Participant-Driven Photo Elicitation: The Visual Communication of Dining Culture

Jessica N. Larsen (University of Illinois, Chicago (IL), USA)

Summary of the Project


Food culture is a complex, full-bodied, everyday culture that is changing with technology, particularly networked and mobile technologies that can capture, catalog and disseminate food culture to a vast digital table. The contemporary food culture landscape has some notable features: it’s a landscape that is hypermediated, extraordinarily visual, participatory, and paradoxically both isolating and communal.

Dining culture is a place within food culture that is particularly exemplar of these features. The dynamics of contemporary dining, whether eating “in” or eating “out,” reject many traditional dining formalities and etiquettes. For example, mobile-social photography has relaxed the dining atmosphere, and placed the diner, rather than the chef or cook, in a position to script their dining experience by taking and sharing photos and other status updates of their food.

The practice of sharing everyday activities can seem trivial and not ideologically valued. Food photography in particular has been claimed to affect restaurant experience, create conflict between chefs and consumers, and has been ridiculed for its amateurism. The argumentative disposition toward taking photos of our food complements the feeling that social media in general disengages us from the reality of our experiences. On the other hand, like many online social practices, digital food photography may be a method of self-representation (Moed, Rosner & Van House, 2007) and have important social value determined by social-technological and cultural factors (Radovanovic & Ragnedda, 2012).

Ultimately, the ideological criticism of food photography contradicts with its existence as a popular practice among the social collective. This project uses an ethnographic approach to qualitatively investigate ways this visual practice is situated within the broader cultures of food and technology, with specific aim to describe this communicative practice from the perspective of those who regularly and enthusiastically take photos of their food, and to gain an understanding of what these individuals and communities value.

Research Question

This project is guided by the following, broad research question:

How is the dining experience visually framed in remediation from offline to online space?

Theoretical Framework

Any medium has within itself the ghosts or shapes of a previous medium(s) (McLuhan, 1964). This perspective, and the concept of remediation, shapes this project. Remediation is a characteristic of new media whereby media incorporate media that existed before (Bolter & Grusin, 2000). The digital photo shared online represents the practice of photography intersected with the values inherent in forming identities and sharing ourselves in online social spaces. The artifact at this intersection is what Larsen & Sandbye (2014) have coined as a ‘digital snap’.   Regarding digital food snaps, food itself should be considered media, as a nonverbal way we communicate meaning with others (Greene & Cramer, 2011), and we should be interested in the ways food as a media may be trying to reassert itself in these ‘new’ digital media spaces (Bolter & Grusin, 2000). In terms of remediation, then, we need to consider how these three media: photography, online social space, and food, each play a role in the practice of creating and sharing ‘digital snaps’ of food.

Broadly, this seems to be a question of how new media, particularly photo-centric new media, are so inviting for food related content. Why does food work so well as a photo shared online? It is not the photographs themselves or the food contained within them that are the complete answer to this question; we also must consider what exists in society and culture that allows the photographs to be shared in this way, with this significant level of participation. We must consider the “scale or pace or pattern” that new media introduce into the human affairs of food culture (McLuhan, 1964, p.1).

With the understanding that this lens may be overshadowed by another emergent lens during fieldwork, this project sets out to consider these human affairs of food culture alongside concepts of remediation, particularly immediacy and hypermediacy, as they relate to the practice of digital food snaps. Some example of questions related to these concepts include: How is the familiarity with the mediated practice of taking food photos involved in acceptance of the practice? What role is the camera playing as an essential tool for the contemporary diner? How is the presence of literal and figurative windows (e.g., the multiple social and photo editing applications often involved in creation) related to the awareness that the creation of digital snaps during a meal is a mediated experience?

As with any remediation, the culture of sharing food snaps is a combination of these logics of immediacy and hypermediacy. However, hypermediacy may be particularly relevant to this inquiry – while hypermediacy has turned industrial society into a society of “image junkies” (Sontag, 1977, p.24), it is also essential to the popularity of culinary tourism and the rapid experience of faraway places and cuisines. Digital food culture relies on both immediacy and hypermediacy to create a real and authentic experience – the exposure to so much content is hypermediated, but we are so familiar with the content that we are satiated with information, and begin to assume our experience of digital snaps of food is the reality of digital food culture. Those who create and share digital food snaps likely have personal meaning, relationships, or other information that are related to their engagement in the process of creating and sharing in the first place. These individuals and groups who create digital snaps lay the groundwork for the authentic experience of the digital foodscape. These individuals and groups may in turn be influenced in the process of creation by their own hyper exposure to digital food snaps of others.


