Evidence Outside the Frame: Interpreting Participants’ “Framing” of Information when Using Participatory Photography

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This paper discusses the benefits and challenges of participatory photography as ethnographic evidence and how as researchers we can “read” the evidence our participants create. Drawing on examples from an ethnographic study examining concepts and constructions of community on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, I examine how we can interrogate photographs as data rather than factual evidence. Adages such as “the camera doesn’t lie” support the view of photography as a purveyor of truth. Photos accompanying journalistic dispatches from far-flung outposts around the world are seen as authentic evidence of real-world situations. Amateur videos of people’s life experiences are filmed on smart phones and then posted to YouTube to be taken as authentic representations of life events. Early ethnographic uses celebrated photography as the ultimate tool for showing that anthropologists had actually “been there,” displaying the exoticism of other cultures in factual black and white. However, photography has never been a simple representation of the truth—it is not cameras that make photos but people, with all their personal quirks, cultural beliefs, and subjective experiences in tow. Photographs always provide at least two kinds of evidence—what is inside the frame and what is outside the frame. As researchers working with participatory photography, one of our roles is to determine the importance of what is outside the frame. We must ask whether this unseen evidence is as valid—or more so?—than what participants keep inside the frame. In the age of Snapchat, Instagram and other social media, researchers need to interrogate participant-created photography carefully and methodically. We must question how we interpret photographic evidence that has been manipulated by its creators and how that manipulation affects our interpretations of the evidence. Participant-created photographs add valuable depth and complexity to ethnographic research but we need to ask how participants may conceptualize their photographic creations and how context—culture, socioeconomic status, gender, location, etc—impacts the evidence participants create. And in turn, how those same contexts influence our interpretations of participatory photographic evidence.

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