What should we do with all these images?
So much of consumer-based qualitative research these days is about visual imagery. The researcher may take their own photos or collect documents, packs and products during the fieldwork. For many projects we ask participants to upload photos, collages and videos.
The question is: what do you do with it all? You could just count them I guess, but that misses the whole point of qualitative research, which is about exploring and learning about some one else's life.
What I do is:
1. Classify it first. Imagery is contextual, so it is important that I don't lose the context when analysing. As a simple example, if a photo was taken before some one started to prepare a meal then tag it as that, using whatever multiple tags you need. This will be useful when you want to see what story the imagery is telling you.
2. Then I create a written description of what I can see as if I was explaining it to someone else, like: 'The photo is of a opened fridge. There are cans and bottles of soft drink - the brands are ...', assuming soft drink is what you are interested in. I don't need to go into the components of the image at this stage, if at all. My focus is really only: who or what is in the picture?
3. What is happening here? I ask myself how these things or people are connected? Is someone touching a product? Are some products shown together and others apart? What is the most salient feature - usually the biggest or the brightest in colour? Is anything hidden or hard to see? What surprises me about what is here? I am revealing the narrative of the image by doing this.
4. Why this picture? Fourth, I ask what choices the person most likely made when they took the photo or chose that image. What does that photo or image say about the person who has presented it to me? I need the person's explanation of their photo or image to do this. It's not my job to guess.
5. Then I put the pictures together into groups or sequences or whatever relates to the project. I am looking for similarities and differences now.
6. Discard. At this point, some pictures can be discarded because they are low quality or exact duplicates. In itself, having more than one copy of an image is meaningless in the context of qualitative research - an image might have been chosen more often just because it is more accessible - the front page of that morning's newspaper for example. When it gets interesting is when I see different versions of the same metaphor. For example, when providing images about the sharemarket, many people found or drew examples of rollercoasters. That was interesting because they were all different.
7. When analysing photos that people have taken, or images they have found on the Internet, that is about as far as I can go. However, when analysing advertising imagery, packaging or logos, as we do in semiotics, there is considerably more to it. I look at the type of shapes used, the general composition of the image; what colours are used and how saturated they are. I identify any visual metaphors that have been used and how coherent it is.
8. Above all - comparison is essential. It helps me see.