Critical Realities: holding a mirror to participatory visual research

Critical Realities: holding a mirror to participatory visual research

by Thea and Jackie

Participatory research processes hold inherent tensions. They are often instigated top-down in response to policy agendas, but intend to build bottom-up knowledge and action. This means they take place in between social spaces, amongst people with different levels of power in complex socio-political contexts. As a result practice is always a balance between the possibilities opened by the process and the constraints from local and structural power dynamics at play.

Visual methods are no different, and can amplify challenges. The visual provides a medium through which distance between people and power, citizens and state can be collapsed. However, Jackie Shaw’s research on the ethics of participatory visual methods found that both potential for change and risks are intrinsically connected. For instance, the possibility of building inclusion and collaborative group relationships for some is linked to the risk of perpetuating unequal local dynamics by not involving others. The resulting tensions are fundamental aspects of participatory practice, and it is how they are negotiated in situ that makes the difference to the outcomes for marginalised groups.

Reflexivity and embracing the unexpected

We believe that critical reflection has to start with ourselves: our positioning, and attitudes and our actions and interactions. In real-life research contexts few situations are ideal: we do what we can, but in actuality always have to make trade-offs amongst the contradictions. Reflexivity is therefore an integral part of enabling participatory visual research that evolves through cycles of reflection-learning-planning-action and is adapted to meet the priorities and support the pathways of different groups.

We use practitioner diaries, field-stories, prompted discussion in peer groups, and other forms of reflective practice and learning-in-action as processes unfold to learn from what happens and importantly, to respond. But learning from experience only deepens if you stop to acknowledge that learning is taking place. This involves reflecting on the implications for you personally and politically, and how this influences the research process and insights.

Critical incidents where things don’t work as planned are particularly powerful forms of learning, because they disrupt assumptions and lead to deeper understanding. For Thea Shahrokh this has been important in her research on addressing violence, where real-life experiences have provided a reality check, and have required her to work with research group members to rethink the approach being taken.

Making time, finding space and taking action

Learning is amplified through interaction with others. We know this in terms of the research processes we facilitate, but in the rush to the next deadline there is often limited space to really stop and think about our own reflections in research diaries, or explore them through discussion with other practitioner-researchers. Reflective practice therefore risks being a tokenistic endeavour if it does not translate into action – if the learning is not internalised and embedded into the evolution of visual research and practice.

A number of #artsmethods practitioners and researchers from South Africa and the UK recently created space for reflection on participatory visual and arts-based methods in research. In a discussion on ‘provocations from practice’, researchers and activists shared experiences across contexts of the tensions, dilemmas and messy realities of their work. Some painful experiences were surfaced and some foundational questions articulated about identity, power and politics of visual research approaches.

We came away from this process with a deeper recognition of the need for similar safe spaces for researchers to express the uncomfortable aspects of their work. Facing these difficult aspects can be painful: doing so challenges our preconceptions about who we are and what we do, but it is essential to deepen learning and improve practice. People were challenged, we were challenged, yet we were all energised to move forward by working through issues together.

Recognising the importance of honest reflection

Why then is it so difficult to find space for honest reflections that would better prepare researchers and practitioners for the realities of practice, and assist them in understanding how to find pathways forward? There are many factors that constrain researchers from taking the risks necessary to transform their work: restrictive funding environments demand celebration of results and methods not interrogation; calls for success stories gloss over the nuanced and messy reality; and recognition and reputation overshadow life-long learning.

We can both recount incidents from methods learning events which involved navigating dilemmas that balanced creating an enabling environment for group participation with potentially taking away control from the group because of process decisions. Both of us experienced a push-back from peers in what was perceived as us sharing an ‘embarrassment’. For Thea, she felt this was dismissed on account of age or experience, rather than being constructively engaged with. For Jackie, others tried to re-assure her by saying ‘it is understandable given the pressure you were under’. Jackie felt that, yes, it is understandable, but that is the point: to face up to the real-life and often unavoidable inconsistencies, as a pre-cursor to looking at the implications for future engagement.

It is these contradictory and ambiguous experiences that can generate the most insightful knowledge, and it is the relationships established through this dialogue that can create innovative partnerships for research. The question is how can we build an appetite amongst decision makers and funders – as well as practitioner-researchers themselves – for the space and time to foster these critical conversations, so we can reflect on our experiences and create new possibilities that are rooted in our learning?

Further critical discussion of negotiating ethics in participatory visual methods will take place in July at the 3rd ISA Forum on Sociology in Vienna.

