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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Cinema as a vehicle for social integration in the city

By ucfumtr, on 17 July 2015

Cinema is one of the least accessible forms of art. It demands a certain amount of financial investment into equipment for filming, lightning and sound, people like actors, assistants and editors – not to mention time. Nevertheless our digital world has opened new doors for visual storytelling through the democratisation and affordability of tools necessary for filmmaking [1].

Inhabitants of excluded spaces – those living outside the ‘formal’ city – are able to use the tools of the digital age, from mobile phones and affordable recording equipment, to online platforms for funding and distributing films, to tell their own stories about the cities they live and experience. Informal settlements are part of the landscape in many cities in the Global South, where for some social exclusion, discrimination, drugs and violence are part of everyday life [2].


Mainstream cinema has picked up these themes through films like El Elefante Blanco, Tropa de Elite and recently Trash. These films have been supported by formal studios and were able to find distribution channels into mainstream cinemas.

However there are directors living in informal settlements who have created fictional depictions of life, while adopting a more realistic approach with its basis in the world within which they live. The interesting link lies more between the cinematic representations of the city than with the story. The mise-en-scène and the urban space not only imply a cinematic setting, but also indicate sociocultural context.

The realistic mise-en-scène of these very low-budget films does not illustrate absolute authenticity but is rather the filmmaker’s articulation of their reality [3]. It is an invitation for the “outsiders” – people living in the formal sector – to understand where these dwellers live and what their perceptions of reality are.

Image by Eflon via Flickr: flickr.com/photos/eflon

These types of films – similar to post-war Italian neorealist cinema [4] – privilege shooting on location and adopt a style of cinematography visually similar to a documentary. The example of Cesar Gonzalez, an Argentine film director living in the informal settlement Carlos Gardel in Buenos Aires province, is relevant.

His films are a testimony to the power of art as a tool for social recognition and integration. Cesar Gonzalez found a voice in cinema that he didn’t have before when he was involved with gangs and smugglers. He directed his first film Diagnóstico Esperanza in 2013 which was filmed with the local people from the informal settlement Carlos Gardel (the film is available to watch on YouTube).

The film depicts life in a space within the city that has its own vocabulary, its own vision of the world, its own soul. As “outsiders” we walk in the streets of this unfamiliar world. His films progressed a wider social acknowledgement among intellectuals and movie critics of informal settlements not just being seen as excluded spaces, but also replete with excluded people.

His latest film “What can a body endure?” (Qué puede un cuerpo?) was made possible by crowd-sourcing funds and then released online via Youtube. It has currently more than 200,000 views. His two films so far have gained critical praise and have been screened in a very prestigious local cinema in Buenos Aires [5]. The National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) is currently funding his third film.

Cinema has been historically involved with political contexts, helping to contribute to a collective perception of reality, and reflecting the state of society at that time. As the example of Cesar Gonzalez has shown, not only can films become a vehicle for telling a story in an artistic way but also as a tool for social recognition and integration – breaking down some of the physical barriers that seem to divide the city.


Marco Trombetta holds an MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development from the DPU. He was involved in local politics in Argentina, participating in several NGOs and international forums such as the G20. He has a passion for Cinema and he writes film reviews in his blog Red Curtain Cinema.

Participatory Photography: Reflections on Practice

By Laura J Hirst, on 12 February 2015

Participatory photography workshop with Gonda self help disability group, Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Alexandre Apsan Frediani. May 2014

In 2014, in collaboration with international NGO Practical Action and the Kisumu Informal Settlement Network (a grassroots network involving representatives from informal traders collectives and neighbourhood planning associations), I joined students from the MSc Social Development Practice on a project looking at the role of neighbourhood planning in the city of Kisumu, Kenya.

People’s Plans into Practice

The focus of the research was to document learning around processes of participatory governance within informal settlements supported by a Practical Action initiative ‘People’s Plans into Practice’, which ran 2008-2012. During these years the programme aimed to improve the well-being, productivity and living conditions of poor people living in informal settlements in Kenya and the East African region.

Within a context of growing private development and regeneration, this research came up with recommendations to strengthen the capacity of neighbourhood planning associations and enhance participatory planning processes.

‘Critical Urban Learning’

We adopted participatory photography as part of a wider research methodology, which related to ‘critical urban learning’ in the module. This idea is defined by Colin McFarlane as ‘questioning and antagonizing existing urban knowledges and formulations, learning alternatives in participatory collectives and proposing alternative formulations’ [1].

In the field, we supported the students in using participatory photography with small groups of residents to explore institutional relationships and networks, aspects of diversity and processes of representation.

Participatory photography workshop with Gonda self help disability group, Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Alexandre Apsan Frediani. May 2014

Photography Exercises

We began by facilitating introductory workshops on basic camera use with a number of themes in mind, aimed at guiding the focus of the activities. These were: spaces and conditions of participation; participation of people with disabilities; housing rights; and the right to water.

The resulting photographs were used in focus group discussions and one-to-one interviews, to draw out personal and shared stories and experiences. We tried to move the conversation beyond assumptions about the surface content of images to explore the processes, practices and relationships behind them and communicate different individual and shared perspectives on living in the city. See some examples of the images captured below:

Gathering water for everyday use in Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Elizabeth Ochieng, workshop participant. May 2014.

