When I completed my doctoral thesis in 2007 I was able to write that, whilst there was considerable research into the plight of US veterans, very little work had been published up until then on the lives and stories of British armed forces veterans. Since 2007 there has been a considerable increase in British armed forces veterans’ research as evidenced by the growing number of articles appearing on this hub. As a researcher, and until very recently a tutor guiding the work of MSc students with a research interest in military matters, I was frequently asked for ideas on how to get veterans to talk – to open up and tell their stories. This short blog is one approach I have recommended.
Getting Veterans to Talk
Veterans just love to swing the lantern; tell and retell their war stories. Veterans also love to relate tales of peacetime exploits amusing, happy or sad on board a ship, in a barracks or airbase. This reminiscing can be easy flowing and generally, the participants need little encouragement, especially so if all involved are themselves veterans. However, many veterans say time and again, that in their conversations about service life, what they discuss: “civvies just wouldn’t understand.” Of course, this lack of understanding can be due, to some extent, to the use of military jargon, slang, and abbreviations which are all part of the everyday language of the military.
Understanding the Language
As an army veteran, I have found it easy to establish rapport with veterans who have been my research participants. Revealing that I served has helped to open the door to much easier communication and both myself and the veterans I speak with know that we understand each other. There are of course always doubters; some who are not entirely convinced of my credentials and others who, perhaps, are suspicious of the motives of academic researchers generally! In recent research, I asked a veteran if he had ever been in a combat situation. His reply: “Well if you count Op Banner we were in contact several times.” was accompanied by a quizzical look to check if I understood that Op Banner related to a period of military activity in Northern Ireland and that being ‘in contact’ meant that he and his mates had been fired at.
Understanding the Meaning
Of course, there is the danger with any research, especially qualitative research which relies on words and their meaning, upon which I, as an ex-soldier might, perhaps, place a different meaning. Or, I might miss more nuanced responses which might be picked up by a non-veteran. However, I digress from my point concerning the ability to get veterans as research participants to engage more easily with researchers.
In preparing for face to face interviews, setting up the required administrative tasks like ‘when, where and what for’ and establishing, as appropriate, an ‘informed consent process’, I also ask participants to seek out and bring with them (or have to hand if I am visiting them) a selection of photographs relating to their military service. Encouraging research participants to bring photographs to interview sessions, as a visual aid, greatly assists in getting them to ‘open up’ more easily.
The Visual Aid effect
In addition to providing the participant with his own memory jogging pictorial history, it can also be interesting to observe what sort of photographs the veteran has kept and selected to bring to the session. Veterans I have interviewed using this method often have several ‘group’ photographs and delight in pointing out their younger self, where the photograph was taken and that the group was on a course or in some remote location or representing their unit at a particular sport. Photographs can also include equipment and weapons, fortified locations, long distance shots of ‘the enemy’ and, sadly, sometimes pictures of friends killed in action. This approach is of course no different to when photo albums are brought out at a family occasion and memories are jogged and stories retold. The difference, in the context of the research process, is that the veteran is able to prepare, in a small way, for the interview session and this can help reduce the possibility of stress which some interviewees can experience
Getting them to Stop!
My experience of this approach to interviewing, known as photo elicitation, along with the careful use of a semi-structured aide-memoire of topic areas (as opposed to a list of direct questions) is that it really does help to get the fact-finding conversation flowing. In reality, with some participants, such is their interest in explaining their photographs and in reminiscing it is a good idea to greatly extend the amount of time you might consider allocating to face to face sessions.
As always, as researchers, we strive to do no harm. Using a veteran’s own photographs can be very useful in getting a conversation started and in creating a flow of useful data. However strong emotions of past sad and traumatic incidents can also be aroused and it is essential for the researcher to anticipate this possibility and, with sympathy and care, steer the conversation to a different area or topic.
A key aspect of this approach is not in studying the content of each photograph but rather in how participants use the content to attribute personal meaning. Research suggests, that the information photographic images generate, provide insights which might not be revealed through verbal inquiry. There is considerable literature on photo elicitation and I have included a small selection below.
Banks M. (2001)Visual Methods in Social Research. London, Sage.
Collier J. (1957) Photography in anthropology: a report on two experiments. American Anthropologist, 59, p. 843-859.
Collier J., Collier M. (1986) Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (revised and expanded). Albuquerque, University of NewMexico Press.
Harper D. (1984) Meaning and work: a study in photo-elicitation. International Journal of Visual Photography, 2, p. 20-43.
Wagner J. (1979) Images of Information. Sage publications, Beverly Hills/London.
I’m going to re-post this as a Hub blog post/promote on Twitter etc and link to this forum post, to direct more people here to read what you have to say on this – a matter that I think will interest many researchers!
Do others have thoughts on this? How have others built rapport with the veterans they’ve interviewed, or how do you plan to? Has anybody else looked into using photo elicitation?
As an aside, I am part of the Imperial War Museum’s ‘We were there’ initiative, where veterans of all ages give talks about their experiences to schools and families at one of the IWM sites. it’s a great way to inform and entertain those who would otherwise have no sense of the realities of military service. Happy to put anyone in touch with the organisers.