Image credit: Trixi Skywalker, mirror

Storytelling to tackle HIV stigma and increase accountability in Egypt

Storytelling to tackle HIV stigma and increase accountability in Egypt

by Mohammed Farouk

Early in her life, Safaa lost both her parents and has since lived with her grandma and uncle in an economically strained and marginalised family in Cairo. When she was diagnosed with HIV a couple of years ago Safaa’s life reached a turning point, forcing her to say goodbye to her childhood and embark on a life shaped by isolation and stigmatisation.
One day, Safaa, suffering from severe toothache and in increasing pain, rushed with her uncle to several dentists. They all sympathised, but as soon as her uncle informed them of her HIV status they refused to extract the infected tooth or intervene in any way.“Desperate, I extracted Safaa’s tooth myself”, said her uncle to a social worker visiting Safaa a few days ago. This is a shocking story, but a real one.According to UNAIDS, around 500 children are living with HIV in Egypt, with many more hidden by social stigma. Safaa’s toothache story made me wonder: how can the voices of such a marginalised, highly stigmatised and vulnerable section of the population be brought into the light, heard and taken into account by healthcare policy makers? How can this ensure that they get full access to healthcare services without any kind of discrimination?

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

With current global discussions around the SDGs, the previous question links directly toSDG 3 “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”and its eighth target “Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all”

The Center for Development Services (CDS) is currently working on a unique initiative, in collaboration with the UNICEF Egypt Country Office, to understand and address the needs and aspirations of Children and Adolescents living with HIV (+CHAD). The question of how to ensure and sustain the long term access of this marginalized group to decent healthcare services was always a hard one to answer given that the healthcare agenda in Egypt is full of other priorities.

Furthermore, people living with HIV in Egypt suffer a high level of negative social stigma even at the level of healthcare service provision. This stigma and de-prioritisation has deeply hindered equitable access, and quality of services provided, to this group.

As part of the Participate initiative our analysis is that SDG 16 “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” provides an important platform to respond to this issue, specifically its seventh target “Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”.

Participatory monitoring and accountability

CDS believes that an effective participatory monitoring and accountability (PMA) process would provide opportunities for +CHAD and their caregivers to voice their needs and interests, reduce their suffering, improve the services they receive and help mitigate the health hazards associate with HIV. This process involves nurturing a collective of +CHAD and their caregivers. With the support of an alliance of actors we aim to inform the relevant government bodies and decision-makers of access problems and service quality, ultimately to enhance their accountability for improved services to +CHAD.

Using Digital Storytelling to support change

To support this process we are developing an approach called Collective Digital Storytelling(CDST), which aims to visualise the +CHAD experiences and realities in a manner that is ethical, empowering and collective at the same time. In creating a space and process for +CHAD and their families to express how they experience care, the lived experiences of +CHAD and their caregivers will be located in the heart of advocacy to influence change in health service provision.

The CDST process itself is expected to impact the lives of +CHAD participants, through a creative and novel participatory experience that allows them to express their own realities living with a chronic illness. Importantly, the process will also engage +CHAD caregivers: important actors who influence the lives of this group and the possibilities of positive change.

The relationships between +CHAD and their caregivers form a crucial alliance, which will also be investigated as part of the PMA process. Creating a sense of collectiveness in the storytelling will accordingly steer and shape the advocacy discussion in the context of health care delivery for children living with HIV/AIDS. The children, adolescents and their families will visualise their own experiences through the CDST which is an engaging structured activity.

We are excited about this initiative and eager to share with you our progress in a series of critical reflection blogs. However, we cannot conclude this discussion without highlighting that challenging and shifting discriminatory social norms and stigma is central to this process, as those who are answerable for the access and quality of services provided to +CHAD are themselves sometimes prejudiced against this group.

Hence the question remains, to what extent will this approach be effective? Will the accountability mechanisms and drivers be different given the social circumstances? Central to our work therefore is understanding how and why participatory monitoring and accountability approaches that promote the engagement and voice of marginalised youth can find traction in such a complex social and political context.

Image credit: M. Farouk – CDS

The Privilege of a Story Teller

The Privilege of a Story Teller

By Revy Sjahrial

I was watching a not-so-new documentary titled “My Kid Could Paint That” the other day and it reminded me of the privilege of becoming a story teller. Whether in fiction or non-fiction, about other people or own self, the story teller has the power to set the direction and tone of the story, to pick and choose the details of what’s in and out, to decide on how the story begins and/or ends; all of which in the end pretty much shape viewers’ perception. Having watched that documentary, I have been made aware of the immense privilege that a story teller of non-fiction holds.

