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Food, Photographs, and Frames: Photo Elicitation in a Canadian Qualitative Food Study

  • Sonya Sharma et
  • Gwen Chapman
Couverture de Food, Language, and Identity,                Volume 3, numéro 1, 2011, Cuizine

Corps de l’article


The ways people eat—including food choices, methods of preparation, and eating styles—reflect a complex set of influences encompassing personal identities and ideals as well as social, cultural, and material environments. [1] Individuals’ food practices persist and shift over the course of their lives in concert with other contextual changes. [2] These practices clearly relate to and evolve with changes in the material realities of local food environments, for instance, and depend on factors such as which foods are available, where they are located, and how much they cost. But food practices also relate to symbolic meanings attached to ways of eating; they are learned through social discourses that constitute some practices as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, appropriate or inappropriate for members of specific social groups. [3] These meanings are part of broader cultural “repertoires”: sets of skills, habits, and styles that individuals draw upon and enact as part of their social lives. [4]

Despite the development of the above theoretical model for understanding the complex interplay among ideals, identities, cultural logics, and material realities in individuals’ food practices, there has been little empirical research exploring ways in which such theories are reflected in the food practices of Canadians. The Canadian Family Food Practices Research Project [5] was developed to address this gap through the in-depth exploration of the food practices of over 100 families in nine Canadian communities. The communities were drawn from four different regions (Pacific, Prairie, Central, and Atlantic Canada) and included rural centres, small cities, and different neighbourhoods in large metropolitan areas. Between 10 and 12 households in each Canadian community were recruited for the study in 2008. Purposive sampling techniques were employed to obtain a diverse sample with regard to family structure, ethnicity, and social class (including variations in education, income, and family class trajectory). At least one adult and one teenager from each family discussed their food practices in an interview, and were then invited to take a series of photographs of food in their everyday lives. Participants were provided with a list of suggestions for what they might photograph, including foods they like or dislike, foods they think are healthy or less healthy, foods they consider a treat, and foods that other members of the family would typically eat, but that they would not usually eat themselves. These photographs were then discussed in a second interview conducted with each participant.

The photo elicitation technique was included in this research both as a means of enabling participants to more fully engage in the research process and as a stimulus for discussion about what they consider meaningful. Photographs can evoke deeper elements of human consciousness than words, “de-centering the text,” to use Elaine Power’s formulation. [6] In “de-centering the text,” the emphasis is placed on the image, which offers a powerful alternative to the word as a means of communication. In this article, the foregrounding of the photographic image constitutes an attempt to engage participants’ embodied knowledge and other forms of knowing that may not be easily describable in words. Photography might thus be thought of as a visual language with the capacity to express identities: food captured within this frame can be an expression of what one chooses to portray or say about oneself. Photographs can communicate various interpretations and social and cultural norms.

As a visual method, photo elicitation can be regarded as a postmodern dialogue based on the authority of the subject rather than the researcher. [7] It can expose unfounded assumptions and disrupt normative social constructions of people’s identities based on gender, race, class, and age, and also reveal the perpetuation of essentialist ideals. [8] However, images do not automatically elicit useful interviews, nor do they necessarily lead to reflexivity. They often remain in the realm of that which is taken-for-granted. [9] Photographs offer meanings through participants’ interpretations, [10] yet this can present a limitation in that photographs and interpretations of photographs may only capture (re)presentations of the self. This notion of self-representation is the focus of this article. How did participants present themselves through their photographs? Were their photographs congruent with the ways they articulated their eating practices in the interviews that we conducted with them, or did they reveal something different?

