Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Photo-elicitation in Prison: Visual Methods and Visual Culture



Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Luigi Gariglio, Lecturer in Visual Studies and Sociology of Communication at the University of Turin and academic visitor at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. This post is the fifth and final instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Visual Methodologies.

This week, Border Criminologies is running a series of posts on visual methods. Here, I reflect on the importance of bridging the gap between visual methods and visual culture in ethnographic research on the carceral state. In so doing, I discuss several ways in which visual methods help unpack the complexity of the social lives and struggles within custodial facilities focusing, in particular, on photo-elicitation.

The wall of the hospital from inside at night. (Image: Luigi Gariglio © 2014)
Images are increasingly present in our daily lives and for a growing number researchers, have become an integral part of the research process. Some scholars of visual culture, however, have critiqued visual methodologies due to a perceived failure among researchers to adequately account for the complex and mutually constitutive relationships between the visual and the social. The aim, in my understanding, for both those interested in visual methods and visual culture, is to study the social world―institutions, interactions, power struggles, gender, race, sexualities, etc.―and not ‘only’ the visual.
Visuality is a key concept that incorporates some Foucauldian ideas of vision, panopticism, normalization, and the gaze. Vision is always socially constructed; it isn’t neutral and is always embedded in power relations. In other words, there’s neither such a thing as an ‘innocent eye,’ to use Cohen’s term, nor a neutral visual technology. In an effort to unpack the multi-layered dimensions of visuality, paraphrasing Foster, we can think of three questions: How do we see? How are we able, allowed, or made to see? How do we see this seeing and the unseeing therein?
Visual research is embedded in broader hegemonic discourses and power’s struggles. Researchers can produce ethnographic images, but what’s not shown is important, particularly as such images may be constructed as ‘truth.’ For example, an image of a certain prison wing in an academic book may be perceived as a ‘real’ representation that shows us what that prison really looks like because of the authority of academia or ethnography, as a ‘regime of truth.’ However, that particular image is the outcome of both a network of power struggles in which the researcher is imbued and one’s personal (political) choices. The point here is that such complexities are invisible in the image. The image appears to simply show us what’s in front of it.
Visual methods are a good way to produce counter-hegemonic research―even as visual methods alone don’t necessarily do so―allowing researchers to ‘write’ visual ethnography differently. By combining ethnographic image-making and text, taking the photo documentary tradition and the new post-photojournalism field seriously, researchers demonstrate that images aren’t ancillary illustrations. They’re a key part of making sense of the field and, at the same time, constituting it.
Nonetheless, a crucial ethical question remains. What right have I to represent you? This simple demand unmasks the uneven power relations always embedded in the photographic encounter between a photographer and a subject―an asymmetrical relationship that’s otherwise ‘invisible’ in the picture. For obvious reasons, this issue is especially troubling inside a custodial institution where it may be necessary―yet problematic―to ‘picture atrocity.’
Visual methods can assist researchers in developing new or different kinds of knowledge. I found, for example, that using photo-elicitation to stimulate different narratives among participants in custodial settings is crucial for researchers using visual methods. Any kind of image can be used for this purpose: existing images, ethnographic images produced by the researcher during fieldwork, or images produced by the participants. It all depends on what we’re allowed to do, what we want to study, and the practical constraints in which the fieldwork is embedded. At the same time, however, using visual methods doesn’t necessarily  produce a more participatory research project.
Image 1: the first image used in the photo-elicitation interviews with staff and prisoners. This photo is of the signs indicating the prison and the special hospital (which are housed in the same building). (Image: Luigi Gariglio © 2014)
Visual researchers are often accused of using images instrumentally in a quasi-positivistic way so as to elicit narrations limited by what’s ‘in the frame’ and not regarding issues of representation, the gaze, invisibility, and so forth. I strongly resist this critique. Participants are often well placed to think deeply and complexly about images integrated in the research process. To develop this point, I now turn to my own ethnographic research on prison officer use of force in an Italian custodial complex. During the ethnographic photo-elicitation I conducted there, I realized the potential of photo-elicitation to study invisibility, visuality, and power struggles. Take, for example, the responses that one particular image (image 1) drew. The image depicts two road signs indicating the prison (Casa Circondariale) and the forensic psychiatric hospital (Ospedale Psichiatico Giudiziario) just one hundred metres from the facility. During the photo-elicitations, interviewees responded differently to the photo, often spontaneously introducing several layers of interpretation.  In some instances I prompted them to reflect on a particular aspect of the image.
Many compared the two institutions (prison and hospital) indicated by the road sign. Others interpreted the image simply as their route to their work place, leading some to reminisce about their first day on duty. Still others discussed the symbolical meaning of the photograph, referring to them as the ‘dark and dirty prison,’ and in so doing, interpreting the perceived intent of the image. Finally, a number questioned the politics of the image and  the physical signs themselves, challenging the politics embedded in those ‘transparent’ indications. For example, one prison officer looked at this image and started to laugh. I didn’t understand why he was laughing. Suddenly he said ‘ah ah, a hospital?’ while indicating the blue background and the red cross of the road sign―depicted in the photograph―typically used for a ‘normal’ hospital. Then he continued: ‘I don’t know why they have to mask the reality… You know it well now. After all these months… is it a hospital for you?’ I didn’t answer. ‘It’s a prison!’ he replied, and finished talking. Another interviewee, a doctor looked at the same image and told me that he felt ashamed any time that he thought of the sign. He also told me that he knew I presented that image precisely for that reason. Another prison officer, working in the forensic psychiatric hospital, remarked: ‘that sign is bullshit! Who sends them here? A doctor? Or a judge? They are criminal; patients, but first of all criminal.’ All of the prisoners I spoke with were dismissive of the image, saying this facility is anything but a hospital, and that the authorities want to portray it as a hospital. Not everyone can come to see it, they reasoned; unfortunately, among those working or living on the wing, it’s the prisoners themselves who’ve introduced the idea of harm and violated rights in the context of the hospital setting.
As this one example suggests, visual methods don’t solely elicit positivistic descriptions of what’s in the frame. On the contrary, methods like photo-elicitation can help the researcher to unpack the complexity of the field, eliciting emotions, memories, perceptions, and opinions. Interviewees may reflect on what’s in frame, what they didn’t expect to see but is there, and about what they expected to find in the image but didn’t. Together, visual methods and visual culture can contribute both to the visuality and the invisibility, and the power struggles that inhere in these violent institutions.
Read more about Luigi’s use of photo-elicitation here on the Criminology at Oxford blog.
Themed Week on Visual Methodologies:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Gariglio, L. (2015) Photo-elicitation in Prison: Visual Methods and Visual Culture. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/photo-elicitation-in-prison/ (Accessed [date]).

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