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Picturing the Group: Combining Photo-elicitation and Focus Group Methods

Vincent Walstra


The aim of this paper is to address the potential of combining the focus group method with photo-elicitation in ethnographic research. The paper is based on my own experience with a photo-elicitation focus group (PEFG) consisting of five community gardeners in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In the first part, I discuss which considerations to make concerning 1) the visual materials, 2) creating a focus group setting, 3) group dynamics between participants and with the researcher, and 4) collecting data when setting up a PEFG. Thereafter, I use Webb Keane’s (2018) concept of “semiotic ideology” to describe how the photographs mediate thematic discussions around the interpretation of signs. For this analysis, photo and video materials are included in the text. The paper concludes by arguing that the PEFG method helps to understand nuanced diversities and/or consensus of perspectives within existing groups.

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I would like to thank the GroenGoed foundation for participating in my research, and the five gardeners of this focus group for their active participation, openness, musical coverage of the train nuisance, and insightful discussions during the session. The Food Citizens? project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 724151).


1As an anthropologist, I have been trained in ethnographic research methods, which emphasize participant observation and interviewing as principal techniques. In this paper, however, I show the value of focus groups in ethnographic research, by reflecting on my own experience in organizing a focus group amongst community gardeners in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. More specifically, I discuss the value of organizing a photo-elicitation focus group (PEFG). I argue that the PEFG method allows the researcher to better understand the diversities and consensus of perspectives within existing groups, through their shared or different interpretations of signs. I use Webb Keane’s concept of “semiotic ideology” (2018) to explain how combining photo-elicitation with group discussions generates specific data on individual and group positionality.

2The data and analyses discussed in this paper are based on fieldwork focused on collective food procurement (CFP) networks in Rotterdam, conducted between February 2019 and August 2020. For one-and-a-half years, I participated with up to 13 CFP initiatives ranging from social dinner initiatives to craft food markets, collective farming, food policy networks and community gardens. The research was part of a larger comparative research project across three European cities: Rotterdam, Gdańsk and Turin. It was conducted within a general project framework that aimed to “critically engage with the notion of ‘food citizenship’” (Grasseni 2016: 3). In the initial project proposal, principal investigator Cristina Grasseni (2016) included the techniques of focus groups and elicitation in the common methodology framework. Focus groups were meant to contribute with insights into internal diversity and nuanced interpretations of solidarity (Grasseni 2016: 10), whereas elicitation had the purpose of reflecting with participants on their own expertise and skills (Grasseni 2016: 11). This paper discusses how these suggested methods were implemented in the field by combining them into a photo-elicitation focus group session. The experiences on which this paper builds its argument were taken from two PEFGs, of which one, conducted with five community gardeners, will be the case study of this paper. The PEFG with the community gardeners took place in August 2020, the final month of that particular fieldwork period.

3The PEFG was held in a community garden called Vredestuin [literally: Peace garden], one of eight community gardens managed by the GroenGoed [GreenGood] Foundation in northern Rotterdam. At the time of the PEFG, I had conducted a year of fieldwork amongst the gardeners, participating weekly in several of the GroenGoed community gardens, including the Vredestuin. Activities consisted of weeding, seeding, harvesting, and chatting during lunch and coffee breaks. Therefore, at the time of the PEFG, I had enough data on the purposes, activities and organization of the Vredestuin and GroenGoed. Equally, I had gotten an understanding of individual purposes from most of the volunteers that participated in the PEFG. What was lacking, however, was an in-depth perspective on internal diversities and nuances concerning common topics and beliefs amongst the gardeners. As a collective, the gardeners often followed a common consensus when it came to sociopolitical issues relating to activism, gentrification or the purpose of gardening. Individual interviews, nevertheless, showed the existence of internal diversities. For instance, one of the participants, Das, had expressed to me his concern about GroenGoed receiving subsidies from the municipality. He was afraid it would endanger their autonomy as a grassroots organization. From the initiators of GroenGoed, Rutger and Daniël, I would learn that autonomy was also important to them, but subsidies ensured the continuity of the project. I got to know both perspectives, but was more interested in how they communicated these concerns towards one another. Whereas this example plays into internal differences, I was also curious about the gardeners’ collective perspective on the garden community. The gardeners often mobilized against inequality, like eviction in marginalized neighborhoods. But how did they relate their own socioeconomic positions and aesthetic preferences for self-grown or craft food to processes of neighborhood regeneration and gentrification? The goal of organizing the PEFG, therefore, was to orchestrate group discussions that would tap into such nuanced differences and reflections.

4During the two-and-a-half hour PEFG session, I combined individual photo-elicitation, group mind mapping, group photo-elicitation, and group discussions. In the paper, I reflect on the main element of the PEFG, which was the synergy between photo-elicitation and group discussions. The PEFG was based on researcher-generated photographs that I had gathered throughout my fieldwork. Choosing researcher-generated photographs instead of participatory photography originated in the goal of the PEFG, which was to reflect on topics that had emerged from my own observations through long-term participant observation. By choosing researcher-generated photographs, I was able to elicit discussions about topics of my own interest. I argue that applying photo-elicitation in this way makes the PEFG a tool for increasing analytical depth in longitudinal fieldwork typical for ethnography.

5The next section gives a short theoretical introduction to both the methods of focus groups and photo-elicitation in relation to ethnographic research, as well as introduces Keane’s concept of semiotic ideology. Thereafter, I introduce my method of setting up a PEFG session. Next, I discuss in the empirical section how the PEFG method combined with a semiotic analysis provided me with new analytical observations about the community gardeners. Throughout the paper, I make use of various photographs and video fragments from the PEFG. The paper finishes with a conclusive remark about the potential of PEFG in ethnographic research.

