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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.