Qualitative Research and Photography - Some Interesting Connections

Through The Lens

Photography is a tool for dealing with things everybody knows about but isn’t attending to.

Susan Sontag “On Photography”

Like the qualitative researcher, the photographer approaches the world in all its complexities, in all its “buzzing confusion” and selects particular phenomena to focus his / her attention. This selection process causes some phenomenon to come to the foreground and some to fade into the background. What the photographer will select to photograph and how it will be photographed, depends on the photographers purpose for the image, the light available, the medium used to present the image and what events and actions are available to capture on film. The researcher goes through much the same process, selecting from all the available phenomenon in a school setting, based on the researcher’s conceptual framework and purpose for the research project.

The conceptual framework sensitizes the researcher to pay attention to certain acts or events. It acts as a filter, as well as a focusing mechanism, much like the lens of a camera. Since it is impossible to attend to everything in the world simultaneously, a researcher selects from the “buzzing confusion” those events that are deemed most important at the time of the study. In much the same way, the photographer does this by selecting a specific lens for his / her camera. A wide angle lens may be used to capture large portions of the landscape, whereas a telephoto lens may be used to focus on a small portion of the landscape. A researcher does the same thing. When initiating a classroom study for example, a researcher will use a “wide angle” lens to see what events are occurring in a particular setting, before selecting a “telephoto” lens to narrow the focus of his / her observations. The “wide angle” lens gathers general information about a wide range of events so that when a more narrow focus is later used, the events will be viewed taking into consideration this wider context. When I have used a special, macro-focusing lens to get very close-up, magnified images, the subject of the image can become almost unrecognizable because of the lack of context. It is hard to tell what you are looking at. It is the same in research. You need to have access to the wider political, social and historical context in which the specific events occur, in order to understand the specific events under study.

When comparing an Ansel Adams landscape print to an Annie Liebowitz portrait, it is obvious that the two photographers have chosen different subjects to photograph and different perspectives from which to photograph. These choices are based on the photographer’s prior experiences, personalities, professional and personal interests and the subjects available to them. It is a conscious choice that photographers make. In the same way, the researcher will make decisions about what to research based on their interests, personalities, prior experiences, existing areas of research and subjects available to them. My choice to study the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards was made in part by my interests, what I had read and studied in my doctoral and masters program at ASU and the type of research methodology and philosophy I preferred. This choice was also influenced by the fact that ASU has become involved in this process and by my committee's interest in this particular subject.

Every photographer, like every researcher, has a philosophy and a perspective that they carry into the field (in my case they actually are fields I go into most of the time). My understanding of the world, who I am and what I care about, effects what I photograph. Where I travel, where I hike and what I research is determined by who I am. This is my photographic conceptual framework and it becomes obvious when you look through a portfolio of my work.

The role of the researcher plays a substantial part in determining what will be studied, how it will be studied and what data will be collected and analyzed. Compared to photography, it is like the difference between a photojournalist and a studio portrait photographer. The photojournalist wants to take pictures of the events as they unfold in the “real” world. Their job is to “capture” the events, not direct them. However, a portrait photographer like Anne Geddes, manipulates the environment and the subject to be photographed, dressing babies up in flower pots to create the desired effects.

Some researchers exercise greater control over the events and develop highly formalized structures prior to the study, like the Miles and Huberman example of the “bins” to be filled. The bins are prespecified and the researchers role is to go out and fill the bins with information. In comparison, a grounded theorist would enter a setting and attempt to develop categories as they emerge from the events without any prespecified categories.

Access to the study is another important consideration of the role of the researcher. The researcher must gain access to the site in order to study a particular phenomenon. It seems that the closer you get to an event the more able you are to generate useful data. It is like going to the Super Bowl and sitting in the stands with a point and shoot camera, compared to a member of the press with a pass to the field and a telephoto lens. Both photographers will come away with some pictures, but the images they create will be vastly different. If I were studying the game itself, the photos from the field would be more useful to my study. This past weekend I went to the Petrified Forest National Park to photograph the petrified trees at sunset when the light is the best. Unfortunately, the park closed at five o’clock, an hour before sunset and didn’t open until eight o”clock and hour after sunrise. This greatly effected the kind of images I was able to create.