Literature Review

Photo-elicitation & Focus Groups

6Combining photo-elicitation with a focus group is not an entirely new technique. Dona Schwartz (1989) applied this combination of techniques during her research in an Iowan farmer community in the United States. Although not trained as an anthropologist, she conducted ethnographic fieldwork and combined it with her profession as a photographer. In her article, she explains in detail how photo-elicitation got her to understand local intimate relationships in a way she would not have been able to without photo-elicitation. Interestingly, Schwartz pays little attention to the other technique she used, which is that of the focus group. Her article clearly focuses on the photo-elicitation method, but at the same time she states that if possible, she conducted the interviews in groups (Schwartz 1989: 126), because:

[I]n group viewings, photographs elicit extended personal narratives which illuminate viewers' lives and experiences. (…) [T]he social interactions surrounding the activity of looking at photographs provide an arena for studying the meanings viewers attribute to aspects of their everyday lives. (Schwartz 1989: 122)

7Schwartz thus believes that the group setting evokes an ‘extended personal narrative’ because of the social setting in which participants give meaning to the photographs. In this paper, I dwell on Schwartz’s analysis by further delving into the effects of group settings on the use of photo-elicitation. First, however, let me give a brief introduction to the two different methods of focus groups and photo-elicitation.

8Focus group sessions is a common technique in qualitative social sciences. According to Krueger and Casey (2015), the method distinguishes itself by several characteristics. In particular, I wish to highlight two such characteristics: 1) the sessions consist of people who are selected based on a common characteristic, and 2) they are aimed at discussing a specific topic of interest (Krueger and Casey 2015: 26). Unfortunately, even though there exist several practical guides, few social scientists have written about their experiences with focus groups. One explanation for this is given by Erminia Colucci (2007), a cultural psychiatrist with a background in visual anthropology. Colucci gives an overview of the use of focus groups in the field of social sciences, showing that after some initial skepticism, the method was picked up by qualitative social sciences from the 1980s onwards. After a publication by Morgan and Spanish (1984) introducing focus groups as “a new tool for qualitative research”, several major guidebooks were released explaining how to conduct focus groups (see for instance Morgan and Krueger 1998; Krueger and Casey 2000). These guidebooks typically explain in detail how to set up a focus group. Colucci, however, argues that the method has far from reached its full potential. Her main argument is that “too often focus groups in fact resemble individual interviews done in group settings” (Colucci 2007: 1423). Therefore, continuing on the work of Krueger (1998) and Krueger and Casey (2000), Colucci proposed looking for unconventional methods to further engage participants in focus group sessions.

9One way to engage participants in a focus group is through photo-elicitation. Schwartz recognized the value of photographs as “data generators” (1989: 119) by seeing them as a medium for interaction:

The viewing process is a dynamic interaction between the photographer, the spectator, and the image; meaning is actively constructed, not passively received. (Schwartz 1989: 120)

10In other words, with the photograph as a medium, the photographer and spectator construct the meaning of what is in the photo. This way of viewing photo-elicitation links to how Douglas Harper (2002) describes John Collier’s (1957) first publication about photo-elicitation in the journal American Anthropologist. According to Douglas Harper (2002: 14), who writes about the history of photo-elicitation in social sciences, when Collier (1957) first introduced the method, it was used to overcome verbal limitations for defining categories in surveys. Words were replaced by photos as indicators in the survey, and in the follow-up interviews, the photos were acknowledged for their capability of eliciting comprehensive and non-repetitive interviews (Harper 2002: 14). Just like in Schwartz’s observation, photo-elicitation proved to be a way of activating and engaging the interviewee.

11Contemporary examples of reflections on photo-elicitation as a qualitative method can mainly be found in the sociology literature, where it is especially well represented in studies concerning minors. Marisol Clark-Ibañez (2004), for instance, uses photo-elicitation to enter children’s worlds by discussing pictures they took at home. One participant had taken 38 pictures of her kitten, which initially seemed useless to Clark-Ibañez. Yet, in the end the elicitation session proved to be meaningful beyond what the researcher could have initially imagined (Clark-Ibañez 2004: 1513). Another example is research by Leonard and McKnight (2015), who studied teenagers’ perceptions of ethnoreligious divisions in the urban landscape of Belfast. During their photo-elicitation session, discussions predominantly revolved around the interpretation of objects that were in the photos. For instance, the participants would respond to a photograph of a building by commenting on the flag on top of it, nearly invisible to the unknowing outsider. The flag, apparently, bore significant symbolic value and was therefore pointed out by the participants who were sensitive to its symbolic meaning (Leonard and McKnight 2015). What is notable, is that in both cases the participants’ interpretations of the objects in the photographs stood central in the discussion that unfolded. In my PEFG, I encountered similar situations where discussions would revolve around specific objects in the photograph, like graffiti or murals, for which I turned to the field of semiotic anthropology to understand the photo-elicitation sessions. In the next subsection, I dwell on this idea of semiotics in relation to photo-elicitation in a focus group setting.

