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Using photography as a methodology in social sciences:

The case of Visual Narratives

Francisca Ortiz, University of Manchester.

Denisse Sepúlveda, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland.

From an academic perspective, there are researches dedicated to analysing contemporary visual narratives. In general, those proposed the necessity of opening up research to a more diverse and massive audience to understand the new relationships, dynamics, and challenges faced by photography as a methodology. The project thus seeks to include photographs addressing a broad spectrum of themes proposed by the authors. It offers a more interdisciplinary vision of the social sciences, where visual methodologies such as photography can generate a different product of analysis that can be just as important as interviews or focus groups, among other methods. In this document, we proposed a brief argument of why photography should be considered as a methodology. Then, we introduce “Visual Narratives”, a project created by us based on the same view and promote photography during research.

The use of photography as a methodology

Photography has been used to keep portrait anthropological and sociological studies on different countries or cultures; however, it is used has been evolving, and today, there is more and more research on how to use it (Banks, 2018). It could be used as a source of information (Banks, 2001), as a narrative (Riessman, 2009), as a representation of meaning and significance of a culture (Knoblauch et al. 2008), and as a way to interpreted society (Schnettler & Raab, 2008), among others. Many researchers had started to use the terms of visual methodologies/data/material/analysis since the 2000s. A brief definition of visual methodologies is: “Any kind of visual material, either produced by actors (such as lay photographs) or social scientists (such as video records of social interactions) that depend in their meaning and significance on the visualised records, be it diagrams, photographic reproductions or videotaped records” (Knoblauch et al. 2008: 2). Even though, as the same authors mention later, it is expected in many future research pieces to use this type of materials.

Currently, the relevance of these other types of media is increasing. As Schnettler & Raab described: “as part of the growth visualisations and mediatisation in contemporary society, technological media like photography, film, television, video and computers, and the corresponding images they spread, are becoming primary forms of knowledge communication, especially for understanding and interpreting historical, social and cultural realities.” (2008: 9). Then, visual materials as photographs are a way of transferring information and works as a portrait of a society in all its aspects.

The use of photos in a study could be diverse and challenging, but actually, it could be helpful depending on the objective and approach of research. For example, it has been demonstrated that photography has been, and continue to be, a valuable resource for an ethnographical approach to research (Pink, 2001, 2012). Another option is applying a visual analysis into photographs to explore narratives represented on them (Riessman, 2009). It seems fair to establish that “the stories we tell, and the images we create and include in our research texts are much more than illustrations of a point” (Yardley, 2006: 12).

As has been already said, photography can act as a valuable aid for academic research (Banks, 2001, 2018). In recent years researchers have been interested in how photographs can obtain information, evoke thoughts and memories, or open up possibilities to explore experiences and the creation of meaning (Harper, 2002). Therefore, we created a website in which researchers could share photographs that they have obtained from their studies:

This initiative was created in 2020 by Denisse Sepulveda and Francisca Ortiz. We are two sociologists from the Southern Cone who use photography as a tool for our research. From this perspective, the purpose of the “Visual Narratives Project” is not only to highlight photography as an important tool in methodological terms within the social sciences, but also to promote a space for researchers who base their work on photography. It has been a process of collaborative work, and it has required from us to learn more about the visual in social science research.

In March 2021, we finished publishing all the images from the first call for photographs, which was a huge success. We received a total of 25 applications from several countries, including Switzerland, Turkey, Mexico, Greece, Argentina, England and Chile. Given the large number of photographic projects that arrived, we decided to publish the photographs in two rounds: a first in January of this year, and the second round just being published during the third week of March. Another pleasant surprise in relation to the applications is that in fact applications have already begun to arrive for the second call that has not yet opened. The next call will be announced on our social media in August 2021.

We would like to acknowledge the sponsors of this project, who had been helpful disseminating the project: University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland Haute école de travail social ▪ HES-SO Genève Centre de recherche sociale (CERES). Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies – University of Manchester, United Kingdom. Centro de Estudios de Conflicto y Cohesión Social – Chile. Centro de Estudios Interculturales e Indígenas – P. Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile. Núcleo Milenio para el Estudio del Curso de Vida y Vulnerabilidad – Chile. Laboratorio de Investigaciones en Etnografía Aplicada (LINEA) – Argentina.

Finally, the project involves a collaborative approach, where the participants will establish the concept and the story behind their photographs. The researcher thus has a more active role in the creation of his/her portrait representation, where a traditional photography/subject-relationship is generally offered. The knowledge that is produced is not based solely on a description of the events, but on their interpretation and meaning in context within the culture.


Instagram: @narrativasvisuales2



· Banks, Marcus (2001). Visual methods in Social Research. London: SAGE Publications.

· Banks, Marcus (2018). Using visual data in qualitative research. London: SAGE Publications.

· Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1).

· Knoblauch, Hubert; Baer, Alejandro; Laurier, Eric; Petschke, Sabine & Schnettler, Bernt (2008). Visual analysis. New developments in the interpretative analysis of video and photography. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9(3), Art. 14, [Date of Access: June 30, 2009].

· Pink, Sarah (2001). Doing Visual Etnography. SAGE Publications.

· Pink, Sarah (2012). Advances in Visual Methodology. SAGE Publications.

· Riessman, C. (2008). Narrative methods for the Human Sciences. California, United States, SAGE Publications.

· Schnettler, Bernt & Raab, Jürgen (2008). Interpretative visual analysis. Developments, state of the art and pending problems. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9(3), Art. 31, [Date of Access: June 30, 2009].

· Yardley, Ainslie (2008). Living stories: The role of the researcher in the narration of life. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9(3), Art. 3, [Date of Access: June 30, 2009].

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