Explorative Thinking With Photographs

October 02, 2017 | Natalie Frei | Let's Talk Visual, Methods & Tools |


Rating: 4.7 out of 5

quadraticA picture is not only worth a thousand words but it can also elicit a thousand words. As an audio-visual anthropologist and digital storyteller, Darcy Alexandra has studied the relationship between text and pictures for more than 10 years. She employs audio-visual production like photo and video documentation and digital storytelling as a means of participatory inquiry with diverse research partners. In an SDC Lunch & Learn she encouraged participants to explore new ways to look at and use images.

By Natalie Frei

Photo elicitation

In their everyday routine, most people use images to illustrate things. They want to say or write something and then look for the fitting image to underline the meaning and make it more tangible. Photo elicitation goes the other way around: it starts with the image. Meaning is then created through mindful perception and reflection of the photo or drawing, and dialogue that aims to develop a kind of collaborative analytics. This technique is not only creative but it can also help to open up topics that are difficult to talk about, hidden or unseen – for example issues of power, race, gender, sexuality or conflict. After all, as Darcy argued, images can powerfully evoke information, emotion and ideas.

Image elicitation can be used to start discussions about sensitive topics.

Image elicitation can be used to start discussions about sensitive Topics.



Photo documentation: Through an asylum seeker’s lens

In an anthropological research project with asylum seekers in Ireland, Darcy has used photo documentation with the asylum seekers to build confidence and trust to discuss and analyze asylum policy, experiences of migration, and living-conditions for asylum seekers in Ireland. This created a dialogue and helped social scientists, NGOs and governmental organizations to better understand the situation and needs of asylum seekers. “As pictures are frequently used against asylum seekers, it also empowered them to contest some of the stereotypes and misunderstandings about them and the reasons why they were in Ireland”, says Darcy. See the project here


Darcy Alexandra explains how photo documentation helped in an anthropological project with asylum seekers in Ireland.


How to get started

Image elicitation starts by taking ample time to look at a picture. The following questions help to discover new viewpoints and angles:

  • What is in / outside the Image?
  • What is surprising / unexpected?
  • What does the photo raise (e.g. emotions, questions, topics, associations)
  • What information / affect is evoked?



Image elicitation can be a very collaborative process. Participants in Darcy's Lunch & Learn at SDC in Bern.

Image elicitation can be a very collaborative process. Participants in Darcy’s Lunch & Learn at SDC in Bern.


How to use images in your work

As images have the power to evoke so many different things, there are many diverse ways of using them for your work.

Images can spark dialogues and evoke questions.

Images can spark dialogues and evoke questions.


Darcy’s selection of how making and using photographs can help:

  • Reflect and evaluate
  • Document and contest
  • Express and propose
  • Analyze
  • Make visible and tangible the over-looked and the unseen
  • Create dialogue
  • Pose questions and provoke
  • Build connections and associations
  • Make meaning
  • Evoke and inspire


Darcy on why and how to integrate photo elicitation into SDC’s work and how to deepen your relationship with Images.




Links & Further Reading



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Comments to“Explorative Thinking With Photographs”

  1. Thank you Natalie, thank you Darcy

    I very much liked Darcy’s advice on how to deal with the flood of images we are confronted with every day. I notice that people around me don’t really look at pictures anymore, they take the picture for granted.

    I often see pictures where the attached message is so different from what I see and feel in the image. A critical reflection is necessary. We have learned to do this with text, less with images.

    Slowing down to have the time to look and question the image is the only way to stay sane in this picture-frenzy.

  2. Nadia von Holzen says:

    Dear Darcy and Natalie,
    I feel the same as Hynek. Indeed, it is a bit double, on one hand there is an abundance of images and at the same time our visual literacy is rather poor. But still, I am pleased to observe that in workshops more and more graphic recording, graphic facilitation and visual templates are supporting reflection and learning. Visual thinking has its place in workshop rooms! There is a huge potential in using images and visualisation to derive meaning from images and develop a common understanding.
    It would be lovely to see reports include images in a compelling and meaningful way or that even build on images.
    Best, Nadia

  3. Dear Hynek and Nadia, thanks for your comments. I’m glad you found the suggestions helpful, Hynek. I agree with you that we don’t often see consciously. And yet, we assume we do! It’s key to find ways to disrupt that tendency to “take images for granted” and to introduce a more reflective, critical position. It’s like Nadia writes, images are everywhere and yet our visual literacy is often quite poor. Strengthening our visual literacy can help us to engage with images in more dynamic and meaningful ways and to build on their potential for making meaning, and sharing knowledge.


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