sites looking at some wonderful stuff and looking for tips ands tricks in the process. One thing I never could do with a camera is point it at someone’s face and capture a momnt or an emotion, or even just that face… (portrait, in fact, any people photograpahy is my “photo objective” for the year). My greatest admiration is for photographers who present a face as more than just that – a human being with feelings, perhaps many of them evident in the frame. Then, why why cannot I do it? This candid confession on my flickr profile says it all – I am desperate to try my hand at portraits – I get cold feet (hands?!) when I have to take people pictures. I get all awkward and my imagination shuts tight.

Every time I focus my camera on to a person, whether posed or spontaneous, I get a deep sense of intruding. As I said, a good photographer glimpses into the person way beyond the face and provides a larger, if not complete picture to the viewer.

But wait a minute. That is exactly what I do for a living. I peek into people’s lives, observe, sometimes question and understand the unsaid. And that moment of penny-dropping was the starting point of this post – which has stayed as a draft for too long now. So here goes, disjointed thoughts on what makes a good qualitative researcher – basis my more recent learning experiments in photography.

Insightful without being intrusive

A good researcher is genuinely interested in the respondent – and this is especially true for more intensive research methods such as ethnography, is inquisitive without being intrusive. Of the hundreds of good photographs I may see on a regular basis on photography sites, the ones that really catch my interest are those with a context to them – information that the photographer has bothered to dig up and present – creating empathy for the unseen subject in the viewer. And without being judgmental personally, or forcing the viewer into a judgmental mode. And that is what a good research report gives me too – a sense of having been there myself, a sense of having entered the lives of the consumers, even if only momentarily… empathy for the respondent.

Fresh eyes – and an open mind

The second and extremely important leaning that I have had from going through the works of some photographers is the fact that each time I view them, I see something new revealed to me. And the astonishing part is not just what I learn about a place or a culture that I have never visited (seen) myself – but also often, my own country, my own cuture presented to me in a way that makes me think – I have never seen it that way. It is like passing through the same road each day, we take things for granted – quality of the road, road signs, traffic congestion and so on. All it takes it to step back one day and see the journey as a new one – and often this happens, when you have someone with you for whom the journey is indeed new.

I call it seeing everything with new eyes – let me explain this with an example – Claude Renault is one of my and indeed, everyone’s favorite photographer on flickr – and there is a reason for that. An admitted Indo-phile, the Frenchman brings alive India to the world in a way that is simple and impressive – check out his testimonials from flickr users to understand what this means. And more importantly in the context of this post, Claude captures and documents the little things that make India, in a way that catches even the most jaded Indians by surprise – each time I see a particularly poignant image through Claude’s eyes, I think about how many times I must have seen the same scene around me, but never really “seen” it… Just one testimonial to explain this – “Claude’s images of India always leave me breathless. The everyday is translated into the sublime” – and if a good researcher does not actually do that, i.,e. take the ordinary to the sublime, he or she still takes small bits of seemingly disjointed, even meaningless data and converts them into more meaningful insights.

Nothing is obvious

And for the researcher example, I can think of no one better than Jan Chipchase; reading his notes often leaves me with the same feeling I get when I see Claude’s photographs – Sure, I have seen this before, but why haven’t I really noticed it? or thought about it? – Jan’s ability to observe the ordinary and think about them, giving them “meaning” is what maakes his blog a rich experience. And that is the lesson, hard-learnt for me – never dismiss anything as the obvious – what is obvious for me may not be for the client, who is often working in a different context, perhaps even separated physically from the culture and context that you, the researcher is in.

Cutting through the clutter

And that brings me neatly to the next thing I had in mind – cutting through the clutter thats sometimes pages and pages of data can be – and making meaning of it all. Phil Douglis is a phenomenal photogapher I have very recently discovered on pbase – (I use that adjective not just basis Phil’s body of work but his willingness to share his work and the discipline and thinking behind it). I found this sentnece on one of Phil’s tutorials on compositionOur cameras see unselectively. We must make them see selectively — eliminating random chaos, rather than passing it on to the viewer.

Unwittingly, Douglis had hit it on the head, put into words what I was struggling to convey – everything that your respondent says – and sometimes does not say verbally but is there for you to sense and understand all the same, is data. As a researcher, you sift through the mounds to data to make sense of it, discard the irrelevant (very carefully selecting and analysing before this), gather insights and pass on to the ultimate viewer, in this case, the client or the user – in a way that is immediately actionable.

The caveat – just as a photograph that is too pared of context is meaningless to the viewer (just a face, or a flower, say – except in the hands of an exceptionally talented photographer), so is an insight devoid of the actual consumer context meaningless.

