Doing Visual Research
Sage Publications, London
Claudia Mitchell, a McGill University professor in Integrated Studies in Education, introduces us to methods in visual research, a field which is multi-media in approach, global in character, with an increasingly digital future. The approaches used and examples cited in the book are drawn from the author's own experience of nearly two decades of visual research. She has worked primarily with photography, drawings, community video, collage, and more recently digital storytelling, with the focus on participatory research. She cites examples of her own fieldwork carried out mainly in Africa. The book is full of examples of how participants can be engaged in the process and talk about their work, regardless of whether they are producing drawings, photo images, video narratives or 'reconstructing' a set of photographs into new texts [p.5]. The author refers to some 'haunting' images that compel her to dig deeper into what images might mean, or their significance to the people who have produced them [p.199].
The book's ten lucid, easy to read chapters are a step-by-step guide discussing the practicalities and problems of doing visual research, and are punctuated with real life experiences and observations. The book is peppered with poignant anecdotes that along with an extensive reference list, is evidence of the fact that Mitchell has kept a keen eye on a vast body of literature on visual research. One example taken from Glenn and Hayes reminds us that just "as we are collectors of things, things are collectors of meanings" [p.39], a point which should encourage us to consider the interpretative possibilities of objects, documents and things [p. 49].
Mitchell thinks that it is crucial to foreground ethical issues since much of the community-based work is not just about one researcher. The author's approach to work exemplifies a spirit of cooperation, clearly her preferred modus operandi.
The book notes that the most effective examples messages and campaigns for change come from inside the community, when participants themselves create the message [p.115].
The visual practices discussed in the book have their own methods, traditions and procedures, and utilize both low tech and high tech tools as permitted by the circumstances. The constant factor is the visual as a mode of inquiry and representation, and as a mode of dissemination and engagement. "What is critical about social research is its potential to raise (and answer) new and ongoing questions, its potential to offer new evidence related to social accessories, and its ability to complement other qualitative methods" [p.50]. Mitchell points out that it is worth considering the interpretative possibilities of objects, documents and things, as in doing so we can situate them within broader societal concerns [p.49].
The book serves as an engaging introduction to both the conceptual and practical aspects of working with visual tools such a drawing, photography and video and even objects. It also familiarizes us with the ways in which visual tools, which prove highly participatory in engaging communities, can be used not only as modes of inquiry, representation, and dissemination in research aimed at wider awareness, advocacy and social change. The book offers thoughtful examples of using participatory tools (still and moving images) for approaching sensitive issues such as protecting gender rights, the prevalence and consequences of HIV-AIDS particularly in Africa. While focussing on the after-effects of HIV-AIDS in Swaziland, Mitchell draws our attention not to what is visible but to what is invisible: "much of the work that community photographers address in visualizing what is at stake is that of absence: the absence of peace and security, the absence of social justice on the playground, the absence of voice, the absence of access to health care or education or protection, and even (or especially) the absence of life" [p.99]. The book reminds us that we must begin to question photographs, asking not only what we think they show us, but also what they don't or can't show us [p.99].
Mitchell is not only knowledgeable but adept in introducing readers to a wealth of information, ideas, advice and suggestions on visual research. Her book introduces the reader to the field of visual research, its challenges, caveats and pitfalls. She explains the procedures of research to be undertaken, offering practical steps on how to carry it out, and also highlighting potential. From that perspective, the book's individual chapters feel like lessons learned, notes from a practitioner's manual and in places it is more like a workbook than an overbearing textbook.
Institute of Ismaili Studies