Participatory photography – Jack of all trades, master of none?

‘Proxy wars’, do diets work ? and the 2009 Ashes series

OK, I am going to be a bit flippant and suggest first-up that the debate about whether participatory photography (PP) represents the greatest thing since sliced bread or is an ineffective use of resources that perpetuates neo-colonial attitudes in development is;

1) a stupid debate on a par with ‘Does dieting work?

2) a ‘proxy war’ about participatory approaches and visual representation in development, and as such, best tackled head on.

Now, there is a temptation to take that as a cue to stop writing right here, crack open a cold-one and get back to the serious task of watching England and Australia battle it out in the Ashes (for the uninitiated, this is THE most important cricket series in the world!). After all, there are serious questions to be discussed, such as should England play Harmisson at Headingley instead of Broad, and will Flintoff be fit (and if he isn’t then don’t we need Broad)? But unfortunately before we can get to such matters I feel an obligation to explain my flippancy. So, here goes.

Over the last decade there has been a marked increase in the use of PP in development, education and human rights work. Yet, in contrast to this surge in popularity, it has drawn significant criticism. This article will analyse why something seemingly straightforward has been hailed both as an antidote to the ‘picturing of poverty’ and condemned as ineffective, or even damaging. Through this analysis I will try to show that much of the criticism has been too generalised to be very useful, with ‘over claiming’ by PP practioners contributed towards this. I will suggest that the crux of the debate currently centres on the broader issue of representational power relations and ‘authentic’ viewpoint that require practical solutions based on a better understanding of subjects and audiences. I conclude by suggesting that it will only be through the use of mixed visual media practices, presenting a variety of diverse viewpoints, connected as a ‘conversation’ that we can not only create a more accurate representation of the issues, but also facilitate a more dynamic activism across communities.

Before going any further I would like to thank the following people for their insight and materials that made this article possible; DJ Clark (multi-media journalist), Shahidul Alam (Drik), Rebecca Burton (Kids With Cameras), Ross Kaufman (Director of ‘Born Into Brothels’), Sara Parker (Liverpool John Moores University), Tiffany Fairey (co-founder, PhotoVoice), Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh (photographer), Sara Sehnaoui and Ramzi Haidar (Zakhira).

The Right Questions to Ask?

t could be said that any analysis of participatory photography (PP) needs to look at two issues;

1) Does this tool offer an antidote to how people living in difficult circumstances (usually marginalised groups facing economic hardship or social discrimination) are generally represented through photojournalism and NGOs?

2) Can it really deliver on all the multiple claims made in its name?

Although the issues these questions raise are interesting, and I will touch on these, I give primacy to another question;

Did the PP project you ran do what it set out to do?

And this can only be answered for each individual project by an evaluation that is conducted over time and looks to the original project strategy objectives. As Rebecca Burton at Kids With Cameras told me;

“As for advice to those running a similar project, I would recommend that they reflect upon the ultimate goal. If the goal is to bring the world of photography to children as an art form for creativity, then their approach may be very different than someone who wants to teach photography as a life skill. The approach would be determined by the desired outcome.”

The reason the first two questions are not especially helpful is that one cannot ‘grade’ PP by generalising about – it is too broad a methodology and as Rebecca says, each project outcome is different. That is not to say there are not general rules that can help avoid some of the mistakes commonly made by practioners, particularly in regards to ethics and impact, but let’s not enter the territory of ‘Are diets any good?’ The chocolate and beer diet was just CRAZY (well, at least after day 2), but that steamed fish and veggies one kinda worked (though I did keep thinking about beer and chocolate, go figure?).

Having said this, let’s not throw out both these questions whole sale. I will come back to the first one (‘antidote’) later as it will lead us to broader issues that I believe have turned much of the analysis of PP into a kind of ‘proxy war’ about power relations and ‘authenticity’ in ‘picturing poverty’. For the second I will use it to look at examples from experienced practioners that can help us put the benefits of PP in perspective, and so connect its real benefits within the frame of the first question.

