I had the good fortune of discovering visual sociology in graduate school in the early 2000s as a co-investigator on a project that explored where and to what extent religion and spirituality are meaningful components of people’s daily lives. To do so, we adopted a three-fold methodology, which included a procedure we simply called “photo interviews,” which involved using participants’ photos (of meaningful people, places, and activities in their lives) as prompts in interviews. At the time, we were not aware that these so-called photo interviews were actually a technique that had been around since the 1950s called photo elicitation. After struggling with the mechanics of conducting a photo interview, a database search led me to Doug Harper’s article on photo elicitation, which opened a door to a community of scholars who do visual sociology—or do sociology visually. After reading John Grady’s article “Becoming a Visual Sociologist” (2001), the die was cast.
Quite often, I am asked, “What exactly is visual sociology?” I usually explain it this way. Most sociologists conduct research that involves surveys and statistical analysis. Naturally, their work relies on numbers. Others do research by observing and interviewing people, which emphasizes words. While visual sociologists are not allergic to numbers and words, their work incorporates and privileges images as data. I use images in much the same way other sociologists employ numbers and words to collect, analyze, and present information about culture and society. In my work, the equation is straightforward: sociology + photography = visual sociology. Over the years, my scholarship has been a balance of demonstrating the usefulness of visual techniques and promoting visual methodologies to sociologists of religion. This effort culminated in my edited volume, Seeing Religion: Toward a Visual Sociology of Religion (Williams 2015).