At the end of last year I had the opportunity to tell my own non-fiction story without even realising the privilege yet. I was instead worried that my story was too personal, ashamed of it being judged which would lead to my being judged by other people. It was funny that I had not expected I would end up telling that particular story in the form of such an output. And it was all a result of a training I was lucky to be part of, i.e. my first ever digital story making.

At first, I was asked to respond to a work-related framing question, a response which I initially thought could turn into a platitude too easily, until I heard the instruction to “find a story that comes from your gut.” Never had I felt that connecting to my gut could make me fixated on what’s truly significant amongst all of other significance. The story needed to be told in 3 to 5 minutes’ time, and having a limited time to tell it in a digitally visual way, pushed my creativity and compelled me to focus on details that really mattered.

The ‘premiere’ of my digital story was before trusted colleagues who I consider friends, and whose digital stories were also premiered. It was an experiencemixed with curiosity, excitement and apprehension. So many “what if’s” in my head, ranging from technical issues like whether or not my voice was audible enough, were my swiping of pictures and drawing timely enough with the sentences I wanted to bring out… All those with the addition of more profound questions: what does it mean now that I have got this story ready to tell to the wider world, to whom should it be shared with, why them, why not them, what would their reaction be, what would I expect to be a good reaction, how would bad reaction be like?

I didn’t know why, I still don’t, but I was suddenly reminded of the phrase ‘the personal is political’.

I don’t consider myself as a feminist – as I see myself more of a pro-equity advocate – nor am I a political person, but having told a personal story about what has changed my life and the way I see the world, I felt that it would be meaningful if my sharing could have an impact socially, no matter how small it could be. And that is again the privilege of a story teller, telling meaningful stories which entail social impacts, whether or not they would then bring political impacts – after surviving all the negotiations and probable co-optations – is not the point.

Another privilege I gained was being trained to facilitate others in making their own digital stories for the first time. These were people who provide health services at the frontline as their daily responsibility as public servants. A little bit of background about public service in my country which may not be so alien from other contexts: it is hierarchical, formal, where ‘going the distance’ as an ethos can’t always be expected. But take them as story tellers connecting to their gut, eager to share their personal and meaningful story with the wider world, then what you will encounter are engaged people who would go out of their usual way to make things happen.

They had started the first day of training being very aware of their time spent, wanting to make sure that they would finish in time like they would when at work. Like an accounting principle in inventory, FIFO – first in first out, so is the usual practice of signing an attendance record for public servants.

As days passed by, when story shaping had taken place, they started to own the process, became reflective of what the real meanings were to the things they had held dear all this time, envisaged what they would like to do next when the story was ready. I remember I was amazed at how they ended up spending a lot more time than they had been willing to give in the beginning, to actually finish the whole process of digital story making. They became excited anticipating their premiere. I was equally amazed and, in retrospect now feel even more privileged, to be part of the few people who could listen to the complete stories and to witness the struggle I believe all story tellers face, that is to choose which details worth representing the complete one, as we are bound to time and attention span.

Each story each one person told is a powerful one, with a promise to touch other people’s lives, if not to enlighten. They have made them with dedication, as a remembrance for that one point in life that has made a difference to them.

The take-away for me having gone through the process of both making my own digital story and facilitating others’ is: although the personal is not always political, a life-changing personal makes a great social impact.


An image from my digital story

Personal to Collective Narrative through Visual Power Analysis

Personal to Collective Narrative through Visual Power Analysis: Issues of Power, Representation and Ethics. A Prezi by Thea Shahrokh and Joanna Wheeler

This Prezi documents work we have been developing in South Africa on role of collective action in addressing sexual and gender-based violence.

We worked through a digital storytelling process with the local citizen activists. The DST approach enabled participants to share their experiences about their attempts to address violence in their lives and what happened. The telling/sharing of these stories aimed to enable self-recognition of personal agency and also highlighted what needs to be addressed in order to address sexual and gendered violence within the township and what accountability actors are involved. The DST process transitioned into a collaborative video approach. The individual experiences described through the stories were explored and analysed using a power lens. This supported translation from individual accounts into collective narratives on how stakeholders in addressing sexual and gender violence could respond to the experiences of citizens, and how citizens themselves seek to address the issue.

The Prezi highlights tensions within storytelling  for social change highlighting the political nature of the process.

Can participatory video bring transformative change? Perhaps.  How do you perceive ‘raising citizen voice’?

Can participatory video bring transformative change? Perhaps. How do you perceive ‘raising citizen voice’?