A bit of background

I first learnt about PP when I met Tiffany Fairey (co-founder of the UK based NGO, PhotoVoice) at a photography fair in London some years ago. The fact I had not heard of PP until then is in part an indication of how far behind the work of the human rights movement was in regards to ‘participation’ by right claimants compared to the development sector. In Amnesty International, just about to launch its ‘Demand Dignity’ global campaign (focussing on ‘poverty‘, with emphasis on ‘slums’ and ‘health’) there was no talk of ‘agency’ or a push for participation until a couple of years ago. It is only now organizing its first PP project.

There has been much written about the history of PP so I will not waste space repeating it here. Briefly, participatory photography (PP) as a methodology is far from new, and stems from academic participatory methods such as ‘Participatory Rural Appraisal’ used by Robert Chambers. It was video rather than photography that kicked off participatory methods using visual media, such as Su Braden’s work in Viet Nam. The use of photography for development research can be traced back to work by Caroline C. Wang and Mary Anne Burris from the University of Michigan who worked in Yunnan province in China. Other pioneering practioners include Wendy Ewald who in 1975 founded the Mountain Photography Workshop with children in Appalachia, Kentucky. Edwald is now director of the Literacy Through Photography programme at Duke University, North Carolina. Participatory photography grew in popularity, through community projects, emerging as an NGO tool in the early 90’s, eventually gaining mainstream exposure through the Oscar winning documentary ‘Born Into Brothels’ in 1995. PP is now widely practised around the globe, from micro projects run by individuals with a handful of participants, to huge initiatives like ‘Lazha’ run by Zakira in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon involving 500 children.

Despite variations in how projects are run the basics remain the same – social activists or professional photographers train a group of people (usually kids) in difficult circumstances to use cameras in order to improve their situation. Groups targeted for such projects tend to be marginalised or discriminated against for a variety of reasons, and do not have access to such art based educational opportunities. The objectives for each project vary, with PP being used in many different ways. It is partly this diversity of outcomes that explains the many benefits claimed by PP, and for people to question PP’s ability to deliver. Can it really be a ‘jack of all trades’, and does this make it ‘master of none’?

Too good to be true?

Some of the claimed benefits of PP are best summarised in PhotoVoice’s ‘Methodology’.

These include; ‘Self-development’ – by means of self-expression, addressing trauma, and gaining confidence; ‘Advocacy’ – with the subject becoming the creator (providing an alternative, first-hand perspective), and a ‘Better Standard of Living’ (or Income Generation), through vocational training and image sales. On top of this there are other educational benefits, not only for the primary participants, but for secondary participants. Examples are Save the Children’s ‘Eye 2 Eye’ project that ran PP workshops with kids from several developing countries to teach kids in the UK about ‘child labour’; and Kids With Cameras educational pack produced in collaboration with Amnesty International (USA) used in high school in the US around topics such as ‘Personal and Collective Responsibility’, ‘The Transformative Power of Art’, and ‘Discrimination and the Right to Education’. In both these cases PP is one component in a wider educational package, used to facilitate discussion. On the surface it appears to offer a more personal communication between the kids. However, in neither of these cases does there appear to be a sustained conversation between the two groups. Thus the value of PP here rests on offering a first person view point. As much is often made of how our view of developing countries is predominantly informed by the media inclusion of alternative sources of visual information in schools is welcome, particularly if they act as a catalyst for debate and discovery. As Zana Briski testifies on the KWC website;

“American children are riveted by the kids from Calcutta. They connect with them through the film in a way only kids can. Kids want to share, to know more, to get involved. This is why I wanted to build a curriculum around the film, so that it can be a catalyst for awareness and change.”

Whether ‘Born Into Brothels’ or other PP projects offer a more balanced account than other media is another issue, but they are another source.

mistakes and went back to the drawing board, refining and developing her work in the camps over years, even giving time to academic research into the methodology. She now runs a long term project with young men and women that claims some success, including impact beyond its immediate participants.

