Making the invisible visible – Photo-interview techniques in science communication

Making the invisible visible – Photo-interview techniques in science communication

Author: Christine Mauelshagen – RWTH Aachen University, Germany

Eva-Maria Jakobs – RWTH Aachen University

Innovative and complex technologies and research are often behind many peoples’ vision (e.g. on power grid technologies). However, they play an important role as society becomes increasingly dependent on technology research with its opportunities and risks being part of controversial public debates. Thus, the role of scientists as communicators of complex research topics has become increasingly important. The question is: How can complex technologies and research topics be communicated by scientists?

This paper discusses the photo-interview technique as a tool for communicating research on complex technologies. It uses the example of new direct current (DC) technology investigated at the research campus “Flexible Electrical Networks” (FEN) at RWTH Aachen University. DC technology plays an important role in the development of future energy supply systems, but is unpopular outside the research field, being a mostly unknown, “invisible” technology.

The photo-interview technique was adapted for science communication: FEN-researchers (n=5) were asked to take five photos related to the research campus and five related to DC technology in summer 2017. Afterwards, they were asked to comment on their photos in a semi-structured in-depth interview addressing questions about the overall vision of FEN, pros and cons of DC technology, and photo-specific questions, e.g. reasons for image selection and personal connection to the subject. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed qualitatively.

The study indicates two main benefits. First, the results describe research from a very personal perspective. By combining pictures and individual quotes, photo-interview techniques can be used to create highly personal stories and make the invisible visible. Another effect is that the interviewer acquires a deeper understanding of the discussed technology and project. Limitations of the approach arise from the fact that researchers are not trained to create stories and present their work in this way. Thus, compulsory science communication trainings should be part of engineering education.
The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Science
Area of interest: Investigating science communication practices