Photo elicitation

Photo elicitation is an interviewing technique in research or evaluation projects. It is a technique in which researchers/evaluators present photographs that they feel could represent the activities in which research subjects had been engaged during a project. In an evaluation context, a group of people who took part in the program being evaluated could be asked to consider the ways in which the photographs reflect their experiences of the project. Photographs are used as discussion starters. They are normally taken during the project, but sometimes may come from elsewhere – they could include postcards, for example.

Why use photo elicitation?

As a technique for evaluation,photo elicitation prompts participants to explore their experiences in a project. It can ‘challenge participants, provide nuances, trigger memories, lead to new perspectives and explanations, and help to avoid researcher misinterpretation’ (Hurworth, 2003). In general, it may also assist in building rapport in interview situations where the interviewer is not known to the interview participant. The main aim here is to provide a set of visual prompts that elicit views and answers that may not be forthcoming using other verbal or written techniques.

Strengths and limitations of photo elicitation

Photo elicitation of itself does not ‘measure’ anything so much as provide a different ‘way in’ for interviewees to discuss their experiences in the program being evaluated. Photo Elicitation has gained a particular place in interviewing younger children or participants who do not share the language of the evaluator.

Because visual images can suggest metaphorical, symbolic or inferential areas of experience for interviewees, their use in an interview context can:

  • allow the combination of visual and verbal language
  • produce unexpected information and lead to rich insight
  • promote longer, more detailed interviews (in comparison with verbal interviews)

One of the limitations of photo elicitation can be having interviewees focus on the readily visible. It is important, therefore, to use the images as metaphors or illustrations, and dig deeper into why the participant chose that image, and what it says about the topic in question.

How do I use photo elicitation?

In a classroom and in an evaluation context, photo elicitation would usually be used when seeking the views of students about the work/project currently being done (as an evaluation of the implementation of the work) or now completed (as an evaluation of the impact of the work/project).

In evaluation of classroom projects, this would usually mean the teacher presenting photographs to students which, in the teacher’s view, would prompt discussion about aspects of the project and draw out student reactions/views/opinions about the work.

A number of photographs would usually be made available to students, who, either individually or in small groups, choose one (or a number) which they feel represents what they have been doing or what they had achieved. Photo elicitation is an interview technique, so could be used as part of an interview or focus group session. Photographs could be realist, abstract or metaphorical.

The key questions to be answered usually are: ‘What do you think in this photograph represents what we have been doing in this project/unit?’ ‘How, if at all, does it make you think about the unit/project differently?’ ‘Does it represent how you or others have achieved in this unit/project?’

A variation can be for students to sequence a series of photographs to create a story about the project/unit as they saw it.

A sequence of steps using an example of a unit in History

A History teacher is introducing drama-based activities in a particular class for the first time. After a couple of initial lessons to set the scene, students are working in groups over an extended period (say, one week) to write, practice and perform a script based on the unit being taught. The teacher wants to evaluate the success of the project and decides on photo elicitation as one instrument.

  1. Early in the unit the teacher explains the process of evaluation using 'photo elicitation' as a tool. The key issue is that students being interviewed will be shown a number of photographs and asked what the photos suggest to them about the process they went through in the unit.
  2. The teacher selects photographs or takes photographs of the class working during the week. Some photos are directly of students engaged in activities – these should be varied. Some photos may focus on the products of the work, for example, early drafts of scripts. Other photos may be from other sources and should be chosen to suggest possible themes related to the process students have gone through.
  3. At the end of the period (one week in this example), students are interviewed either separately or in a focus group using the photographs as an elicitation technique. First, students are asked to select photographs that they think best represent what the class has been engaged in over the period of time.
  4. Students are then asked to say 'why' these were the chosen photographs and why they best represented the class’s engagement over that time. This could be done in writing or as talk. If done as talk, teachers would consider whether to record or transcribe the students’ answers. Questions may be framed as ‘Why did you choose THIS photo as representing this task?’ ‘How does it represent what we have done here?’ ‘How does it show engagement in solving the problem you were set?

When do I use photo elicitation?

Photographs are used as discussion starters. They are normally taken during the project, but sometimes may come from elsewhere – they could include postcards, for example.

Throughout the project/study At the end of the project/study

To evaluate the 'implementation' of a program particularly when it is long-term (‘How are things going?’)

To evaluate the 'impact' of a program (‘What did they learn?’)


In a long-term project, students might be interviewed during the program, using the techniques described above in ‘How do I use Photo Elicitation?’

Students are interviewed at the conclusion of the project, using the techniques described above in ‘How do I use Photo Elicitation?’

What might be used in tandem
  • Student self-assessment
  • Teacher observation
  • Student Interviews
  • Student Focus Groups
  • Student Surveys
  • Student self-assessment
  • Peer assessment
  • Teacher observation
  • Student Interviews
  • Student Focus Groups
  • Student Surveys
  • Video Capture
How long does it take and with whom? About 3 weeks with the students. About 3 weeks with the students.

What the research says

Professor Susan Groundwater-Smith uses elicitation techniques with teachers or students and will often supply pictures that are metaphors for the work: a ship sailing out of a harbour; driving on a half-made road. Using photographs like these opens up many suggestive possibilities for students to describe the new processes they went through. For a general guide to this work, see:

Susan Groundwater-Smith, Sue Dockett and Dorothy Bottrell (2015) 'Participatory research with children and young people'. London: Sage.

For good coverage of the history and development of 'Photo Elicitation', see:

Douglas Harper, (2002) ‘Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation (PDF 1.33MB)’, Visual Studies, 17 (1).

A web search for 'Photo Elicitation: Advantages' presents a number of articles in which the approach is applied in a number of areas. Educational evaluation is not foremost among these, but they are all suggestive of educational possibilities.

Resources and references

This provides a lot of information on educational issues with Creative Commons material and links to thousands of images.

Rosalind Hurworth (2003) ‘Photo-interviewing for research’, University of Surrey social research update, 40.

Return to top of page Back to top