Possibilities for images in Asian American Studies
by Malcolm Collier ©2009

There are a number of basic ways images, especially photographs and video, may be used for research and associated purposes in Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies.

A. For representational and other studies of meaning

Images may be explored in terms of their meanings and their functions on a representational level. Modern studies of this type draw heavily on techniques from literary criticism, post-modernism, and the fields of semiotics and communication.

B. As direct sources of information

Photographs, film, video, and even paintings and drawings may be used as sources of information ABOUT the subjects that they portray or record through processes of systematic analysis. While this may include use of pre-existing images, either historical or contemporary, this potential is very much enhanced if the images are originally made specifically for this purpose using methods intended to enhance their information and analytic potential.

C. As vehicles to information/knowledge beyond their immediate content

Photographs in particular, as well as other types of images, can be very rich aides to obtaining information via processes of photo elicitation or photo interviews. This process involves using the images as triggers that open memories and feelings in the minds of people as they look at the images as part of a interview or other exploratory discussion. The information so stimulated may be directly related to the content of the images or may be about other subjects as well.

D. As reflections of the view from within

By allowing people to record their own lives and circumstances with the camera it may be possible to obtain information and understanding of their experiences from their perspectives. This potential is particularly connected to the aims and methods of Asian American Studies.

E. For communication and expression

Finally, images, either alone or in conjunction with words, art, music, dance and other expressions, can be used to create communications and expressions regarding Asian American experience. Such products may be as ‘factual’ presentations of research findings or they may take other forms as creative explorations.

G. A CAUTION - It is possible to make images as records, as data, and use some of those same images for communication and expression. It is possible to use virtually any type of image in representational studies and for photo elicitation. But many images made primarily for purposes of communication and expression are relatively useless as sources of direct information.