In this article, we present two case studies that illustrate ways in which photographic and interview data can inform each other in examinations of how individual, social, cultural, and material factors shape and are shaped by people’s food practices. We specifically examine the photographs taken by two women from the same rural community. As far as the researchers are aware, neither of the women had previous photography experience. Although, these two women live in close proximity to each other, they were selected because their food choices and histories are very different, demonstrating their engagement, resistance, and entrenchment in particular food discourses and environments. The focus on these two women assists in shedding light on one of the main questions of the study: how do food cultures interact with social differences to affect food practices within families? In conjunction with interview data, we explore what participants’ words and photographs tell us about their food worlds (that is, where they obtain or buy food; how it is prepared, kept, and eaten; what types of cognitive, emotional, and political relationships they have with it) and how these are reflections of their individual identities, cultural repertoires, and the wider food environments of which they are part. By “food environment,” we refer to the foods available in the neighbourhoods and regions frequented by the women—whether through stores, restaurants, gardens, farms, or others’ homes—as well as to available images and messages about food. These food environments are shaped by local and global “food systems,” the integrated processes involved in producing, processing, and marketing foods.

Words, Photographs and Food Worlds

Anne [11] was a 56-year-old holistic health practitioner and registered nurse. Along with her husband, a professional chef, and their teenaged daughter, she lived in a comfortable home close to the centre of town with a huge garden. Health concerns were a strong influence on Anne’s eating style. She described a time some years ago when she felt that she did not receive adequate care from the Western medical system and turned to other means as a result. It was a moment in which she knew she had to take care of herself. She therefore started doing rotation and elimination diets, focusing on ways in which food relates to her overall health and wellbeing. Anne also talked about “shopping in her garden” and said that if she did shop for groceries she preferred a local grocer who sold locally-grown food. For 25 years she had been involved in the organic food movement. She and her husband preferred to cook very simple foods at home, and had political and ethical views about food that included concerns about packaging, genetic modification, spraying, and processing.

Beth was 33 years old and a full-time student. Like Anne, she was of European-Canadian heritage and lived near the centre of town with her husband and teenaged daughter. Beth’s grandmother was a huge influence on her cooking and gardening skills while she was growing up. At the time of her interviews, Beth was getting her food from supermarkets like Save-On Foods, Superstore, and Costco, and did not have a garden at home. She had recently adopted a diet based on her blood type because of weight gain and a general desire to feel better about herself and her health. Changing her diet caused her to omit certain foods, such as products containing white flour, and add others, such as supplements, vitamins, powdered shakes, foods made with essential oils, and foods that aid digestion.

In examining photographs from both of these participants, we noticed several things. First, the photographs of each woman revealed their approach to food in terms of where they usually obtained it. For example, both had taken photographs of carrots. Anne showed a photograph of carrots from her garden (Figure 1), while Beth showed a photograph of carrots displayed and typically bought in a grocery store (Figure 2).

Figure 1

Vegetables from Anne’s garden

Vegetables from Anne’s gardenPhoto courtesy of Family Food Practices Research

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Figure 2

Beth’s photograph of grocery store produce

Beth’s photograph of grocery store producePhoto courtesy of Family Food Practices Research

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The homegrown carrots reflect Anne’s organic, fresh-from-the-garden approach to food. The in-store carrots reflect Beth’s healthy store-bought food approach.

Other photographs taken by Anne included more food from her garden, as well as a homemade meal (Figures 3 and 4). Her pictures are vibrant, and show the continuity of the food from her garden to her family’s dinner plates.

Figure 3

Vegetables from Anne’s garden

Vegetables from Anne’s gardenPhoto courtesy of Family Food Practices Research

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Figure 4

Anne’s photograph of a homemade meal

Anne’s photograph of a homemade mealPhoto courtesy of Family Food Practices Research

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In contrast, Beth showed photographs neither of foods picked from the garden nor of homemade meals, but rather of foods bought from the store and displayed on her kitchen counter (Figures 5-7). Her photographs did not show foods combined into meals. Instead, they were primarily items of either packaged foods, most of which would be considered “healthy” choices, (for example, whole grain pasta, probiotic yogurt, or dried cranberries), or produce (for example, apples, squash, or corn).

