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Doing Participatory Photography: the politics of home-making in Valparaiso

Ignacia Ossul Vermehren14 April 2015

‘No matter how familiar the object or situation may be, a photograph is a restatement of reality; it presents life around us in new, objective, and arresting dimensions, and can stimulate the information to discuss the world about him as if observing it for the first time’  – Collier, 1957: 859 [1]

Ignacia PP1

The use of visual methodologies has been introduced to help expand the efforts of data generation beyond more established avenues such as language-based interviews. Photo-elicitation, specifically participant-driven photography, can capture life experiences, spaces and emotions that may be difficult to grasp through other methodologies.

Although not considered a miracle cure, it is thought to have particular qualities such as:

  1. Producing different type of information – many times more precise and vivid than other techniques
  2. As a primary ‘language’ – it can be used with people of different ages and with different levels of oral or written language
  3. Addressing concerns of power relations between researcher and subject, as well as knowledge production.

Participatory Photography Research Workshop

As part of my PhD fieldwork I have been using participatory photography to explore the meaning of home for residents in informal settlements in Viña del Mar, Chile. Particularly in discussing home-making practices, home aspirations and housing policy. In practice, the workshop develops across 6 sessions, in which participants learn basic photography skills and take cameras home to capture images for the next session.

The workshop starts with an introduction to photography, discussing the different uses, participants’ personal relationship with pictures and basic skills such as how to operate the camera, framing, colour and the use of light.

In an introductory activity Luis chooses a picture of a colonial building in a magazine, he says: 'I chose this picture because I like architecture, looking at old buildings, pictures help maintain them even if there are not there any more'

In an introductory activity Luis chooses a picture of a colonial building in a magazine, he says: ‘I chose this picture because I like architecture, looking at old buildings, pictures help maintain them even if there are not there any more’

Participants practicing how to frame a picture, taking into consideration what to include and what to leave out of the photo

Participants practicing how to frame a picture, taking into consideration what to include and what to leave out of the photo

The first assignment refers to images that represent their home. It was important for the data collection that participants felt free to take any picture they wanted – without been concerned of getting the ‘right answer’.

Some of the pictures taken by participants (Francisco Ahumada, Katerine Montecinos and Mariela Aravena); (top-left) privacy of a single room, (top-right) community centre which was constructed recently by the residents, (bottom-left) house and the dogs as part of the family and (bottom-right) nature, not only their own plants but the surrounding environment

Some of the pictures taken by participants (Francisco Ahumada, Katerine Montecinos and Mariela Aravena); (top-left) privacy of a single room, (top-right) community centre which was constructed recently by the residents, (bottom-left) house and the dogs as part of the family and (bottom-right) nature, not only their own plants but the surrounding environment

Participant looks at her printed pictures for the first time.  Participants were impressed with the results, stating that is was not the same as seeing them on the screen.

A girl looks at her printed pictures for the first time. Participants were impressed with the results, stating that is was not the same as seeing them on the screen.

After revising the pictures individually, the group puts together all the pictures and divides them into categories of what represents home

After revising the pictures individually, the group puts together all the pictures and divides them into categories of what represents home

The second and last assignment was to take pictures of elements that they like and do not like about a house. Participants were encouraged to look for these elements not only in their house, but also in the neighbourhood and city.

Participants exercise the type of pictures they would like to take for the assignment

Participants practise taking the types of pictures they would like to use for the assignment

The pictures from the second assignment were rich in content and included much more elements from the city than the first assignment. Many of them took pictures while they were going to work and in the streets.

Ignacia PP8

Elucidating Everyday Aspirations

Some of the results of the second task are shown in this image (above). These were taken by Nayaret Gajardo, a woman living in the settlement. She took five pictures of elements she would like for her house such as a better kitchen, a big backyard, water tap for the settlement in case of fire, and connection to services. The three elements she does not like refer to the way she is currently connected to services, which she evaluates as dangerous and a poor quality of life.

In brief, the participatory photography workshops facilitated discussion on some elements which could be easily disregarded using other techniques. It has shed light on everyday life, the personal, the collective and the political. The concept of home portrayed is wide and diverse, it does not only refers to the home space but also to multiple places, people and feelings. The challenge now is to do a rigorous analysis moving from images to findings, so that pictures serve not just a nice visual complement for the research but as solid data for the study.

 Notes:

[1] Collier J. Jr. (1957), Photography in anthropology: a report on two experiments. American Anthropologist, New Series, 59 (5), 843-859.


