Autophotography and egocentric sociograms in research with signed language interpreters

by Karolien Gebruers

This blog post is about an MA thesis written for completion of the EUMASLI programme: Gebruers, K. (2019). Exploring the Professional Self: A Study of Flemish Sign Language/Dutch Interpreters in Times of Professionalisation (Unpublished Master’s Thesis). Humak University of Applied Sciences, Helsinki, Finland.

“Yes, the methods forced me to reflect on how I see myself as interpreter and on what I think about myself, where do I stand? It is a reflection you need to make.”

I recently completed the EUMASLI programme, which is a master programme for signed language interpreters organised by three universities based in Finland, Scotland and Germany. For my MA thesis, I decided to look at how signed language interpreters perceive their professional self as individuals as well as their being part of a larger professional network. In my study six female full-time working interpreters with different training backgrounds and work experience took part. I conducted a qualitative study using two visual methods: autophotography and egocentric sociograms, which were combined with semi-structured interviews conducted in Dutch. In this post, I discuss the what and the how of both visual methods.


One week before the interviews took place I asked the participants to take three to five pictures guided by the question ‘Who are you as an interpreter?’. I chose an eliciting question that is quite broad, but it is also possible to opt for a more specific one. During the interviews the participants showed their pictures and explained why they took them and what they expressed.  This method is known as autophotography, which can be understood as a blend of autobiography and photography (Armstrong, 2005). Autophotography is frequently used in ethnographic research in order to try to understand how people experience the world they live in. Photos have been largely used as a method in research related to children, but are also increasingly being used as a method in studies with adults.

For example, one participant in this study took a picture of her fridge (see Figure 1 below). For this participant, this illustrated that every assignment needs different ingredients to find the right recipe for a good interpretation, which is a search every time again. Another participant included a picture of a tree (see Figure 2 below), reflecting the versatility of the job as well as the life long learning and growth of an interpreter.

Figure 1: The fridge
Figure 2: Broken branches tree

Regarding their photo collection, participants were creative. While they all received the instruction to take their own photos, some of them also added pictures they found on the internet or in their own photo archive, and one participant decided to photograph a few drawings she made herself (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: An example of a photographed drawing

Although the participants did not take all the pictures themselves, the method can still be considered as generated by them as they did select the photographs. In addition to this, participants were asked not to include photographs in which other people could be recognised in order to protect people’s privacy when disseminating research results. However, two participants did include pictures in which they or their colleagues could be identified. Those pictures were added to the data analysis but were not used as illustrations in the dissertation. Depending on the research aims, however, it is possible to ask participants for permission to use data in which people’s identity is being revealed. 

Egocentric sociogram

Next to the use of photographs, I asked the participants to complete an egocentric sociogram to map their professional network in my presence. An egocentric sociogram is a template consisting of concentric circles with the interviewee positioned in the centre.

Figure 4: An egocentric sociogram

I asked participants to write down, on post-its, names of people or organisations that belong to their professional network. Then, I asked them to position the post-its on the sociogram template and to explain the reasoning behind the positions. (See figure 5 for a screenshot of this process and figure 6 for an example of a completed sociogram.) The participants could use markers: coloured pens and post-its. However, they only used the post-its without attaching importance to the different colours available.

Figure 5: Interpreter explaining the sociogram
Figure 6: Example of a completed egocentric sociogram

Measuring closeness is the best way to study how strong ties between people are (Marsden & Campbell, 1984), which makes an egocentric sociogram a useful tool to explore professional networks. The use of a network map tends to achieve six goals:  (1) representing a person’s network as completely as possible (2) facilitating the identification, understanding and evaluation of complex relationships for the researcher (3) being straightforward, accessible and language independent (4) having dialogical features to integrate smoothly with an interview to explore the social relationships in more detail (5) consisting of parts that stimulate interviewees’ self-reflection (6) being easily applicable with a high level of comparability (Straus 2002). Although a large body of quantitative network analysis reports exist, there has also been a significant increase of qualitative analysis approaches (ibid.), which was also the approach in my study.

Data analysis

The interview transcriptions and the visual data I gathered were uploaded to Nvivo 12, allowing me to constantly link the narratives to the visual data. The main focus was analysing the narratives thematically, although I also included observations regarding the visual data itself.

