In this blog post I argue for the greater use of visual methodologies within educational research, particularly with minority groups such as LGBT+. At the BERA Gender and Sexuality 2023 event, I presented the methodology used in my doctoral thesis (Brett, 2021; 2022) researching the experiences of LGBT+ secondary school teachers.
Visual methods are an effective way to access underrepresented and marginalised groups in education. These methods allow us to see through the eyes of participants, access spaces that are usually inaccessible, and evoke meaning and feelings that traditional research methods are often unable to. Schools are often experienced as heteronormative and unsafe spaces for LGBT+ people, where cisgendered heterosexuality is silently privileged and assumed, positioning LGBT+ people as a source of tension who threaten to reveal these norms. Due to the fleeting sensations of discomfort that these experiences can cause, visual methodologies provide a powerful way to reveal and explore in-the-moment feelings and emotions.
‘Visual methodologies provide a powerful way to reveal and explore in-the-moment feelings and emotions.’
Collier and Collier (1986) are regularly cited as some of the earliest adopters of photo elicitation, describing the method as an interview in which the informants and the interviewer discuss the photographs together. This not only allows participants to articulate the reasons why they took their photographs; it also provides a springboard from which to explore issues in greater depth.
In my research, participants were asked to take photos within their schools that represented the spaces in which they felt most and least safe. The significance of these photos was then discussed in one-to-one interviews, which produced a number of important themes and ideas. One of the key themes was the myriad ways in which schools are produced as heteronormative spaces, and the constant navigation and negotiation of visibility this causes for LGBT+ teachers.
Collecting the data for the research was a fascinating and humbling experience. Having the opportunity to sit with LGBT+ teachers who were so generous in sharing their time and personal experiences helped me to understand the importance of this research. After the interviews, many participants commented how much they had enjoyed discussing their experiences and how validating they had found the opportunity. To be able to facilitate that was, as Nelson (2020) describes, a real privilege:
‘This euphoria of connection, of being in on a “secret”, of understanding someone’s troubles, and of – in many ways – being invited to help someone feel at ease with their identities was a privilege of this research’ (Nelson, 2020, p. 7).
Although the experiences and themes varied significantly, what became clear was how empowering it was for each LGBT+ teacher to be able to discuss and take ownership of their identity. The subtext to the emancipatory feelings that the participants described was the fact that many schools remain heavily heteronormative spaces and LGBT+ teachers often do not get to put a voice to their identity. The level of detail and insight each teacher was able to provide demonstrated the considerable time they had spent internalising and intellectualising the challenges and opportunities that presented them as an LGBT+ teacher. The photo elicitation method also allowed participants to develop their critical awareness as they analysed the systems and structures in school that aimed to include or exclude them.
Photo elicitation is an underused method in researching issues of gender and sexuality within schools (Allen, 2011), but as I hope this blog post has shown, its power can be enormous. As Harper (2002) argues, in using photo elicitation, different layers of understanding are gained that help us connect ‘core definitions of the self’ to society, culture and history. Visual images evoke deeper parts of human consciousness than words alone can, providing rich and vital insights into the worlds of groups who are often underrepresented or invisible.
The findings from this research surprised not only me as the researcher but also some of the teachers themselves. Many of the participants only came to understand the significance of the photos they had taken once they began articulating what they represented – in this moment, the value and power of visual methodologies became stunningly clear.
Allen, L. (2011). ‘Picture this’: Using photo-methods in research on sexualities and schooling. Qualitative Research, 11(5), 487–504. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794111413224
Brett, A. (2022). Under the spotlight: Exploring the challenges and opportunities of being a visible LGBT+ teacher. Sex Education, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681811.2022.2143344
Brett, A. (2021). Changing the narrative: A photo elicitation study of LGBT secondary school teachers in England. (Doctoral thesis, Nottingham University). https://www.proquest.com/openview/c446d6c2b390810bff540cc8184aa131/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=2026366&diss=y
Collier, J., & Collier, M. (1986). Visual anthropology: Photography as a research method. University of New Mexico Press.
Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/14725860220137345
Nelson, R. (2020). Questioning identities/shifting identities: The impact of researching sex and gender on a researcher’s LGBT+ identity. Qualitative Research, 20(6). https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794120914522