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Visual Criminology with ...Qualitative...Criminology

In this editorial, Heith Copes describes visual criminology, the difficulties of publishing it, and the unique possibilities for doing so in QC; offers general and specific illustrations of this craft; and, concludes with ethical considerations.

Published onAug 12, 2020
Visual Criminology with ...Qualitative...Criminology

Qualitative methods have been a part of criminology since the discipline’s inception (Bennett, 1988). For the most part, qualitative research involves fieldworkers observing or collecting oral stories, converting them to text, and analyzing the textual data. The final products of this research are then published in the form of written texts. The value of this work for our understanding of crime and control is immeasurable.

However, text-based presentations ignore a key sensory source of data: the visual. As a result, we lose valuable insights into how people live, look, and speak. Despite the insights that could be gained from engaging more of the senses, criminologists have been slow to embrace visual content as sources or illustrators of data. This fact is likely a consequence of numerous technological and financial limitations of academic publishing. It remains rare that readers of academic journals are able to see or hear the data that drives criminological research.

Until recently, the outlet for academic research was restricted to print journals. This medium prevented innovative ways of incorporating visual data into the final products. It simply was not possible to publish video in criminology journals. Additionally, having more than a few (black and white) images “in print” was cost prohibitive. That is all still true for most journals.

An exception is The Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology (JQCJC), or …Qualitative…Criminology (QC) for short. Its new platform removes restraints that have encumbered visual criminology; it makes convention, technology, and finances of minimal concern. QC provides opportunities to incorporate visual media into published research like never before.

With QC, we are no longer constrained to poor quality images, or only able to show video by linking out to other websites. Authors can embed high resolution images and video recordings into articles. This flexibility will change how we share our research. The incorporation of better images and, for the first time, videos into publications will allow reviewers and “readers” to better understand and evaluate our findings. Moreover, and even more excitingly, this newfound technological freedom will change how we shape and design future projects.

As an advocate for visual criminology and a member of the QC editorial board, I encourage everyone to take advantage of this change. In what follows, I provide a few illustrations of how visual methods can be incorporated into articles published in QC. It is certainly not an exhaustive list, but I hope it will give some basic insights into how we can incorporate visual methods into our publications.


Visual criminology includes a broad range of philosophical, theoretical, and methodological traditions to the study of crime, deviance, and justice (Brookman & Copes, 2018). Traditionally, it involves drawings and photographs (e.g., Lombroso, 2006). Thanks to technological advancements, video, websites, and plausibly any digital media are relevant. In recent years, criminology has been advanced by virtual reality displays (Meenaghan et al., 2017), closed-caption television (Lindegaard, de Vries, & Bernasco, 2018; Philpot et al., 2019; Sytsma & Piza, 2018), and body-worn cameras (Jacques, Lasky, & Fisher, 2015; Willits & Makin, 2018).

Photo-elicitation interviewing

One of criminologists’ most common visual methods is photo-elicitation interviewing (PEI). It consists of incorporating images into the interview to stimulate discussions. Marsh, Copes, and Linnemann (2017) showed images from anti-meth campaigns to people who were using meth, with the goal of learning how they viewed these campaigns. Wright and Logie (1988) showed photographs of houses to burglars and homeowners to identify features that made them uniquely attractive to burglars. To better understand use of force in prison, Gariglio (2016) asked correctional officers and prisoners to discuss photographs inside prisons.

An example of PEI comes from a photo-ethnography project that I completed with Jared Ragland. For this project, we photographed participants and we asked some of them to provide us with photographs. We then used these photographs to elicit responses from participants during interviews. For example, we asked one participant, Alice, to send us a self-portrait. She sent us a photograph of her looking down at a mirror. This image and text was published in this journal on its old, less visual-friendly platform (Copes, Tchoula, Brookman, & Ragland, 2018). Below is how it originally appeared:

On the mirror was a line of methamphetamine (mixed with Adderall), a razor, and the words, “I love you” written on it. When we asked her to reflect on this image, she said:

Because that [methamphetamine] was really all I was interested in and I had a thing with razor blades and mirrors to put on my make-up and I’d written “I love you,” because in the back of my mind—which it’s under everything in the back of my mind you know—I still love Dinah [my daughter].

While we have published that photograph and others (Copes, Tchoula, Brookman, & Ragland, 2018; Copes, Tchoula, & Ragland, 2019), we have been unable to publish the color versions. The limits of publishing reduced the quality and concomitant effect of the photos and, by extension, of our research. Those limits no longer constrain us, however. Compare the above photo to its color version, below. You can see that with QC’s new platform, the visuals of future articles will not suffer the same negative consequences.

Documentary research

Documentary research is another way that visuals are incorporated into criminological research. Here, the aim is to show aspects of the participants’ lives that often go unnoticed by others. It has provided a rare glimpse into the daily life of persons who commit crime, use drugs, or operate on the outskirts of conventional society. This method is exemplified by Bourgois and Schonberg’s (2009) photo-ethnography of heroin addicts in San Francisco, Goodman and Gumpert’s (2012) portraits of people living in prison, and Drentea, Copes, and Valles’s (2020) portraits of women in recovery.

Such work is often published in the form of photo essays, which include an author statement of a general issue that leads into a series of photographs. Others publish photographs within more traditional research articles to provide more context to the text. For example, in another article (Copes, Tchoula, Kim, Ragland, 2018), we included photographs to highlight how participants spoke about different types of meth. An extract from this paper is:

Participants acknowledged that both [types of meth] are bad but that shake just seemed worse. JC both used and sold ice. He said he rarely bothered buying or selling shake (even though he said he could cook it himself). On the first day we met him he showed us his supply of ice and praised its quality. Such descriptions of ice were common.

