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Photo Elicitation in Evaluation: Deep Dive

Updated: 2 days ago

Non-profits and community organizations are looking for more creative and engaging ways to both include their members in evaluations and share findings back. I am seeing more RFPs (request for proposals) include asks for photos to be included in a final report or as a stand-alone album.

Photos can be a great way to spark meaningful conversations, elicit rich qualitative data, and share findings!
A women looking through photographs

And also...there is more to it than just point and shoot.

This post is a deep dive into photo elicitation as a method in evaluation and how we at AND practice with pictures. It is not right for all projects, contexts, and/or people. If you haven't used this technique before, please do your own research and training before implementing new practices.


What is photo elicitation?


It is the process of using photos to elicit reflections or data - transforming the saying a picture is worth 1,000 words into a technique. Using visuals can be helpful because the representational aspect of images can help some people to describe or make sense of things that are otherwise hard to articulate (e.g., emotions, gut reactions, instincts, nostalgia, abstract thinking).


Photo elicitation as a technique can be helpful when folks have already been asked the same questions and could benefit from thinking differently about a topic. For example, how many times have people participating in a program already been asked for feedback before an evaluator comes along and asks about their experience? Sparking a new way of thinking can yield new insights without exhausting people (for other tips on not exhausting people with evaluation, check out this blog post).


While there are many ways to structure a project, these are the core elements of our photo elicitation projects:


A continuous evaluation cycle with text: evaluation question, data collection (photo activity and qualitative debrief), data analysis, and data use.
Nichols, J. & Lefkowich, M. (2022)

  • An evaluation question that guides the whole process

  • A photo activity

  • A qualitative debrief (e.g., interview or focus group)

  • Data analysis

  • Data use




The technique works when a photo activity sparks a different way of thinking and a qualitative debrief captures those insights. Photo elicitation excels when:

  • The perspectives, reflections, or insights you need to satisfy your guiding question are hard to talk about directly (e.g., a health experience, memories of a specific instance or event, aspirations, motivations, intuition, gut wisdom, emotions)

  • The way people talk authentically about the topic is through metaphors or symbols (e.g., the winding road of life, the roots of family/community, the blossoms of a new experience)

  • Sharing findings with the community or intended beneficiaries is central to the project (e.g., diverse audiences find images meaningful)

  • Folks who will be engaged as participants are not into surveys or traditional interviews (e.g., if folks have already been exhausted with requests for interviews and want something else to engage their expertise)

  • The project taps into underlying assumptions, values, beliefs, or biases (e.g., social norms, personal motivations, how people perceive or feel about...)

The Photo Activity


In line with our guiding question and careful considerations about the context and group we're working with, we typically structure a photo activity one of two ways:


Option 1: Evaluator-Selected Photos

​Option 2: Participant-Selected Photos


A pile of photographs


A person taking a photo of a clock tower on their phone

What

The facilitator reviews their guiding evaluation question and selects photos that could represent potential answers. There must be a variety of photos to account for the diversity of interpretations and meanings. Then, participants (either in an interview or focus group) are asked which photo best represents something related to the global question. This is sometimes called, "picture sorting."


For example, Jennica and I facilitated a community-based program planning session where we brought a variety of images and asked, "Which best represents what community means to you."

The facilitator reviews their guiding evaluation question and distills a question or prompt for participants to respond to using photography. Then, participants are instructed to either (a) take a new photo or (b) choose from photos they already have to best represent their answer.


For example, Jennica and I conducted an evaluation of a community program where we asked participants to take a photo that best represents where they are now at the end of the program.

Pros

  • Fewer potential barriers related to cost, time, and available resources for participants

  • Quick and relatively easy to facilitate

  • Elicits different interpretations the central concept in the prompt/question to distill: shared and divergent values, underlying assumptions, and deeper meanings

  • Allows participants to interpret the question any way they want - making space for more complex and nuanced reflections

  • Fun!

  • People LOVE seeing each other's photos throughout the project

Cons

  • ​Potentially introduces facilitator bias in the selection of photos

  • Limits how participants can respond to the question based on pre-selected photos

  • Potentially costly or restrictive if either (a) participants have to supply their own camera or (b) the facilitator has to supply cameras for all

  • Requires more time and careful planning for folks to do the assignment safely and comfortably

  • Requires more ethical considerations in terms of (a) what/who can be included in a photo, (b) potential risks to participants if they are given cameras, (c) how to meaningfully use people's photos throughout

You may have also heard of a technique called, "PhotoVoice." This is a variation of photo elicitation that typically works in service of social change, is led by community partners, and works to address historical and contemporary power imbalances in knowledge production. It is too complex to get into properly in this blog post and requires it's own. Please do me a favour and do not conflate PhotoVoice with photo elicitation. They are different. They come from different places. They carry different baggage.


