Purposes of Auto-Photography

Photographs derived from the auto-photographic field method contribute to ethnographic research in numerous ways. First, because photos are seen, they are considered visual data. In geography the visual has always been an important dimension of scholarship and the production of knowledge, for example, through cartography and landscape analysis. Photographs taken by research subjects consist of a radically different genre of visual data than maps or landscapes, however. Probably the most important aspect of auto-photographs as visual data is how the photographer participant oriented him or herself to the spatial context that they photographed. While the visuals images contain symbols, that is, images that can be interpreted, there are many different theoretical trajectories for how interpretation proceeds (from semiotics to psychoanalysis). The researcher would analyze the visual data of the photos by considering how social, economic, and political aspects helped to frame a scene's production. These processes are also central to how we look at photos, and how researchers are able to incorporate visual data like photographs. The objects, spaces, or people in the pictures must also be considered for how the photographer perceived them. For example, a photograph of a doorway with '300' above appears to be a poorly snapped picture, even complete with finger covering part of the lens. Placed in context of a research project about the social and spatial segregation of different youth groups at a high school in California, the building number takes a different meaning: the teenage girl who took this picture did so to show a particular 'territory' of one ethnic group at the school. Thus, this visual data shows the particular investment this girl has of ethnic social difference and a 'place' in the 300 building for her social–peer group at her high school. In another example, a photograph of a police car outside of the high school could be placed within a geography of police and adult power, the political and economic aspects of policing urban public schools, and the gendered relationships between the police officers at the school (who are men) and the young woman who photographed the car. This visual data, along with her other photographs, helps a researcher understand the specific social–racial geographies of youth at the school. The police car is a visual symbol to be interpreted by the researcher.

Photos are the production of the research subject and reflect her or his intent or position when snapping the picture. Thus researchers can glean different social motivations by considering why certain scenes were captured when they were; each photo is a lesson about the subject who took that particular picture. When a person takes a picture knowing that it is for a research project, they have made a decision to represent themselves through the visual scene they frame in the camera. However, this should not be overstated, since many times people take for granted social situations, relationships, and spaces, so their decisions about photos may not be as conscious or as intended as the previous sentence implies. To continue the example above, the high school auto-photography project was framed by initial interviews about social, racial–ethnic, and peer 'cliques' at school, so the research participant photographers were influenced by these conversations with the researcher. The photos they took included a documentary style framework to 'show' to the researcher the places they had discussed. The pictures, in other words, were considered as proof to illustrate what the girls had already indicated in the initial interview, when the camera was handed out. The photo of the schoolyard, for example, is notated with regions for each social group that one girl had described in the interview. Her intent was to show to the researcher, visually, what had only been described verbally at first. She might not have had the obvious intent of giving further evidence for how segregated cliques at school are by ethnicity and income, though. The 'preps' were typified in interviews with girls as having nicer clothes and cars. While the photo showed the school's territories, the photographer had said nothing directly about income and class differences at school. The photo helps the researcher to think about the social processes of economic disparity for peer groupings and segregation at this school, however.

Thus, the process of the photography project elicits different conversations and interactions between researcher and researched than would have occurred with no auto-photography. For example, the researcher may sit with the research participant with the photos spread before them. Talking about each photo will bring new information and knowledge to their research relationship than might have been the case with no visual products. This is known as photo elicitation. This process might even highlight contradictions between what the participant might have said before the auto-photography method was used, and what they photographed or said afterwards. Auto-photography can help the researcher to understand how social identities and practices are always changing and unstable. Photo elicitation also indicates that what is spoken verbally is just as important as the visual data produced in the form of the photographs. It is rare to find auto-photography in geography or other social sciences without interviews, participant observation, or other research methods combined with it. For example, one photo  from the high school project shows a blurred shot of a backpack in the foreground on the left, and some kids standing under a tree, to the right. This photo was taken by a girl secretly, as she walked by these boys; her friend's backpack served to hide the camera as she took the picture. She discussed the photo with the researcher in order to talk about these men as dangerous 'thugs'. An important point is that these boys are a different ethnicity than her, and she talked about the danger of these boys in tandem with the fact that they are Latino (the girl is white). The photo then served to open up a discussion about gangs at school, and it indicated to the researcher the racism that some white youth at the school have for Latinos. while very few youth would openly admit to racist sentiments, the photographs of the youth indicated that some white girls at the school were afraid of Latino boys, even though none had been harmed by the boys in any way. They represented the boys in their photos and in the follow up interviews about the boys, as dangerous gangsters that should be avoided, and who should be photographed stealthily. If the researcher had just looked at this photo with no follow up interview, it may never have become clear that the backpack served as camouflage because the girl photographer considered the subjects of her photo to be dangerous. It might just look like a badly taken picture!

Photographs taken through the auto-photography method can therefore illuminate contradictions between what people say and what they represent visually.While a girl could say she is not racist, perhaps her photographs indicate that she is overwhelmingly concerned with racialized others at school. This is a contradiction that the researcher can then interpret. Photos can also indicate the desires of participants that they might not articulate in interviews. An image shows a group of 'rockers' at the high school in California. The teenage girl who took this photo explained that 'rockers' (which another girl referred to as 'punks', seen in the schoolyard photo) were able to integrate racially more easily, because they shared an identity around music, rather than race or ethnicity. This may or may not be true in actuality. What is important, instead, is that the girl expressed a longing for racial integration in her discussion of the photograph. She was not herself a 'rocker' and did not belong to this group of kids, but she took a photo of them to express an approval of their supposed racial–ethnic integration.

Finally, the content of photos cannot be taken for granted by geographic researchers. In other words, the two dimensionality of the photograph must be interrogated for meaning that is not so flat and for the spatial dynamics that help to construct the image's context as well as the perspective of the photographer. The social identities of the photographer are just as important as the objects or images that the photos indicate. This point means that any photograph is not merely a neutral reflection of what is captured in the frame of the picture. Taking a photo of a police car might be an easy mark of youth resistance to adult authority, but the race, age, gender, ethnicity, and life experience of the photographer can indicate an ambivalent attachment to the authority, violence, and power that the police represent in American society.

There are as many ways to interpret a photograph as there are researchers using auto-photography. However, there are general approaches that researchers use to code and analyze auto-photographs and their contents. The first is to gather the photos into different themes, to code these themes, and then to count how many themes come up across all the photos. For example, perhaps a researcher studying a high school's social spaces would code photos for images of peer groups, particular buildings on campus, local neighborhood streets, friends, family members, and adult authority figures. If there were 100 photos from the high school project, and 75 showed images of graffiti around the school, then this overwhelmingly would indicate that the students were concerned about gangs at schoo. It might also indicate that the researcher asked every student about gangs in the neighborhood around campus, and that participants wanted to respond to this issue by proving the gangs' existence. Counting and comparing themes or general types of landscape photographs still require an analysis of why those particular groupings occurred.

It is never enough just to indicate the numbers of themes that arose without also interpreting the processes that lead to these groupings. The auto-photographer communicates something specific by taking pictures, but the production of a photograph results from the complicated spaces of social life. It is the geographer's job to consider not only the content of the photographs, but how the research relationship put the photograph into production in the first place, how the complex spatiality of the image was produced over time, how the research participant's subjectivity and identities influenced what they decided to photograph, and importantly, how to represent the auto-photographs in any research product that results from the project.