Ignacia Ossul Vermehren is a PhD candidate at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. She previous studied the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU. She worked for 4 years at Techo, a youth-led organisation that works in informal settlements where she was Director of the office in the region of Valparaiso. Ignacia is currently undertaking her PhD fieldwork in Chile.

Community savings: mobilising for secure tenure and housing in Davao

Laura J Hirst7 April 2015

Barangay Payatas, a Quezon City neighbourbood, is home to the Philippines’ largest landfill site, where up to 500 truckloads of waste are dumped daily, and on whose slopes hundreds of people live and work, many of them scavenging for recyclable waste.

It’s here that the foundations of HPFPI were laid in the early 1990s, by Vincentian missionaries who initiated social initiatives with the waste-pickers or mangangalahigs (so-called ‘chicken-scratchers’). This included a savings programme, and as participant numbers in Payatas grew, so too did news of its success.

HPFPI Davao orienting community associations on the savings process. © Laura Hirst

HPFPI Davao orienting community associations on the savings process. © Laura Hirst

Mobilisation through savings

Other communities from cities across the Philippines visited and formed savings groups back home and in 2001, the Homeless People’s Federation Philippines (HPFPI) was incorporated. Today, the savings programme still underpins HPFPI’s community-driven interventions; whenever a group is organised, the first group project is savings.

The idea is that mobilisation through savings can develop communities’ financial capacity to invest in and plan their own developments, through for example negotiating and managing land acquisition, relocation, or on-site upgrading. As a social mechanism, savings brings community members together regularly for support, to exchange ideas and strategies and over time build capacity to negotiate with the state, private sector or other stakeholders to gain secure tenure.

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Urban challenges in Davao

Davao, where I am currently working, is the primary city of the southern island of Mindanao. Geographically, it’s very different to Metro Manila, mainly thanks to its low population density and relative greenery. However, it’s still highly urbanised, and with a quarter of the city’s population classed as ‘urban poor’, many of its inhabitants are subject to the same urban trends that proliferate in the National Capital Region.

Davao has a severe lack of affordable land and housing options for low income families, resulting in the spread of informal settlements, often on hazardous land, illegally, with minimal service provision, and at risk of eviction. The huge housing backlog is being addressed at a painfully slow rate by local government, making the work of community-based organisations like HPFPI and the Philippine Alliance vital.

From individual to federated savings groups

Since I’ve been in Davao, I’ve witnessed how savings groups become part of the federation in a number of ways. Some approach the federation directly, encouraged by word of mouth, but also driven by imminent threats to their security. We were recently contacted by community groups in the Ma’a neighbourhood who, having heard of the federation’s work, requested a savings orientation. They are facing eviction from the private land they are occupying and want to mobilise to search for and acquire a relocation site.

A similar eviction threat to the Arroyo settlement (home to 3000 + households and located close to the HPFPI office), has mobilised federation members to encourage their neighbours to start saving in order to be ready to respond to any future plans for the land. Savings here have previously paid for legal fees to fight similar eviction orders.

The federation also reaches out and extends support to areas which have experienced natural disasters, as well as encouraging savings groups, as in Arroyo, which has suffered fatal floods in recent years. Additionally, partnerships between local government and the alliance can pave the way for the introduction of savings and community mobilisation.

HPFPI Davao orienting community associations on the savings process. © Laura Hirst

© Laura Hirst

Current projects of the Philippine Alliance

The Alliance is currently constructing houses as part of a large relocation project at a site called Los Amigos, which has initiated a new group of savers. We are also facilitating community mapping of a number of informal settlements in an industrial area of the city, for community planning purposes, supported by a progressive local government unit.

We hope that this will act as a catalyst for these communities to create savings groups, supporting the planning process with increased social and financial capital. The strength of the savings programme has also allowed communities in Davao to access funds through the ACHR Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) programme for upgrading projects to address problems of land, infrastructure and housing at scale, often in partnership with local government.

These have included bridges (including the now world-famous, and rather beautiful bamboo bridge in Arroyo), flood defences and structure upgrading across a number of communities.

Models of community saving schemes

The federation’s model of savings comprises several different funds, amounting to five pesos (about 7 pence) a day; an Urban Poor Development Fund (loanable, for projects to develop the area) and group savings (withdrawable anytime for emergency use) are kept by the community, whilst a monthly contribution to a city fund helps HPFPI to sustain its activities, and build a revolving loan fund at the city level.

Each group is also encouraged to save 150 pesos a month for future land purchases. Groups meet weekly and there are rules about the collection and storage of money for transparency and accountability.

Whilst the model appears straightforward, as with any community mobilisation work, challenges arise from group to group. During my first month here, each Saturday we visited each of the HPFPI affiliated community associations in Davao to assess and understand their current situation and any problems they were experiencing.