Semiotic Ideologies

12One way of looking at photo-elicitation is that participants are asked to interpret objects, people, places, or activities in a photograph, which allows the researcher to study how the participants derive meaning therefrom. I use such a semiotic approach to photo-elicitation to explain how photographs can mediate debates within a focus group. Elizabeth Mertz (2007), writing about the contemporary meaning of semiotic anthropology, describes semiotics as the study of signs and how they carry meaning. Webb Keane, an anthropologist who has published multiple articles on semiotics, proposes adding an extra dimension to the study of signs by developing his concept of “semiotic ideology” (Keane 2018). The concept of semiotic ideology extends the study of signs with an ethical and political dimension:

The concept of semiotic ideology draws our attention to the many ways (ranging from tacit to fully explicit) in which assumptions about what signs are contribute to the ways people use and interpret them, and on that basis, form judgments of ethical and political value. (Keane 2018: 67)

13Semiotic ideologies, therefore, help the ethnographer to distinguish between “what kinds of agentive subjects and acted-upon objects might be found in the world” (Keane 2003: 419). In other words, they can be used as a conceptual tool to distinguish between the different meanings and significances people give to their social and material environment through the use and interpretation of signs. In this paper, I use the concept of semiotic ideologies as such, by explaining how the focus group setting allows for evoking exactly this layer of moral judgment to the individual interpretations of signs elicited with photographs.

Figure 1 A photograph of a mural used in PEFG.

Figure 1 A photograph of a mural used in PEFG.

With this mural, I was hoping to elicit discussions about class differences. I took this picture in such a way that the construction sites in the gentrified neighborhood Katendrecht were clearly visible in the background.

Photo by Vincent Walstra

14The concept of semiotic ideology can be split up into four different elements. First, the standard semiotic analysis considers interactions between the ‘sign vehicle’, the ‘object’, and the ‘interpretant’ (Mertz 2007: 338). A fourth element is added by Keane in the form of the ideology, which I refer to as the ‘judgment’ (Keane 2018: 67). In researcher-generated photo-elicitation, the sign vehicle is the ethnographer’s photo – the ethnographer's gaze captured in the frame of a photograph – like the example in figure 1. This photo, the sign vehicle, communicates between the object, that what the ethnographer captured in the photo, and the interpretant, the participant giving meaning to what is in the photo. In the case of figure 1, I meant to capture the mural and the construction sites in the Rotterdam neighborhood Katendrecht. These are the objects communicated by the ethnographer’s photograph as the sign vehicle. Because I presented the photos to the participants individually in the form of a photo exhibition without photo captions, the PEFG participants became the interpretants. This particular photo was interpreted by one of the participants, Vlada, as symbolizing inequality. She wrote in her personal notes:

I’ve cycled past this a lot over a year but never stopped to look at it. It speaks of inequality to me. The person is drowning while supporting and working hard to support “the thinker”. The thinkers are people in offices typing and counting numbers.

15After revealing her interpretation to the group, I started a discussion about where we would put ourselves in the mural: as the figure on its head underwater, or the figure thinking? What followed was a discussion about privileges and disadvantages in society. It is here that an extra layer of ideology is elicited where we discuss the written down, individual interpretations in a group discussion. An “ethical and political value” (2018: 67) as Keane would put it, is given to the sign. I show in this paper how the focus group setting is especially suitable for revealing this extra, ideological layer since individual judgments are disputed and/or endorsed amongst the various participants who are each an expert in the field and therefore sensitive to the object of study.

16In what follows, I reflect on the main methodological considerations I made when setting up the PEFG. In the section thereafter, I use visual representations to further discuss the outcome of the PEFG sessions.

The Setup of the Photo-elicitation Focus Group (PEFG)

17The PEFG was held on a very warm afternoon in August 2020 in the Vredestuin community garden. Two weeks earlier, I had shared an invitation with about 60 volunteers who are members of the Vredestuin WhatsApp group. It was both in Dutch and in English – there are many internationals in the group – and invited people to a ‘Garden discussion evening’. In the invitation, I indicated the agenda for the evening, including the photo-elicitation and group discussion. In the end, five gardeners showed up: Hilde, Daniël, Ellen, Das and Vlada. Except for Vlada, who has Russian roots and grew up in England, all the participants were Dutch. We communicated in a Dutch-English hybrid, in which I proposed to be the translator. Daniël and Hilde are two of the four paid garden coordinators, Daniël being one of the two initiators of the GroenGoed garden project. Ellen and Das are two of my main contacts in the garden and passionate, long-term volunteers at the Vredestuin. I had already interviewed Ellen and Das individually and knew that for them the garden was more than simply a place to volunteer. In fact, the garden community had become a significant component of their social lives beyond the gardening itself. The same could be said about Hilde and Daniël. I knew less about Vlada, but during the evening she shared that she had been a volunteer at the garden for about one-and-a-half years, but on a different day than when I would participate. The group, therefore, consisted of five people with an average to high level of experience in the garden and who all knew one another quite well.

18In both photo-elicitation and focus groups, researchers have made different considerations when creating the research setting. Based on existing studies and my case study, I propose four relevant considerations each researcher should make when setting up a PEFG:

19- Preparing visual material

20- Creating a focus group setting

21- Group dynamics between participants and with the researcher

22- Collecting data

23In this methodological section, it becomes clear that the group intimacy and rapport between the PEFG participants and the researcher were fundamental to the entire PEFG setup. In the next four subsections, I discuss the abovementioned four components of setting up a PEFG. Thereafter, in the next section, I turn to the empirical data and analyze the PEFG session.

Figure 2 The setup of the PEFG.

Figure 2 The setup of the PEFG.

Pinned to the greenhouse on the left are the photos in the photo exhibition. The picnic table on the right is the table where we held the PEFG. At the front is a buffet that I prepared. Also in the photo are various tools to record the session, including a camera, tripod, and an audio recording device.

