Auto-photography usually entails the following steps: first, a researcher gives cameras to research subjects and asks them to photograph particular places and people that are relevant to the topic of the research project. (In some cases, cameras may be distributed with no prior information about the research given, however.) These instructions may be prefaced by an initial interview or other participatory research activities. For example, a geographer interested in children’s experiences of urban parks would give youngsters disposable cameras to take to the park for an afternoon. The researcher may already have been observing children at play in parks, or perhaps the researcher interviewed children about their idealized play space. The researcher may or may not give detailed instructions to the children about taking photos; perhaps he/she just tells the children to photograph what they feel is important about their play space. After the children take their photos, the researcher would then develop the film to see what sorts of environments, places, objects, and perspectives the children captured. These photos would be considered to be data for the research, as would any follow up interview or conversation with the children discussing why they took the particular photographs they did, the meanings the places had for the children, and their ideas about these places or even alternative imaginary play spaces. The analysis of photos and interview or narrative data then takes a variety of forms, from counting and comparing themes to treating each photo as a lesson on what objects, places, and people represent something significant for the subject.
Auto-photography is an ethnographic field research method that attempts to ‘see the world through someone else’s eyes’. Of course, seeing from another person’s position is a fraught process, since gaining the true perspective of someone else is impossible. Auto-photography, however, provides a tool in qualitative and ethnographic research projects that moves a step toward understanding what qualities of environments and places are important for research subjects in their daily lives. Human geographers have begun to use this tool more and more as photographic technology has become affordable and easier to use. Of course, because auto-photography relies on the technology of camera and film development, the history of its use is relatively recent. In geography, the practice of auto-photography is closely tied to the development of the inexpensive disposable camera, a one time use camera that operates with film and became more popular and affordable in the 1990s. The cost of disposable cameras allows scholars with research funds to gather visual data somewhat easily, although for new scholars and those without substantial funding, auto-photography may be prohibitively costly, especially when combined with film development. Perhaps the popularity of digital photography will widen the use of auto-photography, given the many numbers of photos that can be taken with digital cameras, even onetime use digital cameras. Self made videos will also become more popular with researchers as the cost of equipment continues to fall.
In human geography, auto-photography has largely been used by scholars studying children’s geographies throughout the world. The technology is easy to use and allows a self representation from subject groups – children and youth – who might otherwise find highly articulate and reflexive verbal explanations more difficult or intimidating in a research situation. Children might also be drawn to the ‘hands on’ aspect of taking photographs. The use of auto-photography is not restricted to work on children and youth, however. Scholars are also using auto-photography to study identity, time–space geographies, and human–environment interactions. Participatory methodologies also often utilize auto-photography methods since they seek to actively engage research participants in the production of knowledge.