The practicalities of running well planned PP projects are not romantic or easy, particularly if you want to involve a large group of kids.
Zakira’s ‘Lahza’ project aimed to ‘teach the basics of photography to a group [of kids] among the most neglected, as well as most receptive but rarely offered these types of learning opportunities.’ When the project finished they wanted to continue to offer the kids involved in  the project the opportunity to learn more about photography. So, they set up ‘Ma baad al-Lahza’ (‘After Lahza) for those aged 12-13 years. However, as Sara Sehnaoui at Zakira goes on to explain this time things were not so simple;

“Most of the problems we faced had to do with the age group we selected. We faced some discipline issues. The chaos and disorganization in their lives sometimes seeped into the classroom to the extent that we literally had to ask them not to smoke in class! However, with time things improved tremendously, but we still had issues you would face with any young group, such as a lack of effort or missing classes.”

With good organization, ensuring the project is appropriate and practical, PP may be a useful educational tool. However, ‘Lahza’ aside, most projects work with a small number of people, begging the questions how they benefit the wider community and thus their cost benefit? A question no doubt on many donors lips. I got a variety of answers to this question. Rebecca at KWC says that their work very much focuses on the core participants;

“We do work with a specific group of children to meet the goals of a project. For the most part, I would say that the workshop group is most affected. There may be effects on the broader community that we don’t see, but we have not measured that.”

Others are more optimistic about the wider impact projects have. Yasmine recollects street exhibitions organized in the refugee camps;

“People were arguing if it was more important to show these pictures outside the camps and abroad or inside. And we were surprised to notice that not everyone agreed on the pictures even though they were taken in the community by young people from the community. A man was criticising Fatmeh’s series arguing that her pictures were obscene, because they showed girls’ backsides. Another man said that the pictures were not showing the suffering of the Palestinian people and he would have preferred to see photographs of martyrs and war. This led to a discussion on identity in general and the building of identity through images. Given that UNRWA schools in the camps do not organise any type of ‘arts’ education, I think that the discussions generated by the exhibitions are interesting and will in the future maybe have a wider impact on education, artistic production, and general aspects of life.”

his again touches on whether, if your aim is to provide ‘arts’ based education to children, would your resources and time not be better spent on advocating for this more broadly rather than running micro projects? Tiffany Fairey of PhotoVoice concedes that PP is resource intensive, and it is a constant battle to persuade the donors that the benefits are wider than the individual participants. However, she believes there is growing evidence that projects do have the ability to transform a community. This is echoed by multi-media journalist DJ Clark;

“The presence of a photographer is often valued in communities where change is needed. Giving cameras to members of community can be good, empowering, allowing people to ‘let off steam’. There is probably some genuine benefit here.”

On income generation DJ is less convinced;

“In the UK, only 1 in 5 BA Photography graduates are still working in the photographic industry 2yrs after finishing their degree. What vocational opportunities in photography can a three week or even three month project realistically offer kids in a refugee camp?”

That is not to say revenue has not been made from the sale of photos, exhibitions and post-project work. But as DJ observes, is the money generated enough for the project to break even let alone produce a surplus? This is the area of PP that is most likely to fail expectations if not handled correctly, and generate substantial rifts between participants, local partner NGOs and photographers. Again, we come back to the need for projects to be well planned, appropriate and sustainable. As PP matures as a tool it becomes apparent that in its early days it suffered from what Tiffany calls ‘over claiming’.

“The claims made for PP have been overstated. This has been driven partly by the need to get funding and to raise its profile. It was a small field trying to validate itself.”

However, she feels that it is also because the positive outcomes are sometimes hard to quantify, occurring over long periods that may mean PP does not adequately represent its benefits. One project that has been demonstrably successful in regards to income generation / vocational development is Drik’s ‘Out of Focus’. Starting in 1994 the initiative worked with working class children to train them as photojournalists. Participants have gone on to pursue successful careers in photography, including jobs and internships at Drik.

Drik India also ran a similar project with kids from a red-light district in Kolkata, at one point bringing them together with the ‘Out of Focus’ kids from Bangladesh. In some ways Drik’s project sums up how PP should be used and judged on the issue of income generation – small resource intensive projects that benefit the lives of a few for the better over a long time period, where a clear distinction needs to be made between whether you are primarily teaching photography or using it as a tool for something else.

