Introduction to Photographers and Research- Shirley Read and Mike Simmons

The Role of Research in Contemporary Photographic Practice


Wittgenstein said ‘A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.’ 

(Read & Simmons, 2017, p. vi)

Wittgenstein’s metaphor makes two profound statements- if it is applied to knowledge and growth.

  • We are all free to gather knowledge or grow.
  • If we draw open the door or pull knowledge to us, we will be set free and grow. If we push knowledge, we will always be captured within our own reality.

It is immediately Peter Kennards follows with the view:

“Research is the pull that allows me to get out of the room and into the street, into what’s actually happening in the world (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. vi).”

“There are as many ways to research as there are artists (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. vi) .”

Research methods in the creative world are as unique as the person doing it. We can learn from other researchers, but in essence, the creative practitioner need to develop and refine our own from past experience, books they read, experiences we had and the context of the research task before them. Refer to Eliasson’s work in my reflection Research is either an unconscious or cognitive process, we all do it.

In the introduction the authors indicated with the limited sample that at least between them “it became clear early on that the ways we understood the term research within the context of photography often overlapped and resonated with recurring themes, shared understandings, experiences and opinions” (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. ix).” Thus, challenging the diversity observed by Peter Kennard. This Directed Reed and Simmon’s research intent “to see to what degree individual practices differ and what parallels could be drawn across those practices.”

Reed and Simons then continue to describe their intended objectives, approach, and the outcomes were shared in this book.

Their findings, strangely presented in the introduction, were:

 “What became clear quite quickly, though not unexpectedly, was that although there were some similarities and common approaches to research, each of our interviewees had, over time, shaped and adapted their experiences and methods to suit their particular needs or circumstances, which they applied across most of their projects  (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. x) .”

The italics I added to highlight the fact that, according to them, each researcher develop their own standard and method; confirming Kennard’s observation. But it adds the premise that there is a common starting point or foundation that all share, backing in a way their own comment.

It may also be observed that their initial research lead them to focus on aspects not initially intended.

“We then recognised that our survey exists to describe possible research routes, to ask questions and open up ideas about research but that it could not in itself come up with a definitive analysis or roadmap which anyone can follow. This is because the options and variables within the research process for photographers are broad and because practice is so particular and dependent on the habits, needs and preferences of the individual as well as the purpose and audience for the work. (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. xi)”

If research makes things relevant, then it is as if they want to make the statement that the paradox in the research itself relates closely to the nature of photography. While we like to describe the research process, the intent to express by individuals doing the research seeks not to be limited by a formal method. This is precisely the paradox in modernity between Empiricism (Natural Laws), Rationalism (Classification, characterisation, ordering i.e an Ontological order for Research) and Romanticism/existentialism (experience and the wish to express that), the modernist trinity from which photography was born, which in my view lies at the heart of modernist photography. Postmodern photography may only seek expression.

“What makes photography relevant lies in its paradoxical nature and the ability to both describe and express (Read & Simmons, 2017, p. xii).” And capturing it using the natural laws of physics.

They then conclude the introduction with an interesting note:

“We see this book as a research project in itself, bringing together examples of photographic practice for you to consider and absorb into your own ideas, processes and projects Read & Simmons, 2017, p. xii).”

My reflection:

One of the primary purposes of the MA course in Photography is to develop my research methodology to elevate my practice which will culminate in a final research project. What I found liberating was that in terms of the research for an artistic/expressive practice such as photography, a considerable amount of myself needs to be embedded into the method. But it also requires a strong foundation in research to leverage from.

That being said puts the responsibility of this education on my shoulders. Firstly I need to see if my foundation is not flawed and secondly, I need to be able to rationalise my individualistic research approach and methods in a way that it is understood by those that will be reviewing and marking my project and endeavouring to develop me. However, the success of my research can only be measured by me, in how it helped me to express my photographic vision and expression.

It will be well worth my while to read the cases contained in the book and mindfully consider absorbing some of the relevant learnings in my own research method.

What I won’t do is to look for the orthodox or best practice way that some of my research in theology (rationalist research) and engineering (empirical research) requires. Merely include methods that make sense within the context of the Photographic Practice.


Reed, S. & Simmons, M., 2017. Photographers and Research: The Role of Research in Contemporary Photography Practice. 1st ed. New York & Oxon: Routledge.

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