Figure 5

Beth’s photograph of almonds

Beth’s photograph of almondsPhoto courtesy of Family Food Practices Research

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Figure 6

Beth’s photograph of tortellini

Beth’s photograph of tortelliniPhoto courtesy of Family Food Practices Research

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Figure 7

Beth’s photograph of Shreddies

Beth’s photograph of ShreddiesPhoto courtesy of Family Food Practices Research

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Both sets of pictures demonstrate not only Beth’s as well as Anne’s approaches to food but also the food systems that they accessed. In taking pictures of foods they typically ate, the women revealed the food environments they interacted with and internalized. For example, they presented their food in a way that might be seen in a magazine or supermarket display. In Beth’s photograph of the almonds that she typically bought and ate, the almonds have been artfully arranged on the countertop in a neat pile. Influenced by popular media or in-store food displays, Beth’s depiction of pasta being poured out of a bag is similar to a marketing advertisement for a particular food brand. The photograph of her Shreddies cereal is also like that displayed on television or in a print advertisement. Beth’s photographs suggest continuity between what she takes in from local and popular culture and what she then displays and eats in her home. Anne, who displayed vegetables from her garden, also appeared to be influenced by food-styling used to prepare foods for photographs in magazines and cookbooks. Her photographs are not unlike those found in health food magazines or daytime health and wellbeing television shows.

On first look, it is evident that both women revealed and reflected through their photographs the food systems in which they were embedded. However, when we queried whether their photographs confirmed and illustrated the representations of the food worlds that these two women discussed in their interviews, it became clear that there was some incongruence. The photographs that they took indicate an act of selectivity, an act of presenting their selves in a particular way through food of which they were not necessarily aware. Beth, for example, had spoken about a junk food drawer that she had in her house full of candy bars, chips, sugary snacks, and so on. She explained:

My mom growing up had this wonderful junk food cabinet and it was above the pantry. So, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of buying junk food and, like bags of chips, cheesies… What else do I stick in my junk food area? Sometimes cookies, but that is only because we put them in the lunches. And it’s so when my brother has his friends over he can offer them some chips, you know pop as well … So, it’s just one of the traits we’ve picked up from my mom. It’s not a good one. I wish I never had it. Everyone says, ‘Oh you have so much to pick from.’ It’s just you know, yeah it’s just for people you know to nosh on, but I find that sometimes I reach into the bag of chips. I want the salt, I want the, you know plain ripple chips and I know I shouldn’t be, but it’s just sitting there in front of me. If they weren’t there I wouldn’t be eating them.

Although she described this junk food drawer in her first interview, she did not take a photograph of it. In her excerpt she expresses guilt about having it in her house, and describes it as a means of indulging her cravings and allowing those around her to connect through food. Her guilt is expressed photographically by excluding a picture of the junk food drawer. By choosing not to include such a photograph, Beth is putting forth a particular representation of herself, one that interacts with social and gendered discourses that discourage this type of food because of its contribution to weight gain and bad health, as well as its perception as bad food to provide for your family and children.

Another discontinuity between Beth’s photographs and interviews is her tendency to photograph single ingredients and packaged foods items despite her insistence on the importance of home cooking in her interview. She described herself as a good cook, and explained that cooking is imperative to her because she likes to enjoy her food, and feels you can often make better food at home than that served in a restaurant. She said that home-cooked meals “make home a place to be,” adding that cooking and eating meals together is a way for her family to connect with each other. The fact that her photographs did not communicate this may reflect the intrusive nature of the study’s photography method. To take a photograph of a prepared meal, Beth would have needed to interrupt the social, communal aspect of the event to pick up the camera and, given her propensity to “style” the food in her photographs, arrange the meal-foods to compose an acceptable photograph, and then snap the picture.

Anne’s interviews and photographs were more congruent. Her photographs supported her presentation of herself in her interview as a person focused on health and wellness. She did not include pictures of processed foods, which she said that she was against; this is representative of her diet, she does not eat these foods. Anne’s description of herself as a holistic practitioner came through in her photographs. She presented a homegrown approach to food focused on personal and familial health.

Each set of images thus contains embedded perceptions of the self, even in terms of what is left out. Representations of our selves often rely to a large extent on the “symbols associated with the goods we purchase.” [12] Personal identity is frequently constructed in relation to external sources and products. Many participants who have learned to value a public image of how they appear and behave construct identities in relation to materiality that create a degree of social acceptance (i.e. fashionable clothes, electronics such as an iPhone or distinct food products). Both Anne and Beth put forth representations of their selves through discriminatory photographs of foods, which could be perceived as acceptable to the viewer.

