two points about visual research

(1) An image is not a neutral. It is literally and culturally constructed by a person or team of people through processes of:

  • selection – where the image maker literally stands, what they foreground, what is in focus and out of focus, what is out of the frame and what is excluded
  • processing – aesthetic judgements are made about whether the image is manipulated, airbrushed, in black and white or colour, trimmed or digitally treated
  • editing – how the image is mounted, what comes before or after it, what is next to it, what other images accompany it as montage or collage

There are a myriad of decision and choices that are made by the image producer, and these decisions are themselves in part culturally/discursively framed by virtue of who the person or team is, where they are, what they think is important, their intentions and values, and their historical position and social membership. The capacities of new digital technologies to manipulate images merely enhance the deceptiveness of the visual – it appears to ‘capture’ social reality, but it is in reality a profoundly manufactured object.

 Researchers using visual media to produce data therefore need to approach the practices of selection, processing and editing with a very self critical and reflexive disposition. And if it is children and young people who are engaged in making images, then they need to discuss their selection, processing and editing choices so that their assumptions are also made explicit and are available for discussion.

(2) An image can be read in multiple ways. Despite the intention of the maker, an image, like any other text, is presented to people who bring their own social and cultural understandings as well as their unique life trajectories to the act of interpretation. Researchers using visual research thus take on board the understandings that their intentions about what images mean will not necessarily be how they are translated, and that the ways in which their images will be read may not be what they anticipate.

 But this slipperiness also means that any analysis of images must be a highly self-conscious activity. Visual analysis requires the use of specific and explicit approaches which must be systematic, thorough and open to scrutiny. A reader must be able to track what has been done in order to understand the subsequent interpretation. This is particularly important in the case for images produced by children and young people, whose images may not be amenable to straightforward adult readings, and who may be surprised by the ways in which their images are interpreted by others. It is for this reason that visual research is often used in conjunction with other ‘talking’ approaches in which participant image-makers talk about why this image and what it means to them.

 All of these methodological considerations must be borne in mind when thinking about the ways in which image based research can be conducted with children and young people. But it is important to recognize that these issues are not confined to visual research. Exactly the same set of concerns about selection, processing, editing and representation apply equally to the use of words and numbers – all language systems are equally tricksters. There is therefore no reason to relegate visual research to a lesser status than any other.

Adapted from Thomson, P  (2008) Introduction to Doing visual research with children and young people London: Routledge.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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