Photo by Vincent Walstra

Preparing Visual Material

24It is important to consider the stage of the fieldwork when selecting photos for elicitation. Like other scholars (Leonard and McKnight 2015: 631; Pink 2021: 110), sociologist Clark-Ibañez (2004: 1509) distinguishes between photographs that are taken by the researcher and those by the research participant. The main difference, she points out, concerns researcher-generated photos that are selected with the purpose of being relevant to the research topics. In contrast, photos produced by the participants provide a more inductive approach, emphasizing the participants’ interests. Indeed, as Leonard and McKnight (2015: 631) argue, one is not obliged to choose one or the other, as a combination of both might in some cases be most beneficial. I argue that the decision should be made based on the stage of the research. Because the PEFG with the gardeners took place after one-and-a-half years of ethnographic fieldwork, the inductive work had already been done. Therefore, I chose researcher-generated photographs with the purpose of discussing specific topics that had emerged from the field like enskilment, activism, and gentrification.

Figure 3 Photo used for photo-elicitation.

Figure 3 Photo used for photo-elicitation.

Note the fact that it is written in English instead of Dutch, which already implies that the branding is aimed at an international audience.

Photo by Vincent Walstra

  • 1 In the introduction to the book The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses (2006), esta (...)

25When using researcher-generated photographs, one should be aware of their subjectivities. The photos I used were made to capture an ethnographic observation, not necessarily to be used for photo-elicitation. The photos were thus shaped by the ethnographer's gaze, or as visual anthropologist David MacDougall would put it: “Framing people, objects, and events with a camera is always "about" something”1 (MacDougall 2006: 3). Therefore, photos taken from an ethnographer’s perspective say something about their interpretation of the field. For instance, figure 3 shows high-rise office buildings with a branding slogan in front of a construction site. The purpose of taking the photo was to show urban regeneration and city branding within the context of a changing urban landscape. This photograph had the purpose of evoking conversations about this changing urban landscape and elaborating on the gardeners’ positionality in relation to these changes. Following this logic, I chose 16 photographs each aimed at evoking discussions about different themes, ranging from Do-It-Yourself enskilment to food production, seasonality, demonstrating, urban regeneration, waste and more.

Creating a PEFG Setting

26A second preparatory consideration is to create the right setting in which to conduct the PEFG session. Jocelyn Hollander (2004) writes that when conducting a focus group, the researcher should be sensitive to both the social and physical context in which focus groups take place. What Hollander calls the “associational context” (2004: 614) refers to “the common characteristic that brings the participants together” and “if the physical surroundings are related to the associational context, they may affect the participants”. Hollander gives an example of how the physical context of the workspace in her study created a social context in which participants were “accustomed to talking about work-related topics, not personal experiences and feelings” (Hollander 2004: 614). Whereas mimicking the associational context negatively influenced Hollander’s focus group session, in the PEFG it contributed to staging an ordinary setting in which the participants would relate to one another like they would normally. Inspired by the monthly potluck meetings that were held at the Vredestuin garden, where gardeners would bring food and drinks to the garden and convene around a bonfire, I organized the PEFG in the social space of the garden and prepared food and drinks for the participants. By creating a cozy, informal environment, I hoped the gardeners would feel comfortable enough to speak up as they would on any given potluck evening. Moreover, reproducing the ordinary environment contributed to observations about existing group power relations. For instance, one of the initiators of the GroenGoed foundation and Vredestuin garden Daniël naturally received authority in the discussion. However, an equally interesting observation was that he seemed reluctant to share his thoughts immediately, and would often wait until the end of the discussion to express himself. Both his authority and cautious attitude informed me about hierarchy and how it is anticipated in the garden setting.

Group Dynamics

27The example of hierarchy brings us to a third important aspect of focus groups, which are the group dynamics. Here we can highlight two particular dynamics. One is that between the researcher and the participants, and the other is amongst the participants themselves (Hollander 2004: 604). First, the relation between the researcher and the participant has to do with power relations. In this regard, Leonard and McKnight observed that photo-elicitation can reduce power imbalances in the participant-researcher relationship:

The photograph can become the focus of the encounter, a neutral third party, lessening the discomfort that can arise from maintaining eye contact, thus diluting the presence of the interviewer (Leonard and McKnight 2015: 630).

28In this way, photo-elicitation can serve as a “can opener” (Leonard and McKnight 2015: 630) in interviews, taking away the pressure of direct interaction between the researcher and those being researched. Besides, showing a photo of a situation familiar to the participant empowers them as the “expert”, writes Sarah Pink (2021: 110). In her research, Pink was shown how to take pictures by her participants who corrected her way of photographing a bullfight. In this example, the photograph mediates the breaking of a researcher/researched hierarchy by inverting the role of the expert.

29A second group dynamic to take into account is that between the participants. It is an often-heard critique of focus groups that the more dominant participants might overrule the shyer ones (see for instance Hollander 2004: 610; Leonard and McKnight 2015: 636). Here, the rapport established during the ethnographic fieldwork proved to be beneficial. Due to the long-term participant observation preceding the PEFG, I had already established rapport with all but one of the participants and could therefore navigate the discussion to make sure everyone was included in the conversation. A limiting factor in the focus group, however, was the language. Not all participants seemed comfortable with speaking English. Consequently, those who spoke English more fluently dominated the discussion, which created an unwanted imbalance in the participation.