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Mobilisation through community mapping, Barangay Ilang. © Laura Hirst

Community organisation is complex

Mobilisation depends greatly on the huge commitment of voluntary time and effort of the HPFPI ‘mothers’ and coordinators; during the early days of a group’s formation members need orientation and training in record keeping.

In the long term groups also need to be sustained and encouraged; groups can succumb to savings fatigue, and become discouraged about slow progress and gains. Some associations in Davao are comprised of members who have mobilised for land acquisition but are spread living across different sites, which brings practical problems in terms of regular savings collection and meetings.

Leadership issues, schisms within associations and mismanagement of savings do occur, and in these cases, the mothers need to employ huge sensitivity and diplomacy to navigate community politics, histories, relationships and individuals to maintain strong community associations that can continue the struggle for secure tenure.

How can emerging challenges be overcome?

In light of our visits, we’ve been discussing ways to address some of these problems. We hope to start piloting a few changes to the model with new groups, such as rotating responsibility amongst all members for collecting savings on a weekly basis, so that everyone feels included and responsible for the group’s financial status.

Community and leadership exchanges between stronger and weaker groups are planned, to strengthen the situation of those currently struggling through sharing learning and successes across the city.

We hope that at the same time we can build on these activities to reinforce and deepen the (often challenging) ambition of the alliance to develop a strong, organised and engaged citywide platform for communities to discuss, plan and build their way to secure tenure and housing.


Laura Hirst is currently working in Davao City with the Philippine Alliance as part of the DPU-CAN-ACHR junior professional internship programme. She is an MSc Social Development Practice graduate and a former Graduate Teaching Assistant for the programme. Her interests include participatory urban governance and social diversity, gender justice, participatory processes and methodologies and photography. She has previously worked at the UCL Urban Laboratory as well as for Leonard Cheshire Disability, PhotoVoice and One World Action in the UK, civil society organisations in Peru and Cameroon and on action research projects in London, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

This contribution is the latest in a mini series of posts from our interns in the Philippines. Read blog 1, on the Philippine Alliance and blog 2, on Community Mapping in Metro Manila.

Highlights from WUF7 Day 1

Alex Apsan Frediani8 April 2014

Habitat International Coalition general assembly

Monday April 7th was my first day at the 7th UN-Habitat World Urban Forum in Medellin. This is quite a special edition of WUF, as it is building up to the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III. But instead of heading to the conference centre, I ended up going to the Habitat International Coalition general assembly at the department of Architecture of the National University of Colombia. And it was totally worth it!

The day started with reporting by representatives from representatives from different regions and working groups updating HIC members and participants of the various activities of the network. This included the launch of the impressive book called ‘La vivienda, entre el derecho y la mercancia: las formas de propiedad en América Latina’ (http://www.hic-al.org/noticias.cfm?noticia=1532&id_categoria=8), which reflects on the model of housing production of Federación Uruguaya de Cooperativas de Vivienda por Ayuda Mutua (FUCVAM) and its applicability in other Latin American countries.

Then the various activities that HIC will take part inside and outside the World Urban Forum were introduced. The event closed with a discussion of future projects and alliances, which turned into a really interesting debate on the ‘social production of habitat’ and the need to continue documenting and learning from the activities of HIC members in this field.

Habitat International Coalition general assembly, WUF7

Apart from great discussions, HIC also produced a powerful document on its expectations of Habitat III. Among other things, the document highlights that ‘urbanization is not inevitable’, calling for ‘equitable, ethical and people-centered development planning’ which supports for ‘social production of habitat’ and recognizes the ‘social function of property, prioritizing commons and collective goods over private interests’. These are crucial issues to bring to the discussions around the Habitat III agenda, which show a clear and constructive mode of engagement of HIC in this process (some of these points are articulated in the following statement at the HIC website: http://www.hic-net.org/news.php?pid=5397).

Some of the other DPU highlight of this first day of WUF includes the televised one-hour panel discussion in which Julio Davila shared the floor with Architect Martín Pérez and scholar Fernando Viviescas.  They discussed the principles of a sustainable and equitable city using examples from Medellin, Singapore, Bangalore, Accra and Nairobi. The panel will be aired at Canal UNE you tube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/televidentescanalune

Reflections on recent Centennial Congress of the International Federation of Housing and Planning (IFHP)

ucfuab423 July 2013

IFHP 2013 Cover of special edition of Arkitektur DK for the IFHP Centenary Congress 2013 in London

The Centennial Congress of the International Federation of Housing and Planning (IFHP) recently brought together a stimulating and highly qualified crowd of international planners for a conversation closely aligned to the DPU’s focus on global urban growth. Yet, as DPU students might have come to expect, the messages the speakers presented were as diverse as their backgrounds and veered from the highly technical to the bluntly political and everything inbetween.

