Hedy Bach - Bach Creative


Visual Narrative Inquiry (VNI) 

“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Visual narrative inquiry is an intentional, reflective, active human process in which researchers and participants explore and make meaning of experience both visually and narratively. Visual narrative inquirers work from a view of experience in which experience is an undivided continuous interaction between human beings and their environments that includes thoughts, feelings, doings, and perceiving. Visual narrative inquiry builds from a view of narrative inquiry as a study of experience as story and a way of thinking about experience. Narrative inquiry as a methodology entails a narrative understanding of experiences. Visual narrative inquiry adds the layer of meaning that photographs and visuals become ways of living and telling one’s stories of experience.

relation to narrative inquiry

The field of visual narrative has developed over the the past ten years, as visual narrative inquirers have included images, in particular photographs, to deepen the ways that researchers can understand experience. Visual narrative inquirers bring photographs into the metaphorical three-dimensional space of narrative inquiry with its dimensions of sociality, temporality, and place. Each discipline and field of study brings different ways of understanding and different contexts of visual study of experience to the methodology of narrative inquiry.

philosophical underpinnings

The origins of visual narrative inquiry are located in John Dewey’s views of experience. Thus, for Dewey, human beings are not “subjects” or “isolated individuals” who have to “build bridges” to go over to other human beings or the things of nature; human beings are originally and continually tied to their environment, organically related to it, changing it even as it changes them. Human beings are fundamentally attached to what surrounds them. The Deweyan view of experience is further informed by the work of philosophers Mark Johnson and David Carr, literary theorists such as Carolyn Heilbrunand Mary Catherine Bateson. The work of Judy Weiser, Jo Spence and Robert Ziller also inform explorations of visuality within narrative inquiry.

the process of visual narrative inquiry

Working within the relational methodology of visual narrative inquiry, researchers become aware of the intentionality, the ethics of listening and seeing the stories that children, youth and adults share through the process of the inquiry. The need for the visual narrative researcher to stay engaged with the ongoing ethical negotiations of working visually. This also calls attention to how visual researchers rely on a visual world that is endless and constantly changing. What is missing? What is dismissed? What is not seen?  Visual narrative inquiry is a recursive process of engaging with participants in taking photographs and telling stories of those photographs over time. Visual narrative inquirers, as they engage with participants, discuss the possibilities and limitations of composing photographs, collecting photographs, and conversing with/through/about photographs.

Narrative inquiry is always composed around a particular wonder or puzzle, and visual narrative inquiry, too, begins with a sense of puzzle or uncertainty. As with narrative inquiry in general, visual narrative inquiry begins with the researcher’s autobiographical lived experience, and the researcher’s own stories of experience shape the relational space with participants. In the visual narrative inquiry process, the shared photographs and conversations are viewed and re-viewed over time. Visual narrative inquirers listen and re-listen to conversation tapes, and look and re-look at participants’ photographs as they turn both toward the inner and the outer, the personal and the social of both their lives and their participants’ lives to reflect, meditate, and inquire into the storied experiences that are co-created with participants and researchers. Many visual narrative inquiries work with participants who are active in their subcultures. Visual narrative inquiry has the possibility to deepen insight into what is evaded by inquiring into the stories and photographs of everyday experiences of participants who are typically not seen or heard by those outside the particular subculture.

in the field

Like narrative inquiry in general, visual narrative inquiry follows the narrative inquiry process of living in the field, composing field texts, and composing research texts.  As a visual narrative inquiry begins, the researcher meets with participants and addresses ethical issues of working with cameras. Informed consent is obtained from adults and, where necessary, from parents for youth under the age of consent; also, as required by federal regulations, the researcher must obtain an assent agreement from the under-aged children allowing the research to work with their photographs and taped conversations. As part of the ongoing negotiation with participants, visual narrative inquirers stay open to further negotiations knowing that there are shifts and changes, including negotiating relationships, re-evaluating purposes, negotiating transitions before and after narrative inquiries.

photographic field texts

The visual narrative inquiry process often involves working with participants through a series of four camera works and numerous research conversations about their camera work. Using camerawork techniques in the VNI process means the researcher’s primary position is to listen to and encourage participants’ own personal discoveries while exploring and interacting with the ordinary, personal and family photographs they view, make, collect, remember, or even only imagine; listening and looking for “a recurring rhythm, a story that has been told more than once, a photograph taken and retaken, a narrative series” (Bach, p.294). The four camerawork techniques in visual narrative inquiry are interrelated and interdependent and work best when synergistically combined. Analysis of the photographs is based on input that comes from the participant, guided by the researcher’s photo-stimulated questions when the images and stories are discussed during the research conversation. In most visual narrative inquiries multiple photographs are taken. The camera works include creating projective photographs, composing self-portraits, collecting culture and looking at family albums as pictorial communication. Visual narrative inquiry, through the use of these cameraworks, carries a sense of a search, a “re-search,” a searching again. As part of visual narrative inquiry, the relational aspects are sustained over time and place. Participants’ visual narrative field texts (their photographs and stories) have a sense of being full and of coming out of a personal and social history—that matters to them. For an example of the full description of the four cameraworks see A Visual Narrative Concerning Girls, Photography, Curriculum, Etc.

visual narrative composites: research texts

Through multiple conversations with photographs and in writing and rewriting around the photographic field texts, visual narrative inquirers create photographic research texts—the visual narrative composite by juxtaposing historical, philosophical, and theoretical positions concerned with the reading of participants’ photographs and stories within history, memory, culture, geography, language, and identity. One format is a narrative form created in columns with the first column for an image, a second column for the participant’s story and a third column for the researcher’s autobiographical story including the theories that inform the researcher’s interpretations.


There are pervasive ethical issues in visual narrative research. Images are vulnerable; that is, a photograph holds no steady, fixed meaning. The inquiry space with its attendant ambiguity highlights with importance for visual narrative inquirers to be aware of where participants and researchers are placed at any particular moment—temporally, socially (in terms of the personal and the social) and in place. In any story told, multiple selves speak, and these selves are temporal productions residing in both the present and a re-constructed past. Thus past, present, and future, as contained in stories, can be seen as productions or creations, which may intersect and overlap in non-linear, unfolding and enfolding ways. Just as living a life is unbounded, visual narrative inquiry is also open to possibilities and imaginings.

~ hedy bach PhD~

See also: Collaborative Research; Relational Ethics: Narrative Inquiry: Voice: Photography

Further Readings

Bach, H. (2007). Composing visual narrative inquiry. In D. J. Clandinin. (Ed.), Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology. Thousands Oaks, CA. SAGE. pp. 280–307.

Bach, H. (1998). A visual narrative concerning girls, curriculum, photography etc. Edmonton, AB: QUAL Institute Press.

Bach, H. (2008). A visual narrative concerning girls, curriculum, photography etc. Reprinted by Left Coast Press Inc. Walnut Creek, California.