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

IgnaciaOssul 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.

Participatory Photography: Reflections on Practice

Laura JHirst12 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.

Reflections

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.

Notes:

[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

Laura JHirst20 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.