The purpose of my research has been to identify our perceptions of the representations of age and aging circulating in Western media and popular culture (broadly defined). I have applied a qualitative arts-based visual methodological approach that is informed by critical gerontological theory (Minkler & Estes, 1998; Estes, 1999) and the political economy of aging (Estes, 2001; Phillipson, 2005), to address the goals of the research.

My research design is qualitative, employing two qualitative methods: semi-structured open-ended interviews and the visual (image-based) research/arts-based research (ABR) methodological approach of autodriven photo elicitation to explore my research questions. The research was conducted with a group of 5 younger adults (20-35 years of age) and 11 older adults (65-80 years of age). The data collected from the participants (interviews and participant photographs) was used to produce a website that focuses on the perceptions of aging and ageism circulating in Western media and popular culture within the framework of the research objectives. The participant photographs, images and audio clips from their interviews comprise a central component of the website.

To begin the process, I utilized the arts-based method of autodriven photo elicitation[1]/photovoice as the core of the interviews. Autodriven photo elicitation, which is also referred to as respondent or participant led photography (Shortt & Warren, 2012), is simply a method whereby participants create photographs that are then discussed in interviews[2] (Prosser, 2011). Photovoice, on the other hand, is similar to autodriven photo elicitation but explicitly emphasizes the notion of participant photography as a tool for social action in the creation of the images that are then discussed in interviews (Wang and Burris, 1997). The interviews were recorded and audio clips from the interviews accompany the photographs on each web page.

There are two different categories of image-based research: visual data that is found or created by the researcher, and visual material that is created or collected by the respondent (Spencer, 2011). Found visual materials for use as representational imagery can include images from magazine and TV advertising or on the internet, as well as archival material, postcards, graffiti, cartoons, newspaper photographs, etc. (Spencer, 2011). Based on this understanding, image-based research (visual methods) can therefore consist of a variety of visual art practices such as photography, film and video, painting, drawing, graphics, maps, cartoons, and digital media (Prosser, 1996, 2011). Viewed in this way, visual methods are very similar to ABR. This research used photography (photo elicitation/photo voice) and collage (a visual art technique of creating images from found visual materials).

[1] The term “auto-driving” was first used in marketing by Heisley and Levy (1991) to increase respondent involvement and to produce information about consumer behaviour. It was termed autodriving to indicate that “the interview was ‘driven’ by informants who were seeing their own behaviour” (Heisley & Levy, 1991, p. 261).

[2] In sociology, Marisol Clark-Ibanez (2007) first applied the term “auto-driving” to her use of photographs produced by the research participants in her research on inner-city children (Prosser, 2011, p. 484).


Arts-based research (ABR) and visual methods (image-based research)

Qualitative research has a long history in both sociology and anthropology, tracing its roots to the “Chicago School” in sociology in the 1920s and 1930s and the fieldwork methods of anthropologists, Boas, Mead, Bateson, Malinowski and others during the same timeframe (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998, p. 1). Although qualitative research has differing meanings depending on the discipline, Holstein and Gubrium (2005) define it as: “a situated activity that locates the observer in the world [and] involves an interpretive, naturalistic approach to the world” that makes use of a variety of empirical materials and interconnected methods (p. 3).

The approaches of arts-based research (ABR) and visual methods are quite similar and overlap in methodology, but the focus is on the “visual” in visual methods and does not include text-based stand-alone methods, while creative uses of expressive writing are accepted as an approach in ABR. In addition, although visual methods and ABR traverse various disciplines, the terms visual method or, image-based research have most often been applied to qualitative research in anthropology and sociology (Prosser, 1996, 2011; Harper; 1998; Knowles & Sweetman, 2004); whereas the term arts-based research (ABR) (Barone & Eisner, 2012) is a qualitative methodology more often found in education, psychology, curriculum studies and community-based research (Barone & Eisner, 2012).

Engaging in qualitative research using visual methods and ABR enables a way of seeing and thinking that provides another approach to knowledge which reveals layers of meaning inaccessible to language alone, thereby enabling a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves as researchers (Barone & Eisner, 2012). Adding to this point-of-view, Stephen Spencer (2011) argues that a visual approach to research “delivers a multisensory impact” which affects us in an immediate, yet intangible fashion before cognitive processing takes over (p. 32). He also points out that because of this, visual research allows for the creation of vibrant and embodied personal narratives that bring a sense of authenticity to the research (p. 32).