30Taking all these group dynamics into account, it becomes all the more important not to lose the individual’s perspective during the photo-elicitation. One way to navigate this is by asking participants to first write down their own interpretations of the photos, before engaging in the group discussions (Leonard and McKnight 2015: 636). In my focus group, I therefore set up a so-called ‘photo exhibition’ where the participants could first jot down their thoughts for each photo. By doing so, the participants were initially forced to contemplate individually what the pictures meant for them before articulating their interpretations in the group discussion. I discuss the photo exhibition further in the empirical section.

Collecting Data

31The final consideration before setting up a PEFG is how to collect your data from the session. During the session, the researcher is occupied with moderating the group discussion and too busy to write down notes or take pictures of the group. Therefore, it is important to think about what kind of data will be generated, and how to accurately record them. Besides the conventional way of audio-recording the session, I used two other methods.

32First, I chose to record the session with a video camera. The decision to film the session turned out essential for analyzing the PEFG. For instance, at one point, one of the participants makes a joke to which the others respond with mixed feelings. For privacy reasons, I leave out the details, but being able to look back at the material multiple times allowed me to review how each participant responded to this particularly sensitive moment. Knowing that the session is recorded allows the researcher to entirely focus on moderating the discussion instead of having to lead the session and observe the participants’ behavior. At the same time, the camera cannot record everything. As becomes visible in the next section, Ellen and Das had their backs to the camera, with Das often blocking Hilde and/or Daniël. Consequentially, I was often unable to record the facial expressions of all the participants. Therefore, my advice is to think carefully about the positioning of the camera. Also, for ethical reasons and to avoid unwanted on-the-spot withdrawals from the session, participants should be informed beforehand about these modes of visual recording.

33Second, I collected the personal jot notes courtesy of Das’s suggestion. Although initially they were only meant to provide the participants with a record of their personal thoughts, Das asked me if I wanted his when he left halfway during the session. The others followed his example and these personal notes proved invaluable afterward for their purpose of checking participants’ conformity and other personal associations.

34In the next section, I engage with some empirical examples from the focus group session. Using photographs and footage from the video records, I discuss the potential of this method to study group dynamics within a collective.

Experiences From a Photo-elicitation Focus Group

35In this empirical section, I show how the photograph functions as a “can opener” (Leonard and McKnight 2015: 630) for thematic discussions with field participants. By selecting photographs with certain themes in mind, the ethnographer can choose which ‘can’ to open. I use empirical examples to show how the concept of “semiotic ideologies” (Keane 2018) – the moral judgment connected to sign interpretation – can help understand the value of a PEFG and vice versa, and how the PEFG proved a suitable tool for a semiotic ideology study. First, I show how the combination of jotting down personal notes and reading them out to the group elicited the interpretation of the photograph and personal judgment of associated themes. Second, I show how group discussions evolved around these judgments and how they gave me as a researcher insight into how the gardeners endorse or dispute one another about certain themes.

Personal Associations

36When entering the community garden for the PEFG session, the participants were asked first to take some time to look at the photos in the photo exhibition. The participants were given a pen and a piece of paper and were instructed to answer the following questions: ‘What do you see?’ and ‘What does the photo make you think of?’. In the phrasing, we can already see the hint towards not only interpreting the object but making associations as well. In figure 4, we see how one of the participants, Das, is writing down his jot notes for the various photographs I chose to include in the exhibition (see figure 6). In figure 5, we see that Das’s jot notes clearly reflect the two different questions of ‘What do you see?’ and ‘What does it make you think of?’ For instance, for picture three, he wrote ‘Fuck juppen’ on the left, indicating that what he saw in picture three was the graffiti text ‘Fuck juppen’. On the right, he writes, translated: ‘Hofbogen. Do we want culture, social or are we going to let the capital fill it in?’. The Hofbogen is the building in the picture which is a two-kilometer long building that has become an entrepreneurial hub and symbolizes the local neighborhood’s transition towards becoming an attractive neighborhood for middle-class residents. Das, with his comment, is questioning whether this transition should facilitate cultural and social development, or be taken over by commercial businesses who can pay the highest price for the Hofbogen building’s spaces. It relates to his observation on the ‘Fuck juppen’ graffiti, which shows contestation against processes of gentrification in the neighborhood by young urban professionals (In Dutch: yuppen).

Figure 4 Das jotting down personal notes at the photo exhibition

Figure 4 Das jotting down personal notes at the photo exhibition

Photo by Vincent Walstra

Figure 5 Personal jot notes made by Das

Figure 5 Personal jot notes made by Das

It clearly shows the answer to the question ‘What do you see?’ on the left, and ‘What does it make you think of?’ on the right.

Photo by Vincent Walstra

Figure 6 Photo exhibition

Figure 6 Photo exhibition

The 16 photos that were included in the photo exhibition in numerical order. However, 16 photos proved to be too many. For a group of five people, +/- 8 photographs would have been ideal.

Photos by Vincent Walstra

37The purpose of having the participants write down individual thoughts was first to anticipate conformity in the discussion group. Hollander writes: “pressures may lead participants to adjust their own contributions to match those of others” (Hollander 2004: 610). By initially interpreting the photographs individually, I hoped to increase the chances for an open discussion afterward. In the case of Das, he answered the two different questions quite directly. Other participants wrote down only a few words or sentences for each photograph. However, what Das’s notes show are the two different stages of sign interpretation as per the semiotic ideologies concept. In the left column, Das gives his interpretation of the object communicated by the photograph. In the right column, he adds his judgment, in this case rhetorically asking whether ‘we’ want the Hofbogen building to become a socio-cultural hub or a commercial place. I use the term ‘rhetorically’, because knowing Das already for over a year by the time of the PEFG, gives me as a researcher the intimacy necessary for interpreting his words. Also, as we will see in the next subsection, Das gets to explain his notes which gives the words more context confirming his critique on the gentrification of the Hofbogen. Before, however, I want to turn to the expression of personal associations with the photographs.