The first to take the plenary podium was Mitchell Silver, Past President of the American Planning Association and Chief Planner, City of Raleigh, North Carolina. In a perhaps unlikely combination, Silver doubles up as an inspirational speaker. He called for us to ‘fall in love with planning again,’ thanked planners and asked us to find purpose, be proud of the planner’s role in and assert the planners role in ‘making a difference.’ Silver argued strongly for big ideas and courage in planning for new trends. His message was that we need to plan more for sustainability, for people and for people’s consumer preferences – and the key difference he highlighted is generational change. According to him, new approaches are needed to cater for increased mobility, urban living, quality transport, easy access to entertainment, shops and high quality public spaces.

The suburban dream is becoming outdated, both for mobile young professionals and for aging baby boomers, increasingly isolated in car dependent suburbs as age curtails mobility. In Raleigh they are responding with a ‘new’ urbanism approach – increased density, transport orientated development (TOD) and investment with a nod to environmental consideration and equity. Another good news story: density = higher tax revenues. For all the big ideas and motivation here we might have been left wondering: where are the people in this? Even further, where are the politicians? Silver’s message was one of the planner as hero, empowering enlightened planners to help people, not the other way around – politicians were peripheral, people were objects to be planned for.

Following Silver’s heavily planning orientated speech, six influential figures took to the stage, including Charles Landry, whose backgrounds and responsibilities stretched tensions between the technical and political planning to the limit. The discussion was unmistakably political, with only two ‘professional planners’ – one of them representing a multinational technology firm. Next, the event divided into sessions around themes. On the agenda were broad discussions around responding to urban growth, a case study of East London regeneration and the Olympics, smart cities, climate resilience and social justice.

Cities are transfroming

I followed the seminar track on the East London case study – the subject of my dissertation and one where planning and politics are tricky to unpick. This deprived area of London is the subject of unprecedented regeneration attempts linked to Olympic ‘legacies’ but while the legacy narrative is of social development, the investment model is dominated by massive real estate development, led by financial industries and a mega event. What would be the effect on the local populations? There were three comparable and sizable interventions to look at – all heralded as part of the solution to the ‘East End problem’. Jo Negrini, Newham’s Director of Strategic Regeneration proudly announced a deal with a Chinese financial conglomerate to redevelop the Royal Docks as a third financial centre for London. The Royal Docks are currently a bleak and windswept site, isolated from the rest of London by the river, major trunk roads (the A13) and sprawling estates of suburban council housing but they are seen as a strategic growth area by the council. It was too early for detailed questions, but the sales pitch was clear – new jobs and investment in an underutilised site.

As the conference progressed, speakers included Eric Sorenson, former CEO of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), responsible for the Canary Wharf development and Paul Bricknell, head of planning for the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). Sorenson was quick to admit that Canary Wharf remains starkly isolated from the surrounding communities and has done little to alleviate poverty and deprivation. This he said was down to physical barriers such as the (very same) A13 and a ‘needs based’ government housing policy that concentrates poverty. But would the Olympics and the Royal Docks go the same way: would economic and spatial improvements cater for the local populations or create new divisions? Bricknell, from the LLDC said no – local jobs and clear physical links are a key part of the Olympic plans; ‘Legacy’ is key. But can we really learn all the lessons of the past simply through ‘comprehensive strategic planning’? And what does ‘Legacy’ really mean?

Mike Raco, a Planning Lecturer at UCL’s Bartlett remained dubious. In his summary of the two-day seminar session, Raco asked: “If we were serious about Legacy, why were £9 bn invested in mega sports stadiums in an area of deprivation when budgets are being cut for key services?”. He invited us to imagine a planning approach for people that invested £9 bn in nursing homes for the ageing population. It went unspoken but it appeared as if Raco’s question quietly asked whether a new financial hotspot is really what Newham needs.

The conference ended as it had begun; highlighting generational change and calling the next generation of planners to step up, to use new approaches to bridge the tough social urban questions. Urbego, the new IFHP initiative for young ‘multi-disciplinary’ planners rejected the old ways but weren’t sure what to offer instead. We had to find something new, different, radical: something akin to the ‘Fosbury Flop’. So how could planning be re-imagined? Well, it seemed to depend on who you asked, but something that didn’t feature much – at least in the debates I attended – was planning with people (or by people) for people…..

Jamie is currently a student of the MSc Urban Development Planning at the DPU