Elliott Eisner (1997) further suggests that the potential benefits of alternative forms of representation such as ABR shape experience and expand knowledge, fabricating “productive ambiguity” which increases the probability for multiple perspectives, and the variety of questions that can be asked about situations studied by researchers, thereby offering more methodological options for researchers (p. 7). Eisner (2008) emphasizes that while visual methods and ARB cannot provide the certainty generated by traditional approaches to scientific knowledge, they instead offer methods that provoke new questions and “raise awareness of complex subtleties that matter… In this sense, the products of this research are closer in function to deep conversation and insightful dialogue than error-free conclusions” (p. 7).

Analyzing the benefits of using visual methods more specifically, Weber (2008) lists ten reasons for the use of ABR: 1) Images help to provide a deeper awareness of the intangible aspects of research data that cannot be captured with words alone; 2) Art engages us in ways we had not previously considered; 3) Living in a visual and digital world, images not only transfer information, but may stay with our audience much longer than text alone; 4) “Images can be used to communicate more holistically”; 5) By their very nature, images being representations of another research perspective, therefore increase empathetic understanding of other viewpoints; 6) Visual images can easily convey metaphors and symbols; 7) Images support “the embodied nature of all knowledge”; 8) Images are more accessible to a wider audience outside academia, thus promoting knowledge transfer more easily; 9) Reflexivity and transparency can be enhanced through artistic expression in research; and 10) Images have the ability far more than words alone to inspire reaction and movement towards social justice (pp. 44-7).

While the roots of arts-based research (ABR) can be traced to analytical psychology and Carl Jung’s the Red Book, written between 1914-1920, but only published in 2009 (Corbett, 2009), ABR was adapted more widely in the practice of creative art therapy in psychology and psychiatry in the late 1970s – early 1980s (McNiff, 2008). In the late 1990s, Elliot Eisner examined the strengths and weakness of the emerging alternative forms of data representation in educational research, specifically the possibilities that arts-based research methods offered, looking beyond the propositional discourse of more traditional qualitative as well as quantitative research, (Eisner, 1997). He emphasized however, that the issues of representation were not limited to education scholars but were also of central interest to the social sciences, specifically anthropology, sociology and psychology.

In championing the possibilities of ABR in his 1997 Keynote Address at a Qualitative Conference in Education at the University of Georgia, Eisner suggested that the alternative forms of data representation provide: 1) An acknowledgement of the various ways that our experiences are coded; 2) An examination of the ways in which the transformation from the personal to the public can occur; 3) An exploration of the edges and reexamination of the meaning of research; and 4) A perception that these forms of data representation are impressive and subjective (p. 7).

Visual methods in qualitative social research, on the other hand, came out of a realist tradition that supported the theoretical approach of images as authentic documentation of actual people and situations (Knowles & Sweetman, 2004) with the use of photography initially serving as illustrations to supplement text-based data in anthropology and sociology (Stanczak, 2007). Although visual sociology as a sub-discipline did not formally exist until the 1960s, the use of visual images/photographs as “evidence” in the late 1890s – early 1900s can be interpreted as an early form of visual methods. Although connected to the same desire to document social inequality and affect positive societal change in the early part of the twentieth century, the context determined the manner in which images were used and disseminated.

However, the ways in which photographs were employed as a visual method were further broadened in the 1960s-70s when visual anthropology and visual sociology became established as academic sub-disciplines (Pink, 2001). Today, visual methods and ABR are increasingly being used in other disciplines, including education and curriculum studies, cultural studies, queer studies, cultural geography, psychology, and consumer research (Harper, 1998, p. 35).

Taking this historical perspective into account, Caroline Knowles and Paul Sweetman (2004) propose that there are three primary theoretical approaches to the use of visual images in social research: 1) using images as evidence or “representations of reality” as exemplified by early anthropological fieldwork and photo-journalism; 2) creating images as a method to assist in the construction of reality, both as a mechanism to expose and fight against social injustice and inequality, but paradoxically also as a tool to control individuals and groups; and 3) reading already existing images as texts, interpreting and analyzing their cultural and ideological messages (pp. 5-6). In addition, visual methods have since evolved into “ways of doing research that generate and employ visual material as an integral part of the research process” (Knowles & Sweetman, 2004).

Despite the vast potential of ABR, the science-art dualism granted science a status not afforded to art, which thereby positions art and aesthetics outside of the possibility of inclusion within scientific research, where even the idea of using art as a research approach was completely incongruous ⎯ “an oxymoronic idea” (Barone & Eisner, 2012:x; McNiff, 2013). Although the hierarchy of science over art continues to dominate research today, resistance has grown and a shift has been noted. The perspective of ABR as “deep conversation” finds parallels in the anthropological use of ‘thick description,’ (Geertz, 1973) which involves a multi-layered and contextual approach to ethnographic research. Although the initial use of the term thick description is found in the philosophical writings of Gilbert Ryle[1], Geertz expanded on Ryle’s application of the term to show that meaning is determined by the social context of a situation which researchers have constructed based on other people’s construction of an activity or event (p. 6-7).