By Tamara Plush

Here in Australia, social and mainstream media is abuzz about a nationwide movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and end racial discrimination in Australia’s Constitution ( To better understand the complex history surrounding the issue, I attended a community forum entitled ‘Who’s afraid of the Constitution?’The event offered a lively debate on recognition, an issue I had assumed to be widely supported by Aboriginal and Torres Islander Straight peoples. In the discussion, I heard a strong counter-argument that the movement for Constitutional recognition served as a distraction from the more politically contentious, but potentially more meaningful, actions around treaty and sovereignty. Here, activists stressed the value of giving voice to this full spectrum of political options. Yet they also acknowledged that the Indigenous rights movement currently lacks a representative vision and the resources to sufficiently offer political alternatives. Some panelists argued that this allows the government-funded Recognise movement to present Indigenous voice as unified through a particular agenda.

In response to the debate, I contemplated how participatory video (PV) could be used to advance Indigenous rights; especially in relation to my PhD researchinto PV, raising citizen voice, and using story to meaningfully influence and transform policy. Participatory video is often considered a communication for development process that utilises filmmaking as a means to cultivate and strengthen the knowledge, confidence and social agency of people who are marginalised. Participatory video processes can support people least heard in society to represent themselves privately and publically towards social and political change. Such aspirations are quite common among practitioners who design, implement and facilitate participatory video projects. However, my research has revealed that PV practitioners actually conceptualise the aspiration of ‘raising citizen voice’ differently. To illustrate, I offer three possibilities for how participatory video could be used to advance Indigenous rights through different pathways for voice identified in my research.

Amplified voice 

Amplified voice prioritises the right to speak by promoting participatory video activities that open platforms for marginalised citizens to generate and share their concerns. Here, locally trained Indigenous community members could collect multiple opinions from diverse communities to feed into the discussion. Through this process, a greater number of voices could be represented in the Constitutional debate. Of concern, however, is how to ensure those voices have influence. For example, if multitudes of opinions are captured on video, the collected voices will require editing to distil them into final films representative of the whole, a process that is rarely neutral. The representative voice that emerges, in other words, can be swayed by who is selected to give voice to the issue, who is gathering the voice and their position of power in the community, and who edits and presents the opinions. There is also a concern as to whether decision-makers will be motivated to listen and respond to the diversity of Indigenous concerns—especially those voices challenge powerful government interests.

Engaged voice

Engaged voice promotes the right to participate.Currently in the recognition debate, the most visible arena for participation is through Indigenous-only consultations planned in communities across Australia. Practitioners could use participatory video here to ensure the most marginalised groups in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are part of the debate, such as young Indigenous people or people with disabilities. Of concern, however, is that the government-supported public spaces are inviting comment only on their agenda, as evidenced by the stance that the consultations must focus solely on the Constitutional recognition debate rather than any other pressing issues.

Equitable voice

Equitable voice focuses on the right to influence through enhancing citizens’ agency, relationships and networks as a means to transform the unjust conditions and power asymmetries that drive people’s marginalisation. Here practitioners approach participatory video strategically in support of wider social justice efforts. Thus, rather than start by engaging with PV in invited government spaces, PV might be better suited in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a means to build local knowledge and agency prior to the consultations. This would help ensure that people from underrepresented groups have the confidence and capacity to speak in public spaces. Alternatively, PV may be more effective in promoting dialogue between diverse Indigenous communities to strengthen or build new social and political networks for greater influence in the long-term. Through these imaginings, I concluded that the equitable voice pathway is the most socially just approach to raising Indigenous voice. Nonetheless, it is also the most difficult to implement considering the complex political terrain at the community level, the powerful governmental agenda at the national level, and the institutional and financial resources required for such an approach.

So what qualities are needed for PV practitioners to approach participatory video practice through the equitable voice pathway? In my research, I found that PV practitioners most closely aligned to equitable voice often rejected the notion that voice amplification or participation in formal decision-making spaces is sufficient for social and/or political change. Rather, the PV practitioners—who tended to label themselves more as ‘social justice activists who use PV’ rather than ‘PV professionals who work on social justice’—primarily promote PV activities that analyse and address power. In this way, their intention is to use PV processes to transform structures that have historically denied or diminish voice. This could be at the household level, in society, or through institutions or government. Practitioners explained that the challenges of using PV to such ends were integral in a much greater struggle to shift inequitable power.

In applying this to the Australian debate, I concluded that efforts to gain more equal and equitable voice for Indigenous peoples require long-term strategies that can be supported by participatory video to raise citizen voice. Taking this approach could increase possibilities for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories being told to be politically meaningful, valued, influential and ultimately transformative.

Tamara will speak about her research at the IVMA conference in Brighton, Sept. 16-18.