Photography is largely used as a tool for qualitative research because of the richness of details and information it can provide. It is not only the immediate visual impact that designers and researchers value through this medium; much can be gained from the surrounding context to provide a further source of information.

To explore the differences between the researcher and the participants’ pictures of the same situation is a fascinating exercise: the researcher will look at the situation from the outside and, even then he / she can be intrusive. Criteria for research are often sensible, but the research approach can end up being impersonal.

On the other hand, the perspective of the participant is always focused on the right issues. They can offer genuine and subtle details that would not appear in any other way.

In many of the projects, we use photo research surveys, in which the user / participant takes the picture. At VRD RESEARCH, we provide and develop all the support materials required for the process, but it is up to the users to define the exact moment, the angle and composition of the photos they will take.

Some points must be considered in order to get the most from this method. (1) To define a precise questionnaire and all the supporting material, to serve as a guideline to the participants’ research. (2) The research process should be designed in a way that promotes integration of data from different sources; e.g. asking for a full description, together with the photo. This detail is essential to avoid misinterpretation during the analysis, and it is always a back up in case information gets lost due to problems with the quality of the photo (remember we have no control of the pictures). (3) Thinking of friendly formats for the support materials. It needs to be easy for participants to deal with, and at the same time effective in organizing the post-research stage, when all the data from the research are collated, cross-referenced, and plotted diagrammatically.

There was a study where we provided participants with a set of cards, together with a disposable camera. Each card contained a question, defined by a different colour and formed a pack that was easy to use and carry about. For the researcher, the colour system was extremely useful when mapping the totality of the participant’s answers.

In each of the cards, there were instructions for the participant to answer the question with one or more photos, to label each photo with a number and also describe the meaning of the pictures in a few words.

The simple act of linking the responses allowed the team to create a dynamic analysis chart to illustrate the combined results of the research.