The photographs that these women took are also images of the contexts in which they live. Their photographic representations of themselves and their worlds might be thought of as performances that have been fashioned or shaped by the cultures and products around them, a set of cultural values against which they are then viewed as good or adequate. [13] Judith Butler describes this type of performativity not as a singular deliberate act, but rather as the “reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.” [14] These photographs reconstitute the food systems that are perceived as satisfactory to the women who took the photos and to the wider culture of which they are a part. Their “photographs are not neutral observations of reality.” [15] They are an expression of participants’ internalized discourses, which in turn reflect the mutually-constituted relationships they have with local and global food environments.

It is thus interesting to consider some of the contrasts between Anne’s and Beth’s food worlds. The two women lived in the same rural community, with comparable family contexts, cultural backgrounds, and socioeconomic status. There were definite similarities in the food worlds they presented, particularly in their predominant concern with healthy eating. For Beth, however, healthy eating relied on commodities labeled as healthy within the commercial food system, and was balanced with the value she placed on enjoying food and on connecting with others through food. For Anne, in contrast, healthy eating was primarily about eating organic, locally-produced food, often from her own garden. In her interviews, she talked about how her family’s food practices have been a source of tension, making them feel “different” from the rest of their community. For example, when they encouraged the local schoolteacher to teach similar food practices in the classroom, they were not taken seriously. They have also found it difficult to eat-out because they could not find menu items that suited their eating style. For Anne, the food identity that she expressed through words and photographs was in some ways defined in opposition to the dominant cultural repertoires of her local food environment. This was not apparent for Beth.

Viewing the Frame

As noted above, a strength of photo elicitation as a research method is that it can elicit different types of information than interviews involving only words. Just as an interview does not stand alone, however, neither does an image. A photograph’s meaning is created in the interaction with the viewer [16] and can depend on the context in which it is viewed rather than solely on who took it or for what purpose. [17] The social, cultural, political, and historical locations of both participants and researchers can have a hand in producing the subjective representations found in photographs as well as their meanings. [18] Further, photographs and the contexts in which they are created and viewed can re-inscribe the norms through which these meanings are generated.

When looking at the photographs that these women took, it is necessary to contemplate their frames of reference. [19] In this case, it is not necessarily the women who frame the photographs by their descriptions of them, nor is it necessarily the assignment given to them by the researcher. Instead, economic, political, cultural, and social discourses affect both the photographic subject and the visual experience of researchers and participants in contemplating the photographs. As a researcher looking at Anne’s photographs, one can immediately see the beauty, vitality, and apparent healthfulness of her food. Her foods are desirable. The very act of looking, however, reveals the current social, political, economic discourses—the frame—in which the researcher is embedded, and that assume that food from the garden is “better,” healthier, and leads to environmental awareness and food conservation. [20] Discourses such as these frame and reconstitute the norms through which we (that is, the researchers) view these women and their food worlds. [21]

Elaine Power contends that photo elicitation is a way of acknowledging that participants know more about the worlds they inhabit than the researcher. [22] While this assumption holds true in many cases, it may be complicated when researchers and participants come from similar contexts, thereby reproducing a normative lens through which photographs are viewed and meanings generated. Thus, the content of the photographs can risk not being seen because of social and political norms that affect how the content is viewed. This can cause participants and researchers to gloss over other meanings for consideration.

The photographs and words of these women reveal aspects of their food worlds. Their photographs elicit representations of their selves that are embedded in the social, political, and material contexts of their local food environments—sometimes reflecting an acceptance of these environments and sometimes a rejection of them. It is these environments and the larger food systems of which they are a part that provide the frame through which their photographs are taken and seen. While words and photographs and the continuities and discontinuities between them assist researchers and participants in discovering something new about the social worlds in which we live, they also tell us about the normative and familiar, coaxing us to lean in further to examine what is being reflected back at us.

Parties annexes

Parties annexes