Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Ground They Walk On: Photography and Narrative Inquiry

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Ground They Walk On: Photography and Narrative Inquiry

Article excerpt


In my opinion, no one can claim to have truly seen something until he has photographed it. (Emile Zola as quoted in Sontag, 1980, p. 86)

For most of my life I could not have understood Zola's observation. I am afraid I have been guilty of walking past beautiful settings and thinking, "If only I had my camera I could capture this." Once I began to understand how complex capturing an image is, I realized how photography could change my vision of the world around me. The idea for this project came from my son, Lucas, who was a student in an art college at the time. Although he was majoring in film, he had begun taking photographs with a 35 millimeter camera. "I want to be able to use your camera," I told him, and he began helping me learn. From my tutorial sessions with him my interest in taking photographs continued to grow. Lucas was a good teacher and always patient, although I was slow to learn to "adjust the aperture" and "pay attention to the light." It was good advice for anyone, but away from him, when I had to do it on my own, I found the camera a tool I would battle, but I still wondered about the value of photography as a tool to help me to see myself in new ways that could be markedly different from texts and conversations.

In the beginning, I started this project to learn how to use the camera more proficiently. I wanted to overcome my initial anxieties of incompetency, and I thought I could do just that by connecting my newfound interest in photography to something about which I felt quite confident: my students, school leaders, who are such an important part of my life and professional focus. At first, I had trouble taking a good photograph. An intense sense of panic would set in each time I was about to take a picture. What if I could not remember anything Lucas had taught me? Intuitively, I knew that putting the camera on an "automatic" setting felt like cheating, or even failure, so I persisted, knowing that I would have to become comfortable trusting my eye and believing in my ability to succeed, not unlike the message that I teach the very same students whom I had started to photograph.

As my photographic interest and ability developed, so did a curiosity about how I might use photographs to learn about the social world. At about the same time Lucas also shared with me the work of Jim Goldberg (1985, 1995, 2007) who was a professor at the school he attended. Goldberg takes pictures of people and asks his subjects to add text to the photographs. These comments, which are superimposed on the photographs, are the subject's own written reflections about their lives. Because Lucas spoke constantly about Goldberg's work and its profound influence on him, I, too, became highly engaged and excited about the idea and its implications for me and my newfound interest in how photography captures the social construction of whatever the photographer seeks to preserve in an image. Furthermore, when Lucas would come home from college, he and I would have lengthy conversations together about Goldberg's work. "This is social science research," I would say. "No! This is art," he would reply, and so it would go.

Despite our different interpretations of Goldberg's (1985, 1995, 2007) work, this exposure had a profound and inspirational impact on me. It was at this time in my impromptu study of photography that I came to understand that photographs could serve as a valuable, interpretive text. That realization gave me a new kind of purpose when taking photographs. By taking the time to reflect on the pictures I took, I could explore and study them as photographic texts and learn: (a) how I as the photographer compose and understand these texts; (b) how the subjects of my photographs help me to compose their portraits and how they interpreted their portraits as visual texts; (c) how these photographic texts may shape my subjects' understanding of themselves as educational leaders; and (d) how the combination of the photographs and written texts may contribute to the general public's understanding of educators' lives and work. …

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