(Aside : I really like the way this seems to be moving from step to logical next step! but I truly dislike the way this seems to be going on and on. As you do too, I am sure. The end is in sight, I assure you)

On the subject of finding meaning, here is a quick thought – as a researcher, I often find myself making leaps from the data to insight – as someone who has been on the field, met the respondents and observed more than was said, these leaps are perfectly logical to me – but not always to the viewer, the user. It is essential then to explain these leaps – and the assumptions and thought process behind it… This is something I find good photographers do all the same – some images, at first sight just seem “too perfect to be true” – it becomes credible when you read about the thinking and waiting that went on behind it.

And related to this, another contentious thought – how often I have found photographs that look great, but I casually dismiss as great post-processing rather than great photography (which is not to completely dish post-processing skills) – tweak the saturation just a bit, make a composite image just to make it seem more attractive… I have faced situations myself – and I am sure many other have, where there is pressure to make data “seem better” – when there is a definite agenda behind the research, and the data may not be in sync with that agenda. How then, does a researcher handle this? I am talking about representation of data – not the truth and the whole truth (since there is no such thing in life anyway) but a part of the truth, made to seem more attractive.

As you can see, I could go on and on with this indefinitely – but the point is this – many of these research “musts”, I have learnt over the years, imbibed some, and still struggling with some. So now the task is to translate this discipline into photography too – see the world with new eyes (even things I see aeveryday everywhere), keep an eye open for the everyday interesting (one cannot go on expeditions to interesting places all the time, much as I would love to!), and present the data and the people behind it with empathy and sensitivity that is obvious to the viewer.

Your thoughts and comments will be greatly appreciated – as I mentioned right in the beginning, this is a set of disjointed thoughts on the subject – and needs a lot of polishing…

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6 Responses to “on qualitative research and photography”

  1. Thank you, Charu, for including my thoughts on photographic composition and meaning in this discourse. You and I have taken similar journeys in our professions — as a researcher, you compassionatey investigate your subject with an open mind. You must be selective as you sift through your findings, striving to keep the essence, and scrapping the redundant and the irrelevant. You must always provide context to support your conclusions, and strive for credibility and truth.

    As a photographer — and as a teacher of expressive photography, I do the very same things. And that is because both research and photographic expression are journeys of discovery. Both embrace the stuff of life itself, and provide value to others. Productive researchers and photographers can communicate those discoveries in ways that will spark the imaginations, intellects, and emotions of their audiences.
    Thanks, Charu, for linking our passions in this way. And thanks, as well, for including my ideas in your discussion.

    Phil Douglis
    The Douglis Visual Workshops
    Phoenix, Arizona USA

    P.S. I am a big fan of Claude Renault as well. HIs pbase images on India have always been an inspiration to me.

  2. 2 apu

    Charu, a very interesting read indeed. The act of selection is probably critical to both qualitative research and photography. While the truth is all around, which part to represent and how? Sometimes this may mean omitting parts that are equally valid, but less illuminating to the problem at hand. (In the case of research). That could be one of the things that separates a fantastic researcher from an average one – who not just collated data but brings the spotlight to bear on something that will really shine through. Similar to a photographer who focuses on something exceptional in the midst of a lot of stimulus that could also be captured. I like the analogies drawn between both professions.

  3. 3 sparksfly

    This is good stuff! Having been in both worlds (photography & research), I’d never realized or thought about the patterns/similarities. Almost feel stupid I didn’t see this before (as you rightly said, it’s about “looking” at the day-to-day stuff and actually “seeing” something in these things).

    I’m gonna come back soon with a detailed post, and will share my experiences in both these fields and especially, what I’ve learned from photography. Glad you initiated such an interesting topic. šŸ™‚

  4. 4 Harshal Gajria

    Taking photographs over a period of time could well be a longitudinal ethnographic study, if you must give it a name. (I expect you might have found the Rahul Mehrotra book on Bombay to Mumbai interesting)

    I thought about this post for a bit – and it was parked away till i read DIna’s blog yesterday – or perhaps, i really have a very slow mind, that doesn’t work on internet time!

  5. Interesting your notes on Claude Renault’s photography in India — he is also one of my Flickr heros. As someone that also grew up outside of India but has photographed extensively there I would say that is presents a very different scenario for portraiture than in more affluent countries.

    I put this down to what I call the ‘photographer/ photographed co-curiosity’ … its not always evident in the final image but this kind of interaction often allows for such images to be effectively taken in the first place. In more affluent cultures a request to take a photo would usually be treated with distrust and hence little co-curiosity to faciltate insight — perhaps in our research designs we should also be intersted in methods for engaging co-curiosity.

  1. 1 DesiPundit » Archives » On photography and research

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