Monday, November 16, 2009

Using visual images in social research and consulting reports

Photographs: © Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum from the Guardian)

In my consulting and research work I spend a considerable amount of time writing reports on social issues and human and social needs, trying to find ways to capture and present the realities of people's lives as they are impacted on by public policy and by decisions taken (or not taken) by government agencies, the private sector and non-government organizations.

Policy makers and decision makers are more comfortable with the written word and the spoken word- in the form of written and verbal reports with some visual presentation of data- as the primary means of presenting and understanding this information. But the written report can rarely capture or describe the seriousness and urgency of issues or the depth and significance of social suffering that people experience.

At the moment I am giving thought to other ways to present the findings of the work I do. The use of visual images- particularly photographs- can potentially add much to the work of consultants, social scientists and researchers.

I am interested in the potential uses of photographs in social policy and social justice oriented consulting related work. In particular, the many possible uses of photographs- as a source of data, as a way to challenge ignorance and flawed assumptions, as a means to communicate lived human experience and meaning, as a way to document unmet social need or perverse policy outcomes, as a way to present project findings and as a pointer to public policy action.

An interesting example in the mainstream press is this series that appears in the Guardian's Photography and Family sections on the Hidden Face of Caring featuring a moving series of photos and interviews by photographer Chris Steele-Perkins of people caring for family members.

It's a good example of the way that the juxtaposition of images and texts can provide deeper insight into the the lived experience of people, and shed light on the interplay between social and human needs and public policy.

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