Eliciting Data


Most commonly, the photo exercise is paired with a qualitative technique (e.g., an interview, focus group, or asynchronous prompt) to elicit:

  • Insights, perceptions, or personal reflections

  • Experiences or memories

  • Shared or different meanings and assumptions (when a group of people are involved)


A person taking a photo of hot air balloons on their phone at sunset

PART 1 The photo activity (e.g., participants choose from existing photos or take their own) is facilitated to tap into wisdom that is most relevant to the project (leaving room for surprises). A facilitator will use a question or prompt to direct the photo activity - maintaining a clear focus (photo pun). For example, the facilitator may ask participants to select or take a photo that best represents a key concept in their project. The resulting reflections should help them answer their global evaluation question.


Two people discussing photographs

PART 2 The facilitator conducts an interview, focus group, group planning session, or asynchronous activity to distill:

  • Descriptions of what is or is not in the photo

  • What different aspects of the photo mean, symbolize, or represent

  • How the wisdom gained relates to the global project question

  • (if in a group setting) shared or divergent perspectives

Analyzing Data


Most often, the dataset that results from this process is the qualitative data gained through debriefing the photos. The researcher or evaluator might choose to engage a traditional data analysis technique that best corresponds to their question and the type of reflections gained in their interview (e.g., discourse analysis, descriptive analysis, thematic analysis, grounded theory). We often recommend that participants (alone or with the facilitator) create a short caption to accompany their photo in a final report to ensure that the essence of their wisdom is not lost in the final deliverable.


The photos may also be considered data. But, this is tricky business! The person analyzing photos must ensure that they are not projecting meanings onto images, speaking for participants, making assumptions about aesthetics or nuances that are culturally-specific and place-based, or neglecting the meaning(s) associated with taking the photo (rather than the photo itself). Visual analysis is more common in research. In an evaluation project, there is rarely the time, scope, interest, and/or expertise to engage in an in-depth visual discourse, rhetorical, material culture, and/or media analysis. We would LOVE to see more creative forms of data and data analysis in evaluation - but only when it is the right fit for the project. At AND, it is our humble perspective (and we're happy to be wrong) that visual analysis is better-suited for a research project led by folks with content and cultural expertise to tease out relevant and context-specific meanings.

Using Data


Yes, please do!


Umm...ethics?


Ethics are important - whether or not you have a formal ethics review process as part of your evaluation practice. While this is not an exhaustive list (or a way to bypass formal review if you have that mandate) here are some questions we find helpful when planning a photo elicitation project:

  • How will consent work for participation?

  • How will you be thoughtful about potential risks? (e.g., What happens if the process of taking or reflecting on a photo evokes uncomfortable feelings, memories of a difficult experience, or past pain? What would it mean for a specific group to bring phones or cameras into a specific area to take photos?)

  • How will consent work for using photos (that either you provided or participants took) in your project outputs (e.g., How can someone consent to you using their photo before they take it and know what it means? If you provided photos, is there a copyright or license issue to be aware of?)

  • How should we craft instructions about taking photos of human and non-human subjects that require consent? (e.g., Should we allow people to take pictures of other people? Should there be limits in terms of who photos can include - such as children? Should there be limits in terms of the potentially sensitive subject matter? What about sacred, culturally or spiritually-significant practices, or other wisdom that is not meant to be shared? How can we be respectful of non-human living beings?)

  • Who owns the photos and resulting qualitative data? (e.g., Will there be limits on how photos can be used after/by whom? Are there existing data ownership rules in place for this group or community to be mindful of? What does data ownership mean in the context of this project and its outputs?)

  • How will you be responsible for representation? (e.g., How will you ensure that images are not used in harmful or stereotypical ways? How will you maintain the integrity of what people meant/said with respect to their image(s)? If you cannot promise to minimize potential harm, how will you communicate this to folks so that they can make an informed decision about participating and having their photos used?)

  • What happens if people change their mind about participation? (e.g., Because you cannot "unsee" a photo, is there a limit on when people can withdraw from the project? Is there a limit on when folks potentially featured in photos can change their mind about being visible to others in the context of this project?)

Limitations


There is no one-size-fits-all method for any context, population, or question (at least, we haven't found it yet). And, photo elicitation is far from a perfect technique. Here are some limitations or potential stumbling points that we have found in our practice at AND:

  1. Photography isn't always appropriate This exercise does not work well with folks who do not connect with visuals or where image-based communication is not accessible. It can be inappropriate or unsafe if there is an expectation to take pictures of things that are sacred or not meant to be shared.

  2. Photography isn't always accessible or engaging We need to be thoughtful about accessibility when privileging sight and image-based wisdom and potentially expensive technology. Therefore, it is always important to let the context and guiding question of a project determine the if this technique is used.

  3. Data are stronger when participants interpret our instructions metaphorically rather than literally We find that when folks take a picture that is abstract and symbolic, the resulting data are better able to address the global question. This is because we can more effectively distill what is most meaningful to them. When folks take a picture that is literal we can get to a place of description in the interview, but struggle to tap into deeper meanings, beliefs, or values. Therefore, the questions or prompts we develop to guide the activity have to be thoughtful and strategic.

Words of Caution

A caution wet floor sign

Not all photo elicitation projects are done well. We often see people can make bold claims about creative projects, without backing those claims up with something more substantial than wishful thinking.


