Every Picture Tells a Tale: photographs in social research

Research Description

The aim of this research was to explore the changing meanings of photographs. Originally intended as a sociological record of a particular time and place, the photographs took on different meanings according to captions attached to them, and to the context in which they were viewed. Thus, the same set of photographs was treated as both record and interpretation.

The photographs were of the residents of a small road in London where the researcher lives. The researcher initially wrote to the other residents in May 2000, introducing the research project. She stressed that this was non-commercial, but that the photographs might be published, thus implying that what they said would not be in confidence. The photographs were taken ten days later. Residents were asked to participate at this stage. Two years later, at the time of publication, they were asked for their consent to the inclusion of their photographs.

The residents were photographed outside their own front doors and were then invited to write a caption for the photograph. At this point the researcher realised that the meaning of the photographs, which at first had appeared neutral, was in fact shaped by the captions. The images and captions were then jointly analysed, in terms of poses, groupings, and the meanings assigned to the photographs. The researcher concluded that the photographic images provided valuable data about everyday life in a specific area at a specific time, and that this data was richer than could have been achieved with words alone. However, by charting the early careers of these photographs’ meanings, the researcher also demonstrated the power of photographic meaning, and the way it is determined by context.

The researcher and her family outside her front door

The researcher and her family outside her front door

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