Decolonising the use of imagery at IDS

Published on 7 May 2021

James Andrews

Communications and Marketing Assistant

Every institution, be it the British Royal Family, the United Nations or a University are a product of the historical, cultural, and social spaces they inhabit. The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is no exception. Our pedagogy, the research we conduct and the stories that we tell are all affected by our collective history, including of colonialism.

Photo Credit: Lisa Trebs; Elliot Arthur-Worsop; Elizabeth Adams and Prachi Pal 

Over the past years, IDS has taken the critical lens that we frequently apply to other societies and countries, turning it upon ourselves to better understand our layered history and challenge the potential reproduction of colonial legacies. The starting point for the discussion on decolonising IDS was from a group of Masters students, who in 2020 started an action to understand various colonial structures at IDS and how to disrupt their potential reproduction.

Their work led to publication of the Decolonising Development manifesto. In their view, if the IDS Strategic Goals of reducing inequalities, accelerating sustainability and building inclusive and secure societies were to be achieved, then the equal exchange and sharing of knowledge and experiences between students, researchers and professional staff members at IDS must be at the forefront of what we do. This echoed a broader view that IDS has a responsibility to expedite progressive actions towards decolonisation of development as a field of study “is still mired in capitalist, (neo)colonial and therefore unequal hierarchies and power structures”.

The process of institutional decolonisation at IDS will likely be a lifelong commitment to address systemic bias and legacy thinking. However, as an immediate action, it prompted reappraisal of how the institute creates and uses imagery, video, and text in communications activity, including within the IDS building. This is particularly important because content development based on first-person stories are vital to raising awareness, building engagement and greater understanding of global development challenges. They can effectively bring to highly complex life issues while contextualising experience.

A period of consultation, and review of how other organisations across development, social science and academia approach this challenge, led to development and publication of the new IDS ethical content guidelines 2021. Inspired in part by the ongoing decolonising process, the aim is for these to influence the stories that we choose to tell, as well as the ways we tell them. The guidelines are written for the production of images, video, audio, and written text by IDS communications colleagues and have been created to complement the IDS research ethics guidance.

Their publication is an important step towards addressing potential power imbalances in how IDS sources, produces and distributes content that features first person narratives. This includes always ensuring that any participant who lends us their experience does so in a way that allows them to be actively part of how their story is framed and used. During the process, opportunities will be provided for the participant to review how their story is produced and provide feedback then approval on its usage. In such a way, we hope not only to protect participant’s rights but also create more inclusive, representative content illustrative of the agency of those featured in progressive change.

Challenging how development is framed

One key area that the guidelines address is the production of multimedia content so that it is created and distributed in a that is sensitive to individual circumstances, cultures, and historical narratives. For instance, producers and users of film, audio and images must protect those persons who appear in them and consider the potential for unequal power dynamics that can impact how stories are produced, edited and whose voice prioritised. Producers must gain informed consent from participants and, above all, explain plans for content distribution. This is to make sure any participant understands who could see their story and is able to define what actions are necessary to lessen the risk of negative impacts.

Tabitha Hrynick, Research Officer at IDS who has been involved in developing the new guidelines said: “Ethical approaches to stories and imagery should actively challenge unequal power relations – not just in the moment when someone captures a photo for instance (e.g., ensuring that people in the photo are comfortable and have given their consent), but also in terms of the meaning and significance that that photo has beyond that moment. Has it been taken in a way, or is it presented and contextualised in a way, that disrupts the white colonial and patriarchal gaze? Or does it, perhaps even inadvertently, uphold these power structures?” Addressing these issues has prompted some researchers to use methods like Photovoice which puts the power of image making into the hands of people themselves.

A new visual identity for our building

Alongside reviewing how we at IDS create and share stories, we have applied our ethical content guidelines to one of the most important, visible representations of the institute – the building. While the IDS building has fallen silent since the Covid-19 lockdown swept much of the world, it is our hope that with the global vaccination drive, and with increased health precautions, that students and staff will one day soon be able to return to the Falmer campus building that we call home.

This return represents an excellent opportunity to diversify and make representative the the photos, paintings, and other visual semiotics we display around the building. To borrow a quote from the abstract artists John Demarco, “art is a language meant to speak the things that can’t be said”. And what art, imagery, film, and photography we choose to represent ourselves with is a conscious choice about what we as an institute want to say (and be known for).

Art has the power to remind us that we are not the only person who feels a certain way, and in that, it binds us together. Be it a feeling or a recollection, a piece of art can stoke powerful emotions. It can make us remember or can drive us to action. The new IDS Building Imagery including launch of IDS exhibition spaces will help not only give us a ‘new’ start after lockdown but more importantly, demonstrate that we ‘walk the talk’ in our commitment to the representation of diverse local, national, and global voices, while tackling implicit and historical power imbalances.

In our action on how we use imagery and narratives, we will demonstrate how we as an institute are moving away from dated representations of development as something that is done in and to Global South countries. Our ambition is that the rejuvenated building imagery is not “necessarily about development projects but can be more abstract: What sort of world do we envision ourselves living in? What does the community look like? What does love look like in practice?” (Lisa Trebs; Lisa Marti; Ghausia Rashid; Prachi Pal and Desta Bekele, members of the 2020 MA decolonising IDS group).