38Whereas the above example shows how personal associations are jotted down on paper, the next step was for the participants to express themselves within the group. In most cases, the participants would read out loud what they had written down, after which they would add something to explain what they meant by it. In clip 1 below, we see Vlada responding to a photograph of a compost heap in the Vredestuin.


Rotterdam Focus Group Compost Clip
Credits : Vincent Walstra

Video link:​726032901

40In her personal notes, Vlada had jotted down:

Compost, the circle of life. Also a way to discard things. We humans are easy to throw things out when we are done. It’s in our nature. It’s fine, just things are now made of things that don’t decompose. (Vlada)

41At first, Vlada starts reading out loud what she had written down, adding a few words in between [00:24-00:36] to give examples of what she means. Her notes already contain her interpretation of the compost heap as the circle of life and also a judgment about humanity and how it should become more circular. When Vlada finishes talking [00:48], she finds three people, Daniël, Hilde, and myself, gesturing by nodding approvingly. She immediately picks up where she left, feeling encouraged to continue after which she expresses a second judgment:

What we are doing now, is not working. And this shows to me that yeah, we can throw out a huge amount of stuff, that’s fine, because this doesn’t harm anything.‘ (Vlada) [01:03-01:17]

42In her second judgment, Vlada contrasts the compost heap with a discarding culture which she critiques for ‘not working’. By doing so, she frames the Vredestuin as morally superior to contemporary society for which the standard is to throw away decomposable things. Hence, the photograph of the compost heap has led Vlada to express her judgment of the Vredestuin as a place where things are better than in general society with regard to circularity. So, complementing the personal considerations jotted down on paper in the first instance, the group discussion setting creates a place where the participants can further articulate what they mean by their personal association with the photograph.

43After Vlada, we see Daniël endorsing Vlada’s statement by sharing his own experience with non-compostable trash in the garden. Here we see the topic of the next subsection emerge, which is how the group setting can generate responses to each participant’s interpretations of the photographs.

Group Analysis

44After the participants of the PEFG expressed their interpretations and judgments of the photographs, the group setting evoked discussions either endorsing or disputing one another's perspectives. In the previous subsection, we have seen how personal associations were jotted down which helped to circumvent conformity in the participants’ interpretations of the photographs. Besides, sharing these associations with the group already provided the participants with the chance to add examples or judgments to their written down notes. In this subsection, I discuss what happens when participants are able to comment on one another’s interpretations.

45During the PEFG, I was hoping to trigger conversations about activism within the group. I knew that many of the gardeners saw themselves as activists and had affiliations with climate marches, squatters’ communities, and activist groups like Extinction Rebellion. Also, some proclaimed gardening itself could be seen as a form of demonstrating. By including pictures two and three in the photo exhibition (see figures 7 and 8), I intended to prompt the topic of activism by framing graffiti with protest texts and a climate march in Rotterdam. In the end, we discussed the two photos for about 18 minutes. Even though the gardeners generally agreed on the content of what was protested against, the mode of expression and involvement became a topic of dispute. Below, I analyze this discussion with the use of video fragments and photos.

Figure 7 Photo of Hofbogen arch galleries used in PEFG

Figure 7 Photo of Hofbogen arch galleries used in PEFG

On the left, 'Fuck juppen'; The decorated arch gallery in the photograph houses a craft coffee roaster.

Photo by Vincent Walstra

Figure 8 Climate march in September 2019 in Rotterdam.

Figure 8 Climate march in September 2019 in Rotterdam.

Photo by Vincent Walstra

  • 2 In my forthcoming dissertation, I write about the link between craft food culture and gentrificatio (...)

46The photograph in figure 7, already discussed in the previous subsection, was aimed at the topic of gentrification in Rotterdam Noord2. One of my observations is that the Hofbogen building is becoming a symbol of gentrification in the northern district of Rotterdam and I wanted to see what the gardeners, of whom many live in Rotterdam Noord, think of this development. Interestingly, three of my interviews with the gardeners had taken place in this or a similar craft coffee place in the Hofbogen building, each time as proposed by the interviewee. Therefore, and because the Vredestuin is located at the foot of the Hofbogen building, I was also curious about how they would relate it to the garden.

47In the photo, we see one of the Hofbogen arch galleries used by a craft coffee roaster. Although for an outsider it would not be obvious, the participants immediately recognized the coffee roaster’s place. What further stands out are the colorful murals and the ‘Fuck juppen’ graffiti, accompanied with a (mirrored) squatters symbol. Ellen, Hilde, and Das each wrote down ‘Fuck juppen’ in their personal notes. Vlada, not understanding ‘juppen’ for its typo (it should be ‘yuppen’), noted the palm trees next to the coffee roaster’s entrance, and the air-conditioner at the front of the picture. Both Vlada and Hilde connected the photograph to human-nature relationships, Vlada by referring to ‘human control over nature’ and Hilde mentioning ‘greenwashing’. Daniël, who had joined the session later, did not have any personal associations written down. In the following clip, we see the gardeners respond to the photograph in figure 7:


Rotterdam Focus Group Gentrification Clip
Credits : Video by Vincent Walstra

Video link:​726033000

49What the clip shows is how a group photo-elicitation can generate a multilayered interpretation of one photograph. First, Hilde [00:00-00:50] responds and immediately connects the ‘Fuck juppen’ to the craft coffee roaster by stating that the painted animals that decorate the arch gallery, which is an aesthetic she connects to ‘juppen’, is a form of greenwashing. At the same time, she immediately starts doubting her own interpretation. Vlada then nods and Das agrees: “it is trendy” [het is hip]. The conversation continues with expressions of doubt about whether it is greenwashing, and then Das [01:29-01:48] shares his thoughts saying that capital is taking over the Hofbogen. In this first part of the clip, the gardeners endorse one another with explanations of why the ‘Fuck juppen’ graffiti could be legitimated. However, we also see a glimpse of the ambiguity of their rejection of ‘juppen’ and the coffee place, when Vlada pulls a face of shame and admits that “their coffee is actually tasty” [01:21].

50After Das finishes with his critical statement about the regeneration of the Hofbogen, Daniël twists the conversation by saying “it makes me a bit sad when I see something like this”. In what follows [01:50-02:30] Daniël explains that he thinks the ‘Fuck juppen’ graffiti cannot be legitimated at all. He finds it aggressive and violent, and instantly Vlada, Hilde, and Das endorse this by nodding or saying ‘yes’. Ellen summarizes Daniël’s argument by saying that graffiti “doesn’t solve anything”. Within a moment, the anti-gentrification sentiment has moved towards an anti-graffiti sentiment. Das, knowing the person who did the graffiti, then adds nuance to Daniël’s statement by saying “you could also see it as a form of protest”, rejecting that it should be seen as violence.

51By responding to the varying interpretations of the photograph, the gardeners nuance one another’s judgments and look at the photograph from different perspectives. In this case, they first endorse one another in their judgment of gentrification as a bad thing, triggered by the ‘Fuck juppen’ sign. To Daniël, however, the ‘Fuck juppen’ graffiti was also a sign of violence, after which he judges ‘tagging’ – the act of writing on buildings – as a non-constructive mode of activism. The others then join him in his judgment, after which Das adds the last nuance. Here we see the multilayeredness of the group photo-elicitation, where the group members endorse and dispute one another’s judgments of the photographs. First, Hilde distances herself from the coffee place by framing it as a place of gentrification. However, this is disputed by Ellen who says Hilde should first find out more about it. Also Vlada expresses that she ‘actually’ likes the coffee. Das, however, takes Hilde’s statement a step further and connects the coffee place to larger scale developments of ‘capital’ taking over the Hofbogen, connecting the photograph to anti-capitalist sentiments. The whole discussion is turned upside down when Daniël interprets one of the signs, namely the ‘Fuck juppen’ graffiti, entirely differently. Instead of interpreting the meaning of the words, he has noticed an act of violence in the tagging. What these different interpretations tell me about the group is how they position themselves in society. For instance, we can distinguish the anti-establishment sentiment expressed by Das and Hilde in the first place, and the anti-violence principles that define Daniël’s association. The next example continues on this dispute.

52Another clip, inserted below, shows fragments of the discussion of the next photograph, displayed in figure 8. It is a photograph of a climate march held in September 2019 in Rotterdam. I included it because many of the gardeners had participated in the march and I was curious to know how they related the garden community and activities to this protest. Some of the gardeners even took part in the organization of the march and had organized a banner-making event in the garden at some point. In the following clip, we see several fragments of the discussion arising from this photograph:


Rotterdam Focus Group Activism Clip
Credits : Video by Vincent Walstra

Video link​726033164

54In this clip, my question pushes the conversation towards discussing the relationship between the garden and demonstrating [00:00-00:30]. After that, Das [00:31-01:35] takes over from Hilde and formulates a statement saying that the garden should not be afraid to join forces with activist groups like “Extinction Rebellion, Code Rood (…) and the more legal Milieudefensie” [00:45-00:56]. After the statement, some other participants respond with their ideas about demonstrating, Vlada for instance expressing that she is not fond of mass gatherings. Only after four minutes (which in the fragment is replaced by a black screen), does Daniël decide to respond to Das’s statement [01:44]. In the clip, I had just moved on to the next photograph when Hilde notices that Daniël wants to say something and urges him to speak up. Daniël then responds to Das’s statement in the previous fragment. A discussion unfolds in which the two dispute each other’s position about the level of commitment and collaboration the Vredestuin garden and its overlapping organization GroenGoed should have with activist groups. At some point, Daniël links his critique of Das’s statement to the ‘Fuck juppen’ [02:21] graffiti discussed a moment before, saying there is a “balance between positive constructive work and speaking out against destructive forces” [02:06]. In what follows, Das and Daniël express their thoughts about this balance. According to Das, the garden should not shy away from speaking out through protests, whereas Daniël thinks this is not the function of the garden. They each express their ideas with examples, after which they agree to disagree.

55Here we see two different judgments about demonstrating, and two different ways of contestation. Das, who is a volunteer at the Vredestuin and sympathizes with the activist groups, believes that openly expressing affiliation to the demonstrations is the right thing to do for the garden and GroenGoed as an organization. Daniël, however, being one of the initiators and coordinators of the garden, is more conservative in joining forces as an organization with outspoken activism because he is concerned about the strategic position of the garden and GroenGoed in relation to other institutions. What this shows me as a researcher is that even though Das and Daniël share their ideological position, being against processes of gentrification, greenwashing and climate change, they have different ideas about the modes of contestation and how one brings about change. By reflecting collectively on individual associations elicited by researcher-generated photos, the PEFG method helped to reveal such nuanced diversities.