Nine out of ten people probably couldn’t tell the difference

The final claim made for PP I want to look at is how it impacts on the way participants and their communities are visually represented – particularly to the outside world. Beyond the question of whether the projects may or may not benefit the participants directly, is there something intrinsically different about the photos they produce? Does PP offer an antidote to how the disadvantaged are pictured? Does it have the ability to re-balance the power equation between photographer and subject? Do images produced by PP really present an alternative viewpoint, something more nuanced? And if they do, can they gain enough profile to challenge the images presented in the main stream media?

Given the harsh criticism aimed at development NGOs over their use of images, particularly in relation to famine, their enthusiasm for PP can be seen as one way to address this. But do they really do this? Is PP that different from citizen journalism that has been criticised in regard to issues of objectivity, non-compliance with professional practice (such as sources and ethics), and quality? There are few examples of anything approaching an empirical study comparing pro and PP photos, so most of the evidence is anecdotal. Practioners, naturally, tend to be positive about the images, saying that they offer a different and valuable insight. Sara speaks about the ‘Lahza’ project.

“It was imperative to allow [the participants] to show their camp, their surroundings and their life as they felt it and as freely as possible. At Zakira we wanted to provide them with a tool that would push them to search and reveal their daily experiences. The pictures taken by these children are being exhibited in many cities in Lebanon. They provide a broad and detailed portrayal of the Palestinian refugee camps that is rarely seen, and that is very different and far more interesting than what the press reveals.”

Yasmine also reports success from the street exhibition her project organised in the camp. However, the exhibition they held outside did not generate as much enthusiasm amongst the participants, and raises the question of how small photo exhibitions can reach a wide enough audience to challenge existing perceptions? I asked her specifically about this, and whether PP can help people represent their lives better?

“I honestly don’t really believe in this idea that participatory photography allows the subjects to represent their own lives. Because I don’t think it is only the act of taking your own photographs that would allow someone to really represent their life. In this sense I think that it depends on every single project and the used methodology as to whether it was useful in changing peoples perceptions.”

Yasmine brings us back to a central point – the success or failures of PP can only be judged through individual projects. This also goes for the photos. Its ability to go up against main stream photojournalism in regard to a mass audience may be severely limited but that does not mean it cannot be used to change the views of a small target audience. On a project by project basis this may work – i.e. challenging the Minister of Education to provide better school facilities for migrant children. Whether the photos present a truly different perspective is unlikely to matter – the context in which they are presented will be their strength e.g. the participating children opening an exhibition of their work with the relevant government officials and members of civil society present.

In this regard, whether PP images actually present an alternative viewpoint may matter less than the fact that the images were produced by the rights claimants themselves. The images may or may not reveal anything significantly new, rather it is the ‘voice’ of the participants where the strength lies. This is particularly important as there is little evidence that PP images offer something pictorially different than professional work. Those who support this view point to the training of participants as one factor in limiting their unique viewpoint. Through presenting ‘what makes a good photo’, using ‘Western’ examples, focus on one particular style of photography (usually photo-journalism / documentary), and emphasizing certain issues the trainer may already be influencing the type of photos the participants take before they push the shutter release.

On top of this there is the issue of editing and placement, which may take on the trainer’s preferences and NGOs needs (or those of the donor). DJ Clark speculates that given these potential problems you are unlikely to get anything close to an ‘indigenous style’, and that less training may go some way to preserving individuals creativity. Others, including Tiffany, disagree. For her it comes down to the approach to training, something that she says PhotoVoice is very aware of and incorporate into all their projects to counter undue influence. This equally goes for editing and presentation, something that Yasmine also believes is vital.

“I don’t like the idea of “participation”, as it refers most of the time to a participation in the picture taking, but not in editing, conceiving and presentation processes. I found this participation dangerous from several reasons. It often is practiced in a context in which pictures are produced for a Western public, the “participants” don’t keep track of what happens with their pictures, they rarely edit, and present their photographs as they want.”

Tiffany also points out that there should be less focus on the actual picture taking.

“There is an over emphasis on who takes the picture, who actually presses the button – the ‘decisive moment’ – but photography is a longer process, involving editing and presentation to an audience. The international audience tends to focus on who takes the photo. What is important is that participants are involved in whole photographic process – this brings people to a ‘place of expression’ and that they remain in control of their images.”

