sloppy buddhist


“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 Heilbrun and 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.

  1. Very interesting topic – good reading, thanks!

  2. This is such an interesting concept, one I have never heard of before. Thank you so much for such a well written article on “VNI”

    I also wanted to thank you so much for stopping by my blog and subscribing. I look forward to sharing with you.

  3. I realize this is not a new post, but I react to it today in terms of what I experienced yesterday and described in my own blog today (13 Jan 2013) — perhaps all that found art out on Leslie Spit amounts to the physical evidence of an ongoing, unofficial and collective process of VNI between all of us who go out there, and the environment in which we find ourselves…

    • yes seeing photography and story as a verb…as we ‘do’… appreciate your words and connections…currently working on a duo visual narrative inquiry manuscript…which has been very exciting and educative…thanks again for your comments 😀

  4. An attractive blonde woman with a camera
    unusual image

  5. Interesting – I assume you know about Narrative Medicine? I don’t know much, but like the idea of it, also Narrative Therapy (Michael White and David Epston). And then, where does Buddhism fit in? I’ll go check out your other sites now – thanks for the follow –

    • yes i do…there is a program at Columbia…probably others by now…and yes i’ve met Rita Charon…and yes i believe narrative medicine makes much sense…and yes the therapist too i’ve heard them speak at conferences…back when i lived on the academic landscape…and i’m not sure how the Buddhism fits in other than one day i told my friend i’m a sloppy buddhist….i had made the decision to ‘put down’ one of my critters…so that was the start and he said you need to blog and share your hedy thoughts…so in 2011 i decided to front each one of my posts with Buddha (sih) quotes as a way to frame my thought things…so now i’m still sloppy but i have learned a lot along the way…and that Buddha has a lot to say so it’s working for me…working in the sense that i can connect or ruminate on my own narrative threads…i did start my blog for me…i began to see my sloppy space as as a meaning making space for me…and i just keep learning…so thank you for looking and saying this…i appreciate your comments and i will take a computer look at your site now too 😀 smiles hedy 🙂 now i will look…i cleaned up my comment…of course i love editors…big smiles ~ hedy

  6. So glad to have found my way here via elmediat’s Implied Spaces.

    I feel a lot of this soaring rather far over my head but I have a long history of reading beyond my means so I read on undaunted. I have in fact been concentrating for some time on what my friend Jeremy Nathan Marks called “boundary work”, writing on the cusp of meaning. Snicking quite thrillingly into this mosaic is a recent piece by Matthew Bevis in the March issue of Poetry:

    “This also calls attention to how visual researchers rely on a visual world that is endless and constantly changing.”

    “Narrative inquiry is always composed around a particular wonder or puzzle, and visual narrative inquiry, too, begins with a sense of puzzle or uncertainty. ”

    Perhaps I am reading too much into things here (Go figure. I write poems.) but the connection to Buddhism seems obvious to me. Contingency, uncertainty and recursive process are at the heart of what I see in as the core of Buddhist thought.

    If you are not already familiar, might I recommend the work of Stephen Batchelor? These are precisely the things that he focuses on in his writing, as I have come to in mine.

    (No surprise I already see a familiar face here. bluebrightly is a fellow blog friend.)

    I look forward to reading much more of your work.


    • so wonderful to connect Johnny it is a connected world…i appreciate your comments…thank you…my title Sloppy Buddhist was what i named myself after helping a pet along to her death…so i went with it with the encouragement of freinds 😀 …i see the connectivity of VNI to Buddhist concepts or thought…i’ve resisted or contested the place of religion in my academic work…of course acknowledged it…and i’ve found my soul by releasing myself from the university institution…now i take photographs, read poetry, and look for beauty with intention on this blog so i will check out the connections you have given me…thank you 😀 look forward to a coffee and a look about ~ smiles hedy 🙂

      • “i’ve resisted or contested the place of religion in my academic work…of course acknowledged it…”

        Mr. Batchelor should be right up your street then! Secular Buddhism (*gasp* say the orthodoxy) is his thing. 😉

  7. I guess that I should also mention that I take photos and have done a few photo-stories/word-image pieces.


  8. Hi Hedy,
    My first impression on reading this is ‘who has the time to do all that!’
    My subsequent thinking leads me towards using these techniques as a way to form character sketches for the people who roam the stories and novels I write. Or actually as a way of forming the stories themselves. Much food for thought here.
    You seem to have a nice mind, Hedy – hope it’s doing something nice today. 🙂
    Kindness – Robert.

    • thank you Robert…appreciate you saying 😀 i began my VMI work in my undergrad probably before that…but it was silenced…it’s a way of knowing for me…a way for me to communicate…i wished i was given a camera instead of a pencil in my girlhood…and longitudinal studies/research makes more sense to me…i’ve been working on a graphic novel…slowly i am rebooting that project in my artroom…it will be fun! compose a wonderful day ~ smiles hedy 😀

      • Your reply is a lot more right-brain than I expected (I like that). I was expecting words like pünktlich and augenblick for some strange reason. 🙂
        I am in awe of anyone who can produce a graphic novel. I am so looking forward to that. I expect you will be combining photographs with graphics?
        Composing … wonderfulness.

        • i borrowing ideas from the work of Max Ernst…Une semaine de bonté 😀 and yes i will use my photography, already existing documents and my words…i’ve been working on gathering ‘data’ and sorting ‘stuff’…i will create it in my heady time…i’m excited and motivated to work with it…and yes my right/left both part of the same hedy brain…many smiles have a wonderful day Robert!

          • Well, my day is virtually over. It’s one minute past eleven in the night now. 🙂
            I so love that you’re doing something you enjoy – that’s such a rare and precious thing. You may have miles to go, but your smiles will roar you on for every step of the way. Such a pleasure to meet you.
            Kindness – Robert.

          • Thank you kindly I will visit your blog as well Robert 😀

          • Most welcome to drop around again – perhaps read a post or two, get entertained, drop an interesting comment, have an interesting conversation and maybe, just maybe, find the meaning of life (and this time, stay sober whilst doing it). 😀
            Disclaimer: all of the above is intentioned as humour as is most of the stuff on my blog*.
            *Apart from the stuff that isn’t.

          • i do have my vices Robert ☺️🤓☀️ i will be inside and take some time to catch up with posts…but now off to photograph 😀

          • Let me know when you get back and I’ll put the kettle on. One lump or two? 🙂

          • just black maybe some cream 😀 have a happy day Robert!

          • Happy days to you too. 😉

  9. May I be the latest (since 2017) to add my “like” here! I will return to this and read more attentively later but stories and observations and pictures attract me; “I’m being drawn to a light” moment. Dear Hedy, I look forward to learning more 💐🎋🙋‍♂️

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