It should be noted that ABR lacks a single unequivocal definition but can be seen to function as an umbrella term that covers a wide range of overlapping methodologies with blurred boundaries. To prevent confusion, in this research, ABR is interpreted as a qualitative method of inquiry that is informed by (or grounded in) the arts, but not necessarily about or focused on the arts (Barone & Eisner, 2012). It should also be noted that ABR stands apart from research in which art, although a part of the research, is primarily used as data, such as archival research that is utilized as illustration or representational imagery to support data in a report or research article.

[1] Although the term “thick description” is generally associated with Geertz, he credited Gilbert Rye with the original use of the term in his essay, Thick description: Toward and interpretative theory of culture (Geertz, 1973).

Autodriven photo elicitation and photovoice

Initially, visual elicitation was developed as a qualitative research method designed to stimulate discussion in research interviews by acting as an “ice breaker” through the use of visual materials such as photography, as well as drawings or diagrams (Prosser, 2011, p. 484). Although anthropology was among the first of the disciplines to utilize photography in research, photo elicitation (a type of visual elicitation), as a method has seen wider use in sociology over the last century (Harper, 2002, p. 15). Building on the ideas of Swartz (1992), who describes the complexity and range of perceptions generated by photographs, Pink further describes how the photo elicitation interview creates a ‘bridge’ between the experiences of the researcher and the participant (Pink, 2001, p. 69; Swartz, 1992). Because photographs enable respondents to explain aspects of their lives through a visual format, another layer of communication and understanding is added between the researcher and participant (Pink, 2001). In this way, the use of photo elicitation enhanced the research process as images were no longer there to merely support research but became “inseparable components to learning about our social worlds” (Stanczak, 2007, p. 3).

Experimenting with interviews that utilize participant created photographs, researchers discovered that when participants produce the images that are discussed in the interview, the interview process takes on a more collaborative tone, providing another “voice” for the participants. This method – autodriven photo elicitation – has been successfully applied by researchers across disciplines that include: sociology, anthropology, education and curriculum studies, psychology, and community-based research and has produced some insightful research (Prosser, 2011; Harper, 1998; Knowles & Sweetman, 2004; Barone & Eisner, 2012).

Although the process of autodriven photo elicitation is not without its challenges, it contains many benefits, and central to those benefits is the potential to expand the interview process and achieve a deeper level of understanding of participants’ experiences and relationships (Harper, 1998; Prosser & Schwartz, 1998), often ‘breaking the frame’ (Harper, 2002) of the researcher’s hypothesis. When control of the initial stage of the interview is shifted from interviewer to the participant, allowing the participant to ‘tell their story’ without interruption through their photos, a ‘bridge’ emerges between the experiences of the researcher and the participant (Pink, 2006), opening up a creative, personal space that generates a three-way conversation between the photographer, interviewer, participant. The photographs operate as a mediating force, a ‘third party’ in the conversation, whereby the gaze of the interviewer shifts from the participant to the photograph, and in the process the interview is transformed from an interviewer-subject relationship into a personal and collaborative experience between interviewer and participant (Pink 2006). In this context, photographs produced by participants have the potential to shed light on a topic or a research question that the researcher, for whatever reason, cannot see (Swartz, 1989, as cited in Stanczak, 2007, p. 171). Subsequently, as an exploratory method it opens-up possibilities for new discoveries and ideas that are born out of this deeper level of conversation between researcher and participants.

Photovoice, (which can include participatory video, video diaries, photo-narrative, and photo-novella, in addition to photography), while similar to autodriven photo elicitation, has an objective of engaging participants in social issues and attempts to empower individuals, groups and/or communities and, in the process, inspire social action (Weber, 2008). Photovoice adds a political dimension that is linked to community-based research (CBR) and participatory research (PR) (Prosser, 2011, p. 479). Within this context Wang and Burris (1997) describe three primary goals of photovoice: 1) to provide the means (cameras and/or additional video equipment) to individuals and groups so that they can document and record the problems facing their communities; 2) to use photographic images created by community members to stimulate critical thinking and dialogue about important community issues within group discussions; and 3) to bring about change in the community by affecting government policy (p. 370).

Although the methods of autodriven photo elicitation and photovoice are not without their challenges, they contain many benefits, and central to those benefits is the way that interviewing with photographs potentially opens the interview process and achieves a deeper level of understanding of participants’ experiences and relationships. Photovoice also has the additional benefit of helping to generate individual and community action and change.