56In this paper, I set out to share my experiences of combining focus group methods with photo-elicitation. Based on my experience with organizing a photo-elicitation focus group (PEFG) amongst community gardeners in Rotterdam, I distinguished four main considerations to make when setting up a PEFG. I argued that one should pay specific attention to preparing visual material, creating a focus group setting, managing group dynamics, and how to collect data during the PEFG. After outlining these considerations, I turned to the analysis of the PEFG itself. To explain why the PEFG method is relevant in ethnographic research, I used Webb Keane’s concept of “semiotic ideologies” (Keane 2018). I used this concept to show how thematic discussions unfolded around individual interpretations of signs, mediated by the researcher-generated photographs. To sum up the findings of this paper, the conclusions are threefold: contextual, methodological, and analytical.

57First, group composition and the stage of fieldwork turned out to be important contextual indicators for deciding upon the ideal setup for the PEFG. The rapport established between researcher and participants through long-term participant observation fundamentally impacts the purpose and value of the PEFG setting. The intimacy allows the researcher to anticipate power imbalances and conformity, create a natural and safe environment for the participants, and decide which activities will evoke the right discussions. Second, and this conclusion builds on the first one, the established understanding of the research field and participants allows the ethnographer to use methods that bring about different conversations than focus group settings in short-term research. As a result of inductive data gathering during long-term participant observation preceding the PEFG, I was allowed to tap into a deeper layer of group understanding by using researcher-generated photographs eliciting thematic group discussions. Combining individual interpretations of the photographs with group discussions revealed diversity amongst members of an ideologically uniform collective. This connects to the third conclusion, which is analytical. The idea of studying the PEFG outcome by analyzing the participants’ “semiotic ideologies” (Keane 2018), resulted in observed differences in the interpretation of signs, which reflected group diversity. The example of the graffiti showed that signs can be interpreted both through sentiments of solidarity with the tagger or feelings of discomfort with the act of tagging, which revealed the existence of different ideas about the most effective mode of contestation.

58The conclusions in this paper are based on the analysis of a PEFG organized with community gardeners in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The purpose of this paper is to encourage ethnographers to include focus group methods in their fieldwork, and to invite them to experiment with techniques like photo-elicitation to evoke group discussions. Combining long-term research with focus group interviews has proven to be a success, and the hope is that this paper invites other ethnographers to further experiment with and write about their focus group experiences.

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1 In the introduction to the book The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses (2006), established visual anthropologist David MacDougall writes about how ‘seeing’ is influenced by personal meaning-giving and sensorial perception. The process of image-making is again strongly influenced by this ‘seeing’ and therefore a mirror of our subjective corporeal experience of reality.

2 In my forthcoming dissertation, I write about the link between craft food culture and gentrification in Rotterdam. Other authors have done so before me. For instance, Cretella and Buenger write about “food as creative city politics” in Rotterdam, linking emerging food hubs to the municipality’s desire to attract a new wealthy, middle-class citizenry (Cretella and Buenger, 2016)

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 A photograph of a mural used in PEFG.
Caption With this mural, I was hoping to elicit discussions about class differences. I took this picture in such a way that the construction sites in the gentrified neighborhood Katendrecht were clearly visible in the background.
Credits Photo by Vincent Walstra
File image/jpeg, 215k
Title Figure 2 The setup of the PEFG.
Caption Pinned to the greenhouse on the left are the photos in the photo exhibition. The picnic table on the right is the table where we held the PEFG. At the front is a buffet that I prepared. Also in the photo are various tools to record the session, including a camera, tripod, and an audio recording device.
Credits Photo by Vincent Walstra
File image/jpeg, 554k
Title Figure 3 Photo used for photo-elicitation.
Caption Note the fact that it is written in English instead of Dutch, which already implies that the branding is aimed at an international audience.
Credits Photo by Vincent Walstra
File image/jpeg, 145k
Title Figure 4 Das jotting down personal notes at the photo exhibition
Credits Photo by Vincent Walstra
File image/jpeg, 231k
Title Figure 5 Personal jot notes made by Das
Caption It clearly shows the answer to the question ‘What do you see?’ on the left, and ‘What does it make you think of?’ on the right.
Credits Photo by Vincent Walstra
File image/jpeg, 112k
Title Figure 6 Photo exhibition
Caption The 16 photos that were included in the photo exhibition in numerical order. However, 16 photos proved to be too many. For a group of five people, +/- 8 photographs would have been ideal.
Credits Photos by Vincent Walstra
File image/jpeg, 294k
Title Figure 7 Photo of Hofbogen arch galleries used in PEFG
Caption On the left, 'Fuck juppen'; The decorated arch gallery in the photograph houses a craft coffee roaster.
Credits Photo by Vincent Walstra
File image/jpeg, 143k
Title Figure 8 Climate march in September 2019 in Rotterdam.
Credits Photo by Vincent Walstra
File image/jpeg, 163k
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Electronic reference

Vincent Walstra, Picturing the Group: Combining Photo-elicitation and Focus Group MethodsAnthrovision [Online], 8.1 | 2020, Online since 29 July 2022, connection on 30 November 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Vincent Walstra

Leiden University

Vincent Walstra is a Ph.D. candidate of the ERC research team ‘Food Citizens?’ led by Professor Cristina Grasseni at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. After graduating with a master thesis on urban agriculture in Utrecht, Vincent has continued studying the anthropology of food in the Netherlands, researching the nexus of food procurement and citizenship in Rotterdam.

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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