This text was accompanied by a photo:

What is almost entirely missing from the criminology literature are documentary films. Such videos can be included in QC. Sandberg and colleagues interviewed Muslims in Norway to learn more about how they resisted radicalization. In addition to producing a book and several articles (e.g., Sandberg & Colvin, 2020), the team developed short videos of people discussing what Islam meant to them. Such work showed the repertoire of stories that young Muslims used to counter religious extremism.

Despite their meaningful importance, the authors have been unable to fully incorporate their videos into their publications. Yet now, in addition to publishing the written findings, the authors could embed videos like the one here. Such videos capture the humanity of people and, in this particular case, highlights how they struggle to counter extremism in their religion.


We must be aware of ethical issues surrounding visual criminology. High on these concerns is guarding against potential harm to the depicted persons. Even with aliases and intentionally distorted visuals, it is not possible to fully protect against loss of confidentiality. People can be recognized in visuals, even when their face cannot be seen. Thus, it is important to be clear and direct about the possible places these images could appear.

Being honest about where the visuals may appear will enable participants to make informed decisions. My research team informs participants that their photographs are likely to appear in academic outlets (journals and conferences) and on the photographer’s personal websites, and that there is a chance that a major, national news organization will run a story based on them. In fact, Forbes ran a short story on the project (Alm, 2017).

Also, we need to be aware that visuals are uniquely powerful. While we may seek to humanize participants and act as “counter-visuals” to how people are negatively portrayed, it is possible that our work further stigmatizes them. Accordingly, it is important to properly contextualize all photographs and videos to prevent them from becoming another form of “poverty porn.” Due to the potential harm that may come to participants from using visuals, it is necessary to ensure compliance with ethics compliance groups (e.g., a university-based IRB in the US).

It is clear that there are numerous ways to incorporate images and videos into our work. The value of visual data as sources or products of data collection is only limited by our methodological creativity. I hope that people will take this opportunity to publish their visual work in QC.


How to Add Media Into Pubs on PubPub. (2020). CrimRxiv. Retrieved from


Alm, David. (2017, June 30). This controversial project spotlights meth and the people who use it. Forbes.

Bennett, J. (1988). Oral History and Delinquency: The Rhetoric of Criminology. University of Chicago Press.

Bourgois, P., & Schonberg, J. (2009). Righteous dopefiend. Berkeley, CA: University of California.

Brookman, F., & Copes, H. (2018). Visualizing crime and deviance: Editors’ introduction. Deviant Behavior, 39, 417-420.

Copes, H., Tchoula, W., Brookman, F., & Ragland, J. (2018). Photo-elicitation interviews with vulnerable populations: Practical and ethical considerations. Deviant Behavior, 39, 475-494.

Copes, H., Tchoula, W., Kim, J., & Ragland, J. (2018). Symbolic perceptions of methamphetamine: Differentiating between ice and shake. International Journal of Drug Policy, 51, 87-94.

Copes, H., Tchoula, W., & Ragland, J. (2019). Ethically representing drug use: Photographs and ethnographic research with people who use methamphetamine. Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology, 8(1), 21-36.

Drentea, P., Copes, H. & Valles, J. (2020). Hope, dignity, and oral health for women in recovery. Contexts, 19, 62-64.

Gariglio, L. (2016). Photo-elicitation in prison ethnography: Breaking the ice in the field and unpacking prison officers’ use of force. Crime, Media, Culture, 12, 367-379.

Goodman, A., & Gumpert, R. (2012). Take a picture, tell a story: Anthony Goodman provides a commentary to the photographs by Robert Gumpert.”Criminal Justice Matters, 89(1), 36-37.

Jacques, S., Lasky, N, & Fisher, B. (2015). Seeing the offenders’ perspective through the eye-tracking device: Methodological insights from a study of shoplifters. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 31, 449-467.​

Lindegaard, M., de Vries, T. & Bernasco, W. (2018). Patterns of force, sequences of resistance: Revisiting Luckenbill with robberies caught on camera. Deviant Behavior, 39, 421-436.

Lombroso, C. (2006). Criminal man. Translated by Gibson, M., & Rafter, N. H. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Marsh, W., Copes, H. & Linnemann, T. (2017). Creating visual differences: Methamphetamine users perceptions of anti-meth campaigns. International Journal of Drug Policy, 39, 52-61.

Meenaghan, A., Nee, C., van Gelder, J.L., Otte, M, & Vernham, Z. (2018). Getting closer to the action: Using the Virtual Enactment Method to understand burglary. Deviant Behavior, 39, 437-460.

Philpot, R., Liebst, L. S., Møller, K. K., Lindegaard, M. R., & Levine, M. (2019). Capturing violence in the night-time economy: A review of established and emerging methodologies. Aggression and violent behavior46, 56-65.

Sandberg, S., & Colvin, S. (2020). ‘ISIS is not Islam’: Epistemic injustice, everyday religion, and young muslims’ narrative resistance. The British Journal of Criminology. doi:10.1093/bjc/azaa035

Sytsma, V. A., & Piza, E. L. (2018). Script analysis of open-air drug selling: A systematic social observation of CCTV footage. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency55(1), 78-102.

Willits, D.W., & Makin, D.A. (2108). Show me what happened: Analyzing use of force through analysis of body-worn cameras. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 55(1), 51-77.

Wright, R., & Logie, R. H. (1988). How young house burglars choose targets. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 27(2), 92-104.

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