This is very relevant as it is the whole photographic process that will contribute to how the image is read by an audience – what we know about the photographer, the authority given to the image in how it is presented, as well as what the viewer already knows – all will determine the reading. But put side by side with professional photos of an equivalent strength can people tell the difference? Or more importantly, do they come away with a different view of the issues? Based on work with his MA students in China DJ Clark thinks not, but more research is needed to really explore this issue adequately.

As with the debate on how the work of ‘Indigenous vs. Western’ photographers differ, issues of diversity and equality of representation may turn out to be better supporting arguments than one claiming to offer a substantially different viewpoint. With the risk of stretching the ‘diet’ metaphor to breaking point – does the PP ‘diet’ produce images that are less likely to stereo-type than the photo-journalist ‘diet’? Roland Bleiker of Queensland University and Amy Kay of UNDP in Cairo suggest in their paper ‘Representing HIV/AIDS in Africa: Pluralist Photography and Local Empowerment’ that PP does.

The paper makes a comparative study between photos taken by 12 year old Tenanesh Kifyalew (who was HIV+ and later died due to the disease) during a PP project run by Eric Gottesman in Ethiopia between 2003/04 and a single image taken by photojournalist Ed Hopper in 1986. In the paper Bleiker and Kay conclude that PP (or what they term ‘pluralist photography’) offers a viable alternative to naturalist and humanist photography (pursued by photojournalists) because it is less likely to ‘universalize suffering’ and so produce stereotypical representations. Despite the paper asking interesting questions about the role PP/pluralist photography can play in representation, it disappoints. The research is of questionable use as it is based on their interpretations alone, which fails to answer the important question of how images impact on audience responses to HIV/AIDS in the social political world? Are we not primarily interested in how they are read by these audiences? There are already plenty of academic papers claiming interpretations of images, but almost nothing that investigates audience responses.* This paper is no different, and it would have been much more useful to actually test people’s responses to the images. This is something they acknowledge is needed to backup their claims – and rightly point out the difficulties in doing this.

[* Birgitta Hoijer’s paper, ‘The Discourse of Global Compassion: The Audience and Media Reporting of Human Suffering’ is a notable exception].

However, the interpretation they make is also questionable. The images they compare were taken in significantly different periods of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and for different purposes and audiences. They compare a single image taken by Hopper – taken for a newspaper – against a series of images taken by Kifyalew – for herself. There is no doubt that Kifyalew’s images are interesting, thought provoking and aesthetically different to Hopper’s. There is much to be said about how these different types of images could complement and interact – how bringing together multiple representations may bring a more balanced set of information. But a comparison of images from very different periods aimed at different audiences cannot tell us much that is useful. Equally, despite their differences it is hard to see how evidence can be presented that supports the notion that one working method is responsible for one set of images rather than the other. They could equally have come from two stylistically different pros or two PP participants. And this is key.

If we are after a better understanding of issues using visual media, rather than look at one type of photographic practice vs. another, on who takes the picture and who is the subject, it may be more useful to focus on how the present single image model used in the media can be changed to build more complex representations rather than iconic / universal images. The use of multi-media presentations on news media websites (and NGOs for that matter) needs to be explored to see how, through this type of story telling, changes can be made to address practices of the past that contributed to developing and reinforcing stereotypes. And how PP images can be combined with those of pros to present multiple viewpoints.

The heart of the debate and the future

I started by making the rather general and slightly flippant statement that the debate over the pros and cons of PP is a ‘proxy war’ that concerns participatory approaches and visual representation in development more broadly. This is summed up well by Bleiker and Kay in their paper;

‘These [participatory] approaches are part of a larger set of development communication methods designed to promote multidimensional and dialogic ways of representing and engaging communities. They are meant to replace centralized, professionalized, and consumer-oriented communication practices, which tend to silence many people, particularly those who live at the margins of society. Pluralist photography is part of an alternative, more democratizing means of representation that seeks to create space for diverse and localized ways of communicating meaning.’