The participants were creative in the thirty photographs they provided. Varying topics were covered, such as do’s and don’ts in their life as an interpreter, working conditions, the life long learning attitude, the importance of having colleagues, and the versatility of the job. In many cases one photograph showed multiple meanings. The pictures could be interpreted separately, although they were often connected to each other in the participants’ narratives. While some participants might have attached greater importance to the aesthetic part of the images, others seemed to prioritise conveying their ideas (cf. figure 3 above).

Regarding the sociograms, participants did not mention names of colleagues or deaf people, as can be expected due to the confidentiality principle related to the interpreting profession. Some participants covered all concentric circles, whilst others just used a few. The number of labels included ranged from ten (see figure 7 below) to twenty-two (see figure 8 below), depending on whether participants categorised or not. For example, some participants decided to add ‘colleagues’ as one group, while others made multiple groups of colleagues depending on their closeness.  Based on this data, however, it cannot be concluded that those interpreters who added fewer labels have a smaller professional network.

Figure 7: Sociogram with ten labels
Figure 8: Sociogram with twenty-two labels

While the participants took or collected the photographs independently before the actual interview, they completed the sociogram in my presence. It can be argued that my presence (being an interpreter-colleague, an interpreter trainer and a life long learning advocate) impacted the way they presented their professional network. However, being present enabled me to follow the process and the reasoning behind the steps they took while completing the sociogram, and thus to prompt additional questions. Interestingly, all participants made adjustments to their sociograms while explaining the positioned labels, implying that their own explanation made them reflect on their network. Furthermore, the sociograms only capture a moment in time so it is possible that participants might have overlooked people or organisations within their network.

Strengths and limitations

The 8.5 hours of video taped interviews showed that the visual methods made the six participants rather talkative, providing me with a large amount of rich and useful data. However, having used broad eliciting questions also made it more challenging to remain focused on my research interests. Sometimes, visual methods can be met with resistance by participants, for example in the use of language portraits. In my study I did not experience interviewees being resistant. However, when I asked to take the photographs some of them thought it was difficult, as they had never thought of illustrating their ideas related to work with pictures. When they started to collect the pictures, they found it actually turned out to be quite easy and enjoyable.

Initially the aim of using two visual methods was to address the two research questions: autophotography was related to the perception of self as individuals, while the sociograms were utilised to look at how interpreters perceive themselves as a part of a larger professional network. However, the photographs also revealed perspectives on the latter question, as the sociograms did on the former question, and in some cases responses were reinforced because of this mixed methods approach. Moreover, some participants did very consciously prepare the story they were about to tell in relation to the photographs. Some of them even reported having discussed their choice of images with colleagues. The sociograms elicited more spontaneous data, as participants had to complete them on the spot. The discussions between the participants and me allowed me to gain insight into the dynamic processes that were displayed in the photographs and the completed sociograms.

As also mentioned in regards to using language portraits, in terms of analysis it is important to film the visual data. I filmed the interviews so the pictures and sociograms were clearly shown in the videos in order for me to keep track of which photographs and post-its the participants were referring to during the discussions at all times.

What’s next?

All participants stated that the method was rather straightforward and made them automatically reflect on issues they had not always consciously considered, which is exemplified by a quote of one of the participants at the top of this blog post. This illustrates that the method is also useful as a reflection tool. The methods can be used for interpreter students as well as working interpreters to reflect on both their professional practice and their network. The use of both methods as reflection tools is something that I will definitely explore more thoroughly in teaching and professional development contexts in the near future.


Armstrong, K.B. (2005). Autophotography in Adult Education: Building Creative Communities for Social Justice and Democratic Education. Special Issue: Artistic Ways of Knowing: Expanded Opportunities for Teaching and Learning, 107, 33-44.

Marsden, P.V., & Campbell, K.E. (1984). Measuring Tie Strength. Social Forces, 63(2), 482-501.

Straus, F. (2002). Netzwerkanalysen. Gemeindepsychologische Perspektiven für Forschung und Praxis [Network Analyses. Community Psychological Perspectives for Research and Practice]. Wiesbaden, Germany: Deutscher Universitätes-Verlag.

Karolien Gebruers has been working as a Flemish Sign Language/Dutch interpreter since 2012. She trains interpreters in the postgraduate interpreting training programme at KU Leuven in Antwerp and is the president of Tenuto, a Flemish non-profit organisation offering CPD training to interpreters. Karolien has a background in Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences (BAs from Lessius University College) and Interpreting (MSc from Humak University of Applied Sciences). She’s on Twitter as @KaroGebruers

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