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Ethical Considerations in Visual Research

This post is the last in a series by the Congregational Studies Visual Methods Fellow, Roman R. Williams, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Calvin College. He is an expert in visual research methodology, and his current research looks at ways in which local congregations can use visual research methods to better understand congregational dynamics. See his previous posts on Congregational Snapshots: Understanding and Engaging Congregations through Cell Phone Photographs, and Bringing Programs into Focus: Photo Elicitation as a Tool for Program Evaluation.

Last year the school my children attend was in the midst of a capital campaign, which included high quality brochures and a promotional video. The school brought families and donors together for an event with school officials, a speech by a supportive parent, and an unveiling of the plan for the new middle school. The promotional video was shown during the event: it used footage from the current school—imagine middle-school children in classrooms, assemblies, playing sports—to tug on heart strings (and wallets) and presented the plan for the new school.

During the screening, I observed parents smiling at each other and their friends as they recognized their child on the auditorium screen. To my surprise and dismay, my daughter’s face appeared. While it was a flattering picture of her engaged in an academic activity, I was frustrated. You see, we signed a form at the beginning of the school year that explicitly instructed the school not to use images of our children in promotional materials. The next day I went to the school office and requested a copy of the form, thinking that we had perhaps inadvertently checked the wrong box. It turned out that the paperwork was in order and that the school had overlooked this detail. In the end, the school apologized and edited my daughter out of the video. Even though everything worked out, I lost a bit of my trust in the school that evening. Photos and images carry emotional power, and that needs to be carefully considered before beginning a visual research project.

Like this situation with my daughter’s image, visual research requires trust, respect, and mutual agreement. Questions of research ethics must be taken seriously in any sort of research, but these issues differ slightly with image-based research. Other important considerations include issues of confidentiality and consent of interviewee/photographers, the rights of those depicted in an image, and image ownership and copyright. These concerns have been taken up by others (e.g., Mitchell 2011, and Wiles et al. 2011) and are best treated within their specific cultural and moral contexts (Clark 2012). Guidelines specifically related to visual research ethics are freely available on the International Visual Sociology Association website.

In what follows, I highlight three areas of privacy and confidentiality that are particularly relevant to studying and engaging congregations visually. First, it must be recognized that when using visual techniques to engage congregations, one is practicing a form of research intended to allow the voices of participants to be expressed through words and images. Simply put, images and stories behind them are meant for public consumption; participants and their congregations must be comfortable with photographs being part of semi-private and/or public conversations. But this conversation needs to be explicit – participants need to know from the start how these images and other commentary will be used.

Second, because participants will make photographs for the benefit of a close-knit religious community, many members—if not most or all members—will be aware of who is participating and will probably be able to guess who created certain photographs. It will be difficult to guarantee privacy or confidentiality to participating congregations, participant-photographers, and individuals whose identity may be discernible to community insiders on the basis of what is present in a photograph. Even though anonymity and confidentiality may be difficult to guarantee in these settings, this does not mean that participants should be vulnerable. It is the ethical obligation of a researcher to discuss privacy issues with the congregation and address any concerns in a way that is agreeable to the participants before research begins. Participants must have the ability to refuse to participate in the study without reprisal if they are uncomfortable with the use of their photographs or commentary.

Third, protecting the identities of people directly (a photographer) or indirectly (a subject of a photograph) involved in the project needs to be addressed differently depending on the audience of the research, including internal audiences (e.g., the congregation, partner organization, or immediate community/neighborhood) and external audiences (e.g., academic audiences, general public). Individuals recruited for studies that employ visual techniques should be apprised of these dynamics during informed consent (see Research Ethics above), be given the opportunity to voluntarily participate (or not), and have the right to determine how their photographs are ultimately used.

My overview of visual research ethics is far from comprehensive. I trust, however, that it raises a few important questions and orients researchers toward some of the main concerns surrounding visual research ethics. The following resources are recommended reading for anyone conducting visual research.

Clark, Andrew. 2012. “Visual Ethics in a Contemporary Landscape.” Pp. 17-36 in Advances in Visual Methodologies edited by Sarah Pink. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Jacobs, Janet. 2015. “Visual Ethics, Feminist Ethnography, and the Study of Holocaust Memorialization.” Pp. 157-173 in Seeing Religion: Toward a Visual Sociology of Religion edited by Roman R. Williams. New York and London: Routledge.

Mitchell, Claudia. 2011. “On a Pedagogy of Ethics in Visual Research: Who’s in the Picture.” Pp. 15-32 in Dong Visual Research by Claudia Mitchell. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Papademas, Diana and the International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA). 2009. “IVSA Code of Research Ethics and Guidelines.” Visual Studies 23(3):250-257. Available here.

Pauwles, Luc. 2008. “Taking and Using: Ethical Issues of Photographs for Research Purposes.” Visual Communication Quarterly 15:243-257.

Powers, Meredith, Darcy Freedman, and Ronald Pinter. 2012. From Snapshot to Civic Action. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, College of Social Work. Available here.

Pink, Sarah. 2013. “Planning and Practising Visual Ethnography.” Pp. 49-69 in Doing Visual Ethnography by Sarah Pink. . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Rowe, Jeremy. 2011. “Legal Issues of Using Images in Research.” Pp. 707-722 in The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, edited by Eric Margolis and Luc Pauwels. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Wang, Caroline and Yanique A. Redwood-Jones. 2001. “Photovoice Ethics: Perspectives from Flint Photovoice.” Health Education and Behavior 28(5):560-572.

Wiles, Rose, Andrew Clark, and John Prosser. 2011. “Visual Research Ethics at the Crossroads.” Pp. 685-706 in The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, edited by Eric Margolis and Luc Pauwels. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Roman Williams
About the Author
Dr. Roman Williams is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Calvin College. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology at Boston University. He was the 2014-2015 Congregational Studies Visual Methods Fellow.