Direct analysis of photographs as information
by Malcolm Collier ©2008

The use of photographs as sources of information requires organized processes of analysis, when that analysis involves pulling information directly from the images the process is one of "direct" analysis. Any analysis is a search for both detail and pattern. Aside from basic inventory of images, it should begin and finish with open ended processes, with more structured procedures applied during the mid section of a circular journey. This approach provides opportunity to respond to larger patterns within whole that may reveal the new and the unforeseen, and that provide significant meaning to otherwise chaotic details. Because more structured analysis inevitably involves focus on predefined points of interest, early descent into focused examinations is likely to limit true discovery and help foster imposition of prior bias in our analysis. Here is a basic plan for direct analysis of photographs.

1. Inventory your images. The photos or video should be logged or inventoried - ideally, this should be an on going process as the images are being made or obtained. The inventory should be designed around categories of information or subjects that assist your goals but they should also include basic identifying information that allow you to locate images when you need them and that establishe the spatial, temporal, and other contextual relationships among the photographs.

2. Start formal analysis with open immersion and discovery. Observe the visual record as a whole, look at, ”listen,” to its overtones and subtleties, discover connecting and contrasting patterns. Do this before engaging in any substantial detailed analysis. Trust your feelings, impressions, and make careful note of them, identifying images with which they are associated. Write any questions that are triggered - these may provide important direction for further analysis. See and respond to the photographs (or film, video, etc.) as statements of cultural drama, let these characterizations form a structure within which to place the remainder of your analysis.

3. Then engage in structured or more detailed analysis. Examine images with specific questions that draw your attention to details in the photographs and the circumstances they record. Measure , count, compare items, spatial relationships, behaviors as appropriate. The primary goal of structured analysis is to obtain details which may flesh out broader findings and provide a check on those insights. Inconsistencies, including statistical ones, should be seen as suggesting a return to a broader analysis for further exploration. Statistical information can be plotted on graphs, listed in tables, or entered into a computer for statistical analysis, keeping in mind that any such statistics are descriptive, not probative - the sampling process in photographic recording and analysis are unlikely to meet the standards of statistical proof.

4. Use photographs in interviews. We need not depend on our own eyes and minds alone, we can show photographs to others with knowledge and insight, including - perhaps most especially - people who are participants in the activities and circumstances seen in the photographs. This process, known as “photo elicitation,” is an essential application of visual research. When trying to “read” photographic images, this procedure expands the range of information obtained and represents a unique characteristic of photographs as compared to written forms of recording. It also provides important background and contextual material which enriches other types of analysis. Perhaps most important of all, it can serve to trigger the release of knowledge, experience, insight that extends far beyond the specific content of the image.

5. Be aware of the limits of “facts.” The true challenge is not the search for information, which photographs contain in over abundance, but rather it is the discovery of significance and meaning. It is easy to become seduced by the specificity, the details of photographic images, forgetting that - while these may be descriptively deep - they do not in themselves provide us with insight or real knowledge. Remember also that, while the details present in photographs are many, photographs always remain only partial records of the circumstances they may reflect.

6. Search for meaning and significance by returning to the complete visual record. Go through and respond again in an open manner so that details from structured analysis become located in a wider setting that defines their significance. Reestablish context, lay out the photographs, view images in entirety, then write your conclusions as influenced by this final exposure to the whole, drawing details both from the structured analysis and direct reference to the images as you write.