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Photography as research – really?

Research using photography has a long history, going back at least to the 1890s and its prominent use in the American Journal of Sociology. However, as a valid element or form of research, its legitimacy has been questioned. As pointed out by Michael Guggenheim, the scientific community has largely refused to accept the legitimacy of photographs as data. Or rather, he says, the social science community has, succumbing to what he calls ‘asymmetric media-determinism … the idea that textual media are non-determinist, while other media are determinist’ (Guggenheim, 2015).

Data or message?

According to Guggenheim, this problem is particularly relevant in the social sciences (visual sociology, visual ethnography, visual anthropology, for example). He points out that ‘in many other disciplines the same situation does not apply. There is no visual astronomy or biology or chemistry. A non-visual astronomy simply does not exist. What would astronomers do without producing visual traces of other stars, planets and galaxies?’  (The point here is that visual data including photography is accepted in mainstream astronomy, whereas sociology is sufficiently sceptical of the format to fence it off in a sub-division of 'visual sociology'.)

In relation to the sociology viewpoint, Guggenheim has a point. Why does academia attribute a kind of neutrality to texts (when texts can obviously be as emotionally charged, duplicitous, or ‘cropped’ as any photograph), while assuming photographs are somehow only ‘good for producing emotional reactions, and for popularizing research results’.

Nonetheless, the more orthodox view of photographs as documentary evidence or ‘readable documents’ remains that they are ‘both supremely compelling and supremely slippery’. Part of the reason why may be the intended aims with which photography has often been produced: as a way to bring about change in society. In fact, it is claimed that the very reason the American Journal of Sociology moved away from a reliance on photographs was ‘due to a shift towards more scientific sociology, whereby taking photographs was associated with the (often female) social reformers’.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA)-sponsored photography of environmental degradation and ‘human erosion' that attended the increasing mechanization of farming across the agricultural regions of the USA in the 1930s produced particularly powerful visual artifacts, and is often pointed to as a high point in the history of social documentary photography. However, adding to the sense that photography was non-objective, these too were created specifically to gain support for policy intervention: ‘FSA photography was a political campaign'.

The situation largely persists to this day. While there may be no objective reason to view a photograph any more slyly than any other piece of graphical or textual material, it remains the case that research with photography is often research with intent (as photovoice is). Thus, photographs are created in support of a narrative of change, often presented in ways remarkably similar to how they were a hundred years ago, and still ‘often commissioned by philanthropic organizations for their publicity campaigns’ (Johnson, 2011).


For more on this topic, see:

Guggenheim, M. (2013) What Was Visual Sociology? Retrieved from

Guggenheim, M. (2015). The media of sociology: tight or loose translations? The British Journal of Sociology, 66(2), 345-372. doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12125

Johnson, W. (2011). Social-Documentary Photography, back in Context. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Morse, G. A., Haque, M. S., Sharland, M. R., & Burke, F. J. T. (2010). The use of clinical photography by UK general dental practitioners [10.1038/sj.bdj.2010.2]. Br Dent J, 208(1), E1-E1.

Natanson, N. (1992). The Black Image in the New Deal. The Politics of FSA Photography. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

Neimand, A. (2015). Using Documentary Photography to Drive Change: An interview with Charlotte Kesl. Retrieved 8/8/2017, from

Pauwels, L. (2010). Visual Sociology Reframed: An Analytical Synthesis and Discussion of Visual Methods in Social and Cultural Research. Sociological Methods & Research, 38(4), 545-581. doi:10.1177/0049124110366233

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