Rather than gate-keep or impose inappropriate metrics of success onto creative projects, we need to keep each other accountable, understand what worked well/what didn't, and make informed choices about how we practice. We have to be able to ask critical questions of creative projects (this is also a blog post for another time).


Here are things that I commonly see evaluators (and researchers) do in photo elicitation projects that give me pause and evoke an eyebrow raise:


  • Boasting that the photo elicitation activity itself resulted in health benefits or healing (The method itself does not heal. There are differences between arts techniques and arts therapy. Rarely is the goal of an evaluation to also help heal folks. Be wary of folks peddling methodological snake oil!)

  • Suggesting that the photo elicitation activity itself resulted in community or participant empowerment (When done well, participants may have more agency in the data collection and analysis processes. But, do they have more power, freedoms, opportunities, benefits, and/or control in the evaluation process, in their communities, and in society? There are broader structures of power at play in evaluation that must be attended to before anyone can claim empowerment. If photo elicitation helps to attend to those power structures, great! Boast away - and please tell us more so we can learn from you. If not...)

  • Claiming to be "giving voice to the voiceless" (NOPE NOPE NOPE! There is no such thing as a voiceless person. There is, however, such thing as a saviour complex.)

  • Proposing that photo elicitation reduced potential risks to participation or was exempt from ethical consideration (Like any other method, photography carries risks and requires thoughtfulness. There are many ways for this technique to go wrong.)

  • Using photo elicitation interchangeably with other arts-based techniques (Not all arts do the same things, work the same way, or elicit the same kinds of data.)

  • Attempting to use positivist metrics of credibly to validate their choices (This method will not be generalizable, replicable, or reliable - and those metrics aren't the right ones for this technique anyway. Please save yourself the headache and don't try to fit a square peg into a round hole.)

  • Using the photos as both findings and testimonials (If the goal of the photo elicitation is to simultaneously promote a program while evaluating it, the data may be questionable. Yes, the photos may - and should - offer reciprocal benefits. But, photo elicitation cannot serve both evaluation and advertising goals.)

Learn More


There are WAY more photo elicitation resources available for researchers rather than evaluators. That's why we developed our beginner arts-based course and organizational workshops for evaluators to translate techniques across and ensure that context, theoretical foundations, and practical applications make sense.

  1. We offer organizational workshops teaching this (and other arts-based techniques). Ranging from 90 minutes to a full-day deep dive, we teach hands-on skills for this method with folks who have any amount of experience. Book now!

  2. Photo elicitation is one of the 4 techniques covered in our beginner arts-based methods course for evaluators. No photography experience is required. Learn more.

You don't have to work with us or take our course to learn more!


Here are some resources to help you get started. Quick heads-up... many of these require a license, purchase, or subscription. Alas, most peer reviewed content gets stuck behind a paywall. These are English-language resources (that is my limitation that I will absolutely own - there are way more valuable resources in other languages). We are not endorsing these resources or profiting in any way. There is nothing in it for AND, except satisfying our own nerdy curiosities. Please do your own assessment to see if they are a good fit for you.


  • Clark, A. (2020). Visual ethics beyond the crossroads. In L. Pauwels, & D. Mannay The sage handbook of visual research methods (pp. 682-693). SAGE Publications, Inc. [Link]

  • Kallemeyn, L. M. (2018). Expanding the Role of Digital Photographs in Evaluation Practice: Documenting, Sense-Making, and Imagining. Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 33 (1), 114-134. [Link]

  • Leavy, P. (2020). Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice (3rd Ed.). Guildford Press. [Link]

  • Lobinger, K., & Brantner, C. (2020). Picture-sorting techniques: card-sorting and q-sort as alternative and complementary approaches in visual social research. In L. Pauwels, & D. Mannay The sage handbook of visual research methods (pp. 309-321). SAGE Publications, Inc. [Link]

  • Rowe, J. (2020). Legal issues of using images in research. In L. Pauwels, & D. Mannay The sage handbook of visual research methods (pp. 694-707). SAGE Publications, Inc. [Link]

  • Smith, E. F., Gidlow, B., & Steel, G. (2012). Engaging adolescent participants in academic research: the use of photo-elicitation interviews to evaluate school-based outdoor education programmes. Qualitative Research, 12(4), 367–387. [Link]

  • Steenfeldt, V. O., Therkildsen, M., & Lind, J. (2019). Nursing students’ experiences of a challenging course: A photo-elicitation study. Nurse Education Today, 76, 31–37. [Link]

  • Tinkler, P. (2015). Talking about Photos [Webinar]. ATLAS.ti & International Institute of Qualitative Methods. [Link]

  • Warr, D. Guillemin, M., Cox, S. & Waycott, J. (Eds.) (2016). Ethics and Visual Research Methods: Theory, Methodology, and Practice. Palgrave Macmillan. [Link]

  • Wilhoit, E. D., (2018). Investigating materiality and meaning in workspaces through photo-elicitation interviews. In SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 2. SAGE Publications, Ltd. [Link]


If you know of more examples of photo elicitation in evaluation work, please email us with more information! We're learning alongside you and happy to expand our library. You can email your ideas for resources to publications@andimplementation.ca.


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