Gathering water for everyday use in Manyatta ward, Kisumu by Elizabeth Ochieng, workshop participant. May 2014.

Opportunities for people with disabilities to earn a living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu, George Otieno. May 2014.

Opportunities for people with disabilities to earn a living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu by George Otieno. May 2014.

Informal spaces of participation in Nyalenda B, Kisumu, Joseph Otieno Odhiambo. May 2014.

Informal spaces of participation in Nyalenda B, Kisumu by Joseph Otieno Odhiambo. May 2014.

Accessibility challenges for children with disabilities living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Jane Ouma. May 2014.

Accessibility challenges for children with disabilities living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu by Jane Ouma. May 2014.


Using participatory photography during this project was an exciting, and to many of us, new way of working with research participants. It yielded rich information on everyday urban practices and gave visibility to challenges that might not otherwise have been revealed by using techniques such as standard interviews or focus groups.

It was clear to see how the visual immediacy of a photograph as a talking point often revealed nuanced emotions, values, and opinions. Many of us were particularly struck by the way that the process of taking photographs and telling stories changed the dynamic between researcher and participant. It helped participants to relax and open up and communicate in a fun and more dynamic way.

Making trade-offs

Our timeframe was just two weeks. As a result we had to make a trade-off between different levels of potential social transformation and empowerment that participatory research often promises.

Whilst the participatory photography workshops provided space and opportunities for participants to articulate their own existing knowledge and experiences and discuss aspirations, which were shared in the research outputs for broad advocacy use, time constraints meant there were limited opportunities for participants to participate in directing the research, or for using the photographs to directly advocate for their own positions themselves with city stakeholders.

A longer term engagement using participatory photography with a more explicit advocacy focus could go some way to address these issues. Future action research should therefore aim to work more closely with participants to devise collaborative digital storytelling campaigns that can be targeted to bring stories to the attention of local city authorities.


[1] Colin McFarlane, Learning the City: Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).


Related Content:

Laura published a first post on this theme called Participatory Photography: a background on the DPU Blog in January 2015.

Laura Hirst has been working as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice. She has recently left the DPU to join the DPU-ACHR-CAN intership programme in the Philippines where she will be working with community groups in Davao for the next 4-6 months.

Participatory Photography: a background

By ucqbljh, on 20 January 2015

Image: Laura Hirst, 2014

While there exists a broad history of ‘participation’ in visual research methods, participatory photography or ‘photo voice’ has evolved as a specific participatory action research method for development, which involves providing (often marginalized groups of) people with cameras to record their realities and perspectives.

The process of taking photographs and subsequent group discussion amongst participants and researchers (which can take the form of storytelling, coding, explaining choices taken in making images) can provide new spaces for dialogue, exchange and knowledge production about personal and community issues. The following anecdote illustrates some of the potential of the method as a way of prompting reflexive discussions:

In 1973, while conducting a literacy project in a barrio in Lima, Peru, Paulo Freire and his colleagues asked people questions in Spanish, but distributed cameras and requested the answers in photographs. When the question ‘What is exploitation?’ was asked, some people took photos of a landlord, grocer, or a policeman. One child took a photo of a nail on a wall. Freire & Boal interpreted it as an abstract metaphor of the hard lives of children who worked long hours as shoe shiners, and had to walk long distances between home and the city.

The ensuing discussions revealed that as their shoe-shine boxes were too heavy for them to carry, these boys rented a nail on a wall, usually in a shop, where they could hang their boxes for the night. For them, that nail on the wall symbolised exploitation within their community. The photograph spurred widespread discussions in the Peruvian barrio about other forms of institutionalised exploitation, including ways to overcome them. [1]

In some cases the resulting photographs are themselves used as a powerful advocacy tool, attempting to inspire change through bringing stories and experiences to the attention of decision-makers and the wider public through campaigns and exhibitions.

As well as having roots in Freirean theories of conscientisation (where a critical awareness of one’s social reality is developed through both reflection and action), the method also draws from feminist theory which advocates research participants as actors rather than objects of study, and identifying the empowering potential of knowledge production for participants. [2]

In 2014, participatory photography was used as one of several research methods during fieldwork examining neighbourhood planning and urban governance in the city of Kisumu, Kenya, conducted as part of the MSc Social Development Practice fieldwork. Keep an eye out for future blog posts elaborating on how this was used in practice and reflections on its potential as a tool for empowerment and change in communities.


[1] From: Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper, ‘Photovoice Research’ in Participatory Visual and Digital Methods (Left Coast Press Inc, 2013): 69-89 and Singhal, A., L.M. Harter, K. Chitnis, and D. Sharma, 2007, Participatory Photography as Theory, Method and Praxis: Analyzing an Entertainment-Education Project in India. Critical Arts 21 (1): 212-227.

[2] Caroline Wang, ‘Photovoice: A Participatory Action Research Strategy Applied to Women’s Health’, Journal of Women’s Health, vol. 8, no. 2 (1999), 185-92.


Laura Hirst has been working as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice. She has recently left the DPU to join the DPU-ACHR-CAN intership programme in the Philippines where she will be working with community groups in Davao for the next 4-6 months.