Another aspect of the researcher’s role that relates to the concepts involved with photography is the relationship between the researcher and the participants. Some photographers have a “leave nothing but footprints” motto to their landscape photography. These photographers are very concerned about their impact on the environment and the effects they have by simply being there. They are concerned about the effect their images may have on the landscapes or people they photograph. then there is the paparazzi. This group of photographers seems to be more concerned with making money than the welfare of their subjects.

In the same way, researchers need to be concerned with their effects on the participants and the setting they impose themselves on. Their presence must be taken into consideration when looking at the data they have collected. How the report from their study is to be used must be considered when approaching participants and conducting research. The relationship of the knower to the known is multidirectional as well as multidimensional. The photographer is effected by the environment and the environment is effected by the photographer. A photographer tries not impose their will on the landscape when creating an image, but without their “eye” no images are ever created. In other words, the camera doesn’t go out by itself and take pictures.

The design of the research study is an attempt to consider what will be focused on and what will be left as background. In photography this is called “depth of field”. A camera can only focus on one plane at a time. It is called the hyperfocal distance. The rest of the image is actually out of focus. By manipulating the aperture setting on the lens, the photographer is able to bring things into focus or narrow the depth of field to only focus on a single subject. In research, the researcher must decide what is to be “in focus” and what to leave to background. It is impossible to study the whole world, and the researcher must select which parts to focus on. These sampling decisions will effect what is studies and what is revealed to the researcher. Concrete particulars are collected about the event that is being focused on and more general notes may be taken about the context that will be left to background. Eventually, the research study needs a focus and a purpose. However, I feel that this should emerge from the data as the researcher interacts with the context, and should not be predetermined before the study. As researchers we don’t go into studies “blind”, but I don’t think we should go in pretending we know what will happen.

A point and shoot camera is a non-flexible camera. The photographer has little or no choices to make other than what to point it at. These cameras take average pictures, but are generally reliable in many settings. On the other hand, the manual SLR camera can be adjusted to fit many different lighting occasions. The pictures take more time to create, the photographer must know more about the workings of the camera, but the results are usually more dramatic images. The researcher has similar choices when designing their study. A tightly designed study may yield results that are defensible, but the study may not reveal anything to the researcher that they were actually after in the first place. Learning environments are complex phenomenon and I feel that the tighter, less flexible our studies are going in, the more narrow and less informative our studies will be coming out. A study that is more flexible, may be more difficult to manage, but the results are often more interesting.

The types of inference that researchers make will be effected by the type of information they are able to collect, the access they gain to the site under study and the conceptual framework they carry into the field. The goal of qualitative research is to make assertions about the meanings of the events and the participants in question. Without concrete particulars, the researcher ends up writing opinion pieces. They are unable to make any deep connections to their data and the study does not advance the understandings in their are of study. The photographer is effected in much the same way. Foe me it has been easy to create images that are like other more famous photographers. However, to create unique and dramatic images is more difficult. In order for me to understand, and eventually photograph, a location successfully, I must really get to “know” the location. I have been to the Grand Canyon many, many times. Only now do I feel I am beginning to return with images of any quality. I have had to learn about the weather patterns, the overlook locations, sunrise and sunset characteristics, cloud formations, times of the year to be there and what equipment works best there. It has been my close attention to the concrete particulars of the Grand Canyon that has helped me to begin to create images of quality of this beautiful landscape.

The photographer presents their ideas through color, line, depth of field, shape, texture and perspective. Researcher writes journal articles or dissertations, using narrative, imagery, plot, metaphor, assertions, summaries, tables, graphs and other language techniques to display their understandings. The representations of the study, like the image itself, must be considered when designing the study.


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