This project will use an ethnographic approach to investigate how the dining experience is visually framed in remediation from offline to online space. The primary ethnographic method in this study is participant-driven photo elicitation. Participatory photo elicitation requires participants to choose, generally by taking, the photographs that they feel are relevant to the research at hand. Participants are then interviewed in order to listen to what participants have to say about their photographs. This process is similar to the cataloging undergone in diary studies that include media (e.g., Carter & Mankoff, 2005).

The photo elicitation method, however, can provide the shift in perspective needed to consider the ‘life of a photo’ beyond the content that is cataloged (Tinkler, 2013), since through the fostering of discussion, dialog about photography of one’s own can get closer to a participant’s tacit perspectives and priorities than other methods (Van Auken, Frisvoll & Stewart, 2010). Participatory photo elicitation has been shown to enlighten the planning and decision making included in the process of photography (Frith & Harcourt, 2007).

Participants in this study will be members of a local social group and dinner club. This group is open to any interested parties and can be discovered through the community-finder site The group meets monthly to dine, with the purpose of cataloging their experience through digital means. There are loose parameters for cataloging – participants are simply asked to create a representation of their meal using the mobile application Storehouse. This app allows users to create ‘stories’ that include up to 100 photographs as well as text or video.

Over a six to nine-month period, participants will dine and catalog their experience in this manner. The researcher will attend the dining experiences as a participant observer, analyzing the digital stories created by the participants, and interviewing participants about their stories.


Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. (2000). Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press.

Carter, S., & Mankoff, J. (2005, April). When participants do the capturing: the role of media in diary studies. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 899-908). ACM.

Frith, H., & Harcourt, D. (2007). Using photographs to capture women’s experiences of chemotherapy: reflecting on the method. Qualitative Health Research, 17(10), 1340-1350.

Greene, C. P., & Cramer, J. M. (2011). Beyond mere sustenance: Food as communication/Communication as food. In J. M. Cramer, C. P. Greene, & L. M. Walters (Eds.), Food as Communication/Communication as Food. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

Kolb, B. (2008, September). Involving, sharing, analysing—Potential of the participatory photo interview. In Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Vol. 9, No. 3).

Larsen, J., & Sandbye, M. (2014). Digital Snaps: The New Face of Photography. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

McCluhan, M. (1964). The Medium is the Message. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

Moed, A., Rosner, D., & Van House, N. (2007). Is Food Scenery? Generative situations in urban networked photography. In CHI 2007 Workshop: Image the city: Exploring the practices and technologies of representing the urban environment in HCL. San Jose, CA, USA.

Radovanovic, D., & Ragnedda, M. (2012). Small talk in the digital age : Making sense of phatic posts. In #MSM2012 2nd Workshop on Making Sense of Microposts (pp. 10–13). Lyon, France. Retrieved from

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Macmillian.

Tinkler, P. (2013). Using photographs in social and historical research. Sage.

Van Auken, P. M., Frisvoll, S. J., & Stewart, S. I. (2010). Visualising community: using participant-driven photo-elicitation for research and application. Local environment, 15(4), 373-388.

Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

Interpretive methods seem valuable to understanding the translation between the physical and digital spaces involved in this question, in order to connect image analysis, textual analysis (of captions or associated stories), as well as participant observations and interviews that reveal background information about participant’s engagement in digital food culture. An ethnographic methodology, particularly the participant observation method, has the potential to address this question in a thick manner and gain emphatic understanding, while the photo-elicitation method serves as a semi-structured activity to evoke the practice under investigation, as well as an opportunity for participants to verbalize their understanding of the practice. The visual elicitation of a meal experience is especially important to this research question, since visual elicitation can richly supplement verbal expressions, and reveal unconscious understandings of an experience.

Furthermore, participatory photo interviewing has been used for gathering multiple points of view (Kolb, 2008), and provides a useful tool to investigate the perspective of multiple individuals experiencing and cataloging the same event. These methodological benefits allow for a collection of data that may describe the active process of taking elements of an offline culture and placing them in digital space.

Methodological Challenges

Challenges with this method are largely based in the scattered practice of the method of photo elicitation in social science and humanities research. As an interpretive method, it is difficult to find an approach to replicate the exact needs of this research context, and so a clear model is not present.

In interpretation of the various data strands, it may be difficult to connect conflicting pieces of information. For example, interpretation may become intricate if visual representations conflict with verbal explanations of the digital-snap creation practice.

Additionally, at risk in any ethnographic practice is maintaining integrity toward the participant’s own understanding of the practice, and not interpreting that practice through an inappropriate lens.

Methodological Limitations

The challenges of participant observation are introduced, such as the potential effect of the researcher’s presence on the practice of food photography. Additionally, the effect of the photography being taken in the research context itself risks not being representative of the everyday practice.

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