Participatory practice in development goes beyond just communications, and discussions on PP form a microcosm of the larger debate on a shift in development practice. Over the last two decades development studies (and other forms of social activism), plus the work of NGOs, has markedly shifted to employing a ‘participatory’ approach. Briefly, this has been an attempt to equalise the power relationship within development work by including those who are supposed to benefit from projects (the so-called ‘beneficaries’) by including them in decisions that affect their own lives. This is an attitudinal as well as practical change that attempts to divest itself of the historically baggage of the European colonial period that tended to ignore the beneficiaries views altogether.

This means ditching the superior attitude of ‘knowing what is best’ and imposition, and practically recognising the benefits that participation means for the success and sustainability of projects where the beneficiaries have ownership and can better realise their agency. However, for some this attempt to address issues of attitude and practice does not solve the fundamental issue of power relations between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries, mainly centred on inequalities in trade and debilitating debt. Fundamentally, the development model remains flawed because even with participation it is unable to change the broader political and economic inequalities that drive poverty. The participatory approach may attempt to amplify the voice of the communities, but just as with PP images, although the practice has benefits, it is unlikely to challenge the fundamental power relations any more successfully than the professionals. Development ministries may pump money into project proposals filled with ‘participatory’ intentions, but they do little to change the status quo which their governments defend. Participation may even disguise these broader issues by focussing on micro change on the ground rather than the bigger international reality.

This is not to say a participatory approach is not good – it is how things should be done – but we should not expect it to be any better at addressing the fundamentals. Visually it would be a mistake to replace professionalized communication practices with participatory ones. Instead we should focus on developing more complex representation through diversity. That means using PP appropriately, using its strengths in facilitating dialogue within communities, as well as to contribute to the ‘visual toolbox’ at the disposal of activists. At the same time we should look to reform professional media and NGO practices and style. These two approaches should then be combined using new technology, as well as innovative off-line approaches, that facilitate better story telling, and so better understanding of the complexities before us. It is important that the emphasis on participation and power relations does not neglect practical issues of mobilizationadvocacy and fund raising. We must be aware of the implications of addressing issues of representation at the detriment of impacting on the issues we wish to resolve. This is a delicate balance between being able to connect with what your audience knows and taking them to a more informed understanding. And acknowledging that professional sensibilities and attitudes to representation may not be shared by audiences and subjects / beneficiaries. It is also worth noting that PP is not intrinsically democratic or representative – projects involve small numbers of people who are just as susceptible to bias and stereotyping, and cannot be said to speak for their community.

This is not a case of supporting bad ‘visual’ practice but that we recognize the strengths of different approaches and accept some individual imperfections for greater overall impact. Controversy has a habit of fuelling debate in a way that more ‘correct’ practice rarely does – so let’s not dispose altogether of the images that occasionally kick up a storm. This also means not ignoring the views of your target audience and the subjects of photos, and acknowledging their intelligence and diversity – the deficit of studies of both these groups’ reactions to images is a real handicap in informing NGOs, academics and photographers of how to improve things. The critique of an image is practically incomplete without this. DJ Clark’s interview with Bezunesh Abraham in his paper, ‘The Production of a Contemporary Famine Image: The Image Economy, Indigenous Photographers and the Case of Mekanic Philipos’ raises important questions about the subjects opinion of such photos, their level of awareness regarding end use, and their evaluation of cost benefit.

Rather than just look at how PP can represent and engage ‘beneficary’ communities, we should be looking at how ‘digital democratisation’ can facilitate a direct conversation locally and internationally, between individuals in the economically ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ communities (both between countries but also within).

One of the selling points of PP is its first-person viewpoint, indicating that people wish to have a closer connection to those people’s lived experiences in order to increase their understanding. We should be pursuing multiple styles and approaches to photography and video (from photojournalism to constructed or art-based creations) to see how they can be best used as part of awareness raising, advocacy and fund raising campaigns, owned and driven by multiple communities in different circumstances and locations. Where the image moves from linear witnessing’ to matrix conversations’. Where ‘witnessing’ includes presenting these ‘conversations’ as a demonstration of support for change, not just as evidence of the problem. PP should not be used to chase the elusive ‘truth’, a more ‘authentic’ image (particularly through its work with children) – recognising it offers a different viewpoint, not necessarily a more accurate one – but as an important part of a diverse communications toolbox of visual media that can be actioned in the cause of change.

Now, back to the cricket…

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