Photography as visual research

Photography is often used as a tool to document the specificity of visual appearances. We’re all familiar with this use in passport photography, anthropological photography and crime photography. There’s no pretence at aesthetic quality: the photographer points the camera at the subject and tries to take a neutral ‘visual document’ which stands as visual evidence for what it represents.

This mode of making pictures can be useful to all photographers as a means to research their subject. Whether this results in ‘finished’ pictures or not doesn’t really matter; it’s a means to gain visual knowledge. Take a look at Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh – a collection of family portraits originally taken as visual research for a painting project

It’s important to make a distinction here between what we can know through experience
and verbal language and what is specifically visual. Thoughts aren’t visual and neither are emotions, although you can photograph the physical manifestations of these. Just look at Billingham’s telling pictures of his dad to see this at work. Political ideologies aren’t visual either but you can photograph people and events that illustrate them.

Rickard (2010) and Hodsdon (2014) show a selection of images from Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh”. An image search using Google (other search engines are available) brings up a lot more.

At first glance the images look very much like the snapshots that we are all familiar with that our parents or grandparents might have taken in the days before digital cameras. If I was to open up any of the photo albums or go into some of the boxes of photos I have at home I’d be able to find any number of photographs that have a similar feel to them.

And I think that is an important point. Looking at the images, the decor of the home, the poses, they seem familiar, comforting in some ways but also unsettling in others.

Comforting in that they bring back memories of growing up.

Unsettling in that they are almost voyeuristic, allowing the viewer to peer into moments that are intimate, personal. While also giving a sense of being part of things.

They also provide that intimate feeling because the images are sharing events that a lot of us can relate to but also events that most people would not want to share with the world.


  1. Rickard, D (2010) Richard Billingham: “Ray’s a Laugh” (2000) [online] Available at: [Accessed 3rd July 2018]
  2. Hodsdon, C (2014) “Ray’s a Laugh” [online] Available at: [Accessed 3rd july 2018]