Educating ‘Young Nones’ part 2: Using Photo Elicitation in Research with ‘Young Nones’

In the second post of his two part series describing research among school-aged ‘young nones’ in Britain Simeon Wallis discusses the benefits of using the photo elicitation interview technique to examine how youngSimeon Wallis people’s experience of ‘lived nonreligion’ relates to the concepts and theories employed by researchers in this field. His first post can be read here.

In my previous post I provided some background to my doctoral research on young people of ‘no religion’, reflecting on my experiences of teaching religious education (RE) in secondary schools and positioning my ongoing research in the context of debates about the inclusion of secular philosophies in RE in England.

Focusing on teenagers from a school in England who report ‘no religion’, I used photo-elicitation interviews to augment survey data, in order to further explore why these young people tick ‘no religion’.

Pupils were asked to show me through photographs what is important in their lives, using the medium to represent people, places, objects, activities and times, as well as beliefs and values. The photographs then became ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg 2009:448), with initial interview questions including, ‘what does this photo show?’ ‘why is it important to you?’ and ‘when is it important to you?’

Unlike other visual methodologies, photo-elicitation is often less concerned with the analysis and interpretation of the images per se (or with the quality of the images produced), and more concerned with the meanings and interpretations of those images expressed by participants. Following the photo-elicitation method, interview questions pursue and develop topics as they emerge in relation to pupils’ beliefs and values, their construction of meaning and purpose, and their identities and influences, as well as the material aspects of their lives.

In addition to investigating these young people’s beliefs and identities, this approach also enabled me to consider the extent to which the people, places, objects, activities and times that are considered to be of central importance to their lives can be understood as material expressions of nonreligiosity. The project therefore will not only inform discussions about the future of RE but also contribute to emerging work on the nature of nonreligion by examining nonreligion beyond beliefs and identities, engaging debates about the material culture of nonreligion, and investigating what might be called ‘lived nonreligion’.

I’ve already noticed several methodological advantages in asking pupils to take, and then talk about, photographs.

Many young people perceive adults as having ‘power over children’ (Mayall 2004:121) – a perception that can be magnified by interviewing young people within a school environment. But the photo-elicitation interview method can have a positive impact on these dynamics. I noticed in particular that the young people benefited from having a material object to focus upon in the one-to-one interview setting, being able to hold and look at their photos as they spoke, rather than having to sustain eye contact for long periods of time.

The photography task can also be perceived as easy and fun, as well as a way of encouraging young people to reflect upon ‘new and possibly contentious topics’ and aspects of their lives that might not be as readily accessed through solely verbal interviews (Croghan et al. 2008:355)

In addition to the benefits photo elicitation brings to studies with young people, this method may generally be useful for research in the field of nonreligion studies, providing researchers with a way of accessing ‘everyday, taken-for-granted things’ (Rose 2012:306), which might very well include participants’ nonreligion, and with a means of exploring the materiality of lived nonreligion, as well as beliefs and identities.

As Linda Liebenberg has observed,

the process of making images encourages participants to consider why it is that the moment captured on film is important to them. This reflection in turn enables participants to better articulate these experiences during interviews, using images as reminder notes, directing the research focus. (2009:441)

I concluded the interviews with a more direct exploration of participants’ understandings of ‘religion’ and their reasons for choosing to tick the ‘no religion’ box, in an extended discussion of a range of statements that might be held by people of ‘no religion’. For example, ‘I don’t have a belief in God’, ‘I don’t care about religion, religious beliefs, spirituality or God’, ‘I believe in God but I don’t belong to any organised religion’ and ‘I’m not religious but I am spiritual’.

Used together, these methods were designed to access data that can inform debates about how the lives of young people of ‘no religion’ relate to the theorisation of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’ and other related concepts employed by researchers in the field.

While I have yet to undertake detailed analysis, a few quotations already help to illustrate some of the ways in which pupils’ narratives relate to these concepts:

My mum says I’m a Christian. She says, like, because I’ve been christened I’m a Christian. But to me just because I’ve been christened doesn’t make me a Christian. … There could never be a religion that would fit with all that I thought because my thoughts are so diverse. Umm, [pause] there would never be a religion for everything I thought. … I’m not completely atheist. I’m slightly agnostic because you can never be sure there is a God. I’m fine with not having a religion. Maybe when I’m older I will have one. (14-year-old girl)

I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick ‘Christian’. … I’m not really a dedicated Christian or anything, so- I mean that might change, because if there was a sort of ‘in between’ box, I probably would have ticked that, but to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion. (15-year-old girl)

I kind of find [God’s] a gap-filler, and if we don’t yet know, or we haven’t yet discovered, we’ll use God. And I think that’s why belief has somewhat declined, because we’re able to answer more and more of the questions … with better understanding and not just saying, ‘oh, well that’s the way God made it to be’. And I find that the gaps that God’s needed to fill are getting smaller and smaller. (15-year-old girl)

As researchers continue to study whether and how nonreligion is evident in the lives of people who report ‘no religion’, more clarity and greater understanding of this relatively new concept will develop. Thus far, much of the data emerging from this field has focused on adults who self-identify as ‘nonreligious’, but my research will complement existing studies on teenage religion and values (Francis and Kay 1995) by focusing on fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds who tick ‘no religion’, contributing to our current understanding of ‘nonreligion’ and other related concepts by demonstrating how these are manifest in the lives of ‘young nones’.


Croghan, R., Griffin, C., Hunter, J. and Phoenix, A. (2008) ‘Young People’s Constructions of Self: Notes on the Use and Analysis of the Photo-elicitation Methods’ International Journal of Social Research Methodology 11:345-56.
Francis, L. and Kay, W. (1995) Teenage Religion and Values. Leominster: Gracewing.
Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
Leibenberg, L. (2009) ‘The Visual Image as Discussion Point: Increasing Validity in Boundary Crossing Research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
Mayall, B. (2004) ‘Conversations with Children: Working with Generational Issues’ in Pia Christensen & Alison James, Research with Children, pp. 120-35.
Rose, G. (2012) Visual Methodologies. London: Sage.

Having taught religious education in secondary schools in England, Simeon Wallis is now a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. He has a BA in English Literature from the University of Exeter and an MA in Religious Studies from Lancaster University. For further information about his research, see his page.

This entry was posted in Methods and Methodologies, NSRN Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s