Critical Realities: holding a mirror to participatory visual research

Published on 15 June 2016

Jackie Shaw

Research Fellow

Thea Shahrokh

Research Officer

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.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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