Photo elicitation is a technique developed from the 1960s to encourage and stimulate information gathering through visual materials such as photographs, paintings, films and brochures. Particular attention is given to the description and interpretation by respondents of the visual representations, thus images play the role of vectors for reflection and analysis.
Can using images in an interview help to elicit different types of information? The difference between combining texts and images in an interview rather than using only words relies upon how the human brain responds to these two forms of symbolic representation. This is based on a physiological principle: the parts of the brain which process visual information are from an evolutionary point of view older than those that process verbal information. This means that images recall deeper memories, reminiscences, feelings, and emotions compared to words. Anthropologist Paolo Chiozzi (1989) reports the results of research in the town of Prato in Italy, describing his conversation with a man whose house had been destroyed during World War II. Perhaps because of the poor involvement of the interviewee, perhaps because of the effort to remember and organize events in his mind, the interview proceeded in a fragmentary and reluctant way. However, things changed completely when the interviewee was shown a photographic book illustrating the city in the first part of the century. Suddenly, the author was overwhelmed by a flow of information: the images were able to elicit very vividly the man’s memories. Fadwa El Guindi (1998) unequivocally tells of her research experience with images in Latin America. Showing interviewees pictures of religious rituals taken by the author instead of just asking questions on their religious habits helped her to get information that people were previously not interested or willing to discuss with her. For example, after having seen the pictures of religious rituals one interviewee immediately pointed out two little stones close to where the interview was taking place and began to explain about their sacredness and use in funeral ceremonies.
Another important aspect of more “evocative” or non-textual research approaches such as photo elicitation is that it can capture or better highlight values and emotional aspects of social relationships. Images allow participants to describe life experiences more transparently, allowing the interviewee to overcome the fatigue and repetition of conventional interviews and favouring a more active role in the production of information. Less inhibited participants, greater and freer interaction within the interview, the ability to evoke distant memories and feelings, and access to parallel cognitive channels are often the outcome of this approach. The idea is that “breaking the schemas” by using images in an interview can favour the interaction between researcher and participants, especially when they belong to unfamiliar cultural contexts. In this sense, the use of images produced by the researcher or interviewee can facilitate the creation of a bridge between the different experiences of reality.
Photo elicitation is a very useful technique in allowing participants to share their inner views, ideas, perspectives. The Cobra Collective makes wide use of this tool in order to engage local communities in finding the challenges they face in their everyday life and in sharing possible solutions to these challenges.