Listening with photographs: An arts health perspective on the importance of personal photographs in aged care (2 min read)

Dr Tricia King
Lecturer in Photography
Program Coordinator Design
School of Business and Creative Industries
University of the Sunshine Coast

Photographs can be incredibly important to people. Having photographs, making photographs, sharing photographs, talking about photographs, and archiving photographs are all critical ways in which we curate and share our lives. They hold stories, memories, evidence, special moments, cultural memory, and act as performative texts to tell others about our lives. They are displayed on walls and bedsides, kept in boxes, notated against in albums, and now, archived on our smartphones and geotagged on our Facebook pages. They are an act of memory work; relics of the past positioned for our future selves.

As we age, photographs move through our lives with us and we create and accumulate them continuously. Photographs are most often one of the few personal items that residents will bring with them as they transition from their family home to their new home in aged care. They help create a sense of home and belonging in this new space. The photographs represent significant moments in their lives and often hold deeply emotional content such as family, pets, homes or other moments which might be no longer accessible to them.

In Mark Kaminsky’s formative 1979 casework study on reminiscence using photographs with the elderly he noted that “the value of old photographs, for assessment and treatment, cannot be overestimated”.  The use of reminiscence and life review work with older people has been considerably built upon over the last few decades and is now employed in various ways with older people in aged care.

Socially engaged photographic storytelling involves the sharing of old and new photographs (and sometimes the creation of new photographs) which are then discussed with the participant or within a focus group. As a qualitative research method, this is able to give voice to the often unheard, highlight the lived experience, provide a prompt to narrate our experiences, and allow a visual marker which creates a common understanding between the storyteller and the person being told the story to. They foster connections through a shared understanding of the object being presented - a dog, a child, a wedding, a house and so forth. The next step to this is to allow the resident to connect meaning to the things being presented in the photograph and use the photographs to orate stories about their lives.

There are a range of diverse ways to incorporate these forms of storytelling photography into qualitative research practices - Wang and Burris gave us Photo Voice where the participants are given the camera to take photographs of their lived experiences, John Collier introduced Photo Elicitation where the participant discusses a photograph and Wendy Ewald undertook pioneering work with collaborative photography where the participant becomes involved in the process of creating photographs.

However, the simplest thing we can do as researchers working with older residents in an aged care setting is to use photographs as a way we can listen. If you are visiting a resident in their room to provide clinical, social or personal care pay attention to the photographs which are on display - allow the photographs to become prompts for residents to share their stories and in turn share with them. A photograph of a dog for example like the image below, can elicit a rich lived experience. Sharing this photograph with me this resident discussed how these are two English Sheepdogs which he had from puppies, they were inseparable and got a lot of attention when he walked down the hot Queensland streets. He had to groom them lots. The house he’s standing in front of was his family home of many years - he raised his family there. The shadow of the photographer you can see in the bottom of the frame is his wife - he can’t remember what the occasion for the photograph was except to show how much he loved those dogs. His wife is also in aged care but a different facility and his daughters take him to visit her most weekends. All these beautiful memories shared and revisited through this one photograph.

It is important to note that when using photographs to connect, the experience can be a wonderful act of reciprocity where we don’t just take information as researchers, but we share information too and allow more meaningful connections to be made. I have two silly dogs at home, big dogs like his and we made a connection over how wonderful pets are for the soul. Next time I visited he asked me how my silly dogs were - so we had made an ongoing connection.

Moving to aged care can often be a sudden and somewhat traumatic experience for older people and they may not have full autonomy over the full range of belonging which are transitioned with them. Listening by using these photo elicitation techniques in the context of the aged care facility is particularly pertinent because of the methods’ use of personal objects of meaning. Making connections with caregivers and other residents is one of the most important things to do to ensure the resident does not feel socially isolated. Photographs are an accessible, visible, and important way to make everyday connections. The stories they tell may sometimes be filled with sadness as well as joy, but this is an important way for residents to articulate their feelings and be heard.

23 June 2022

Collier, J. (1986). Visual Anthropology: Photography as a research method. (Revised and expanded edition). University of New Mexico Press.
Hyde, K. (2005) Portraits and Collaborations: a reflection on the work of Wendy Ewald. Visual Studies. 20(2), 172-190.
Kaminsky, M. (1979). Pictures from the past: The use of reminiscence in casework with the elderly. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 1, 19–32.
Wang, C. and Burris, M.A. (1997) Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24(3), 369-387.


Dr Tricia King is a researcher and Lecturer in Photography at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her research focuses on creative arts in health and wellbeing and the role that photographs can play in personal and cultural constructions of identity. Using techniques such as photo elicitation, documentary and collaborative photography, Tricia develops collaborative participant drive projects working predominantly with older people experiencing to explore their lived experience and develop programs to assist with social isolation and wellbeing.