"The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book." - Fathers and Sons by Ivan S. Turgenev, 1862.
As textual as humans have become, it's hard to deny the power pictures have to convey and enhance meaning. 20th century researchers recognised how images can be a tool for understanding, but the study of work and organisations has been slower to get in on the act. A paper from the University of Tennessee explores the possibilities of organisational research using one type of image, the photograph, and considers how to help our shots hit the target.
Authors Joshua Ray and Anne Smith outline the core benefits of photos, rich representations that offer others a 'glimpse of reality' captured mechanically in a way that bypasses memory recall bias and other forms of distortion. Photos can present the same environment at different times, allowing contrast that reveals subtle changes that might not otherwise be apparent. And the fun, familiar act of taking a photograph is something that members of the organisation can do themselves placing them 'into the research limelight'. Such participant-led research generally requires clear direction as to what constitutes a good use of their shots, and will mean they are generally absent from their own photos; however, it does broaden the voices heard in the research, offering a true organisational eye. Other options include the researcher taking all photos - offering more control at the expense of losing the insider perspective - or a hybrid approach, such as teaming the researcher with organisational members who can act as spotters, pointing out key environmental features.
The act of taking the photographs needn't be the end of the research process. Ray and Smith recount how the research philosophy has migrated to photo elicitation, where the photo acts as an object for discussion for organisational members. The text from these interviews or focus groups can be analysed using established methods such as content analysis. When using photo elicitation it is better that members themselves select the photos to discuss rather than providing them with the 'most important' images as determined by the researcher.
Other approaches directly analyse aspects of the photo, such as layout, the elements included in the image, or broader themes across images. Ray and Smith describe work by a team led by Alan Felstead of Cardiff University, who analysed photos of home offices and found they corroborated a pre-existing model of types of home office, but also demanded it be refined to account for photos that defied the existing typology. Hybrid approaches also exist that meld text and image into a 'visual script', all fair game for analysis.
Photography raises unique ethical issues. It is intrusive and more difficult to anonymise; consent issues abound, such as accidentally catching people in shot; visible branding and logos may require certain permissions. Researchers need also be aware that some may be sceptical of camera-led research, which may need to be justified to avoid harming its face validity with stakeholders. Nevertheless, photographic research could shed light on issues as various as whether managers and leadership are in sync with what features of the work world are strategic priorities, or how organisational members frame their identity. The authors conclude that 'the time is ripe for researchers to consider the use of photographs in organizational research'.