Do participatory visual methods give voice?

NCRM news
Daniel McCulloch, NCRM, Open University

Participatory visual methods are those in which research participants are active in shaping the project as co-producers of visual knowledge. They can be traced back to two main sorts of approaches: use of visual data as stimulus in research (for example photo-elicitation) and visual data as the product of research (e.g. visual ethnography)1.

These have become a popular research and social activism tool across various disciplines, with many researchers employing them to increase the presence of the ‘voices’ of participants in research, particularly where so-called marginalised groups are said to have had their ‘voices’ silenced in mainstream cultural and political decision-making processes2, 3.

Although there is no universal conceptualisation of ‘voice’, it can be understood as both:
• a process (of giving an account of one’s life and the world in which we act); and
• a value – through giving weight to ways of structuring society that allow for voice as a process, and particularly ‘voice that matters’4.

The notion of ‘voice that matters’ refers to both expressing one’s own voice, and to the right to be heard by others5, 6, and as such, can be understood to be linked to the idea of ‘listening’2.

Commentators on participatory visual methods have highlighted the need for critical assessment of the relationship between participatory visual methods and voice due to the influences at play throughout the process. These influences include:
• ‘intrusive presences’ such as close relatives and friends of participants during data production7;
• the impact of researcher authority, particularly where voices do not fit the researcher’s desired narrative2, and
• ways in which cultural, social, and political norms and values can influence participant voices4.

Questions also persist around whether voice is ‘given’, ‘negotiated’, ‘constructed’, ‘co-created’, or a combination of these and others3. Such questions concern our understandings of ‘voice’, our views on the relationship between researchers and participants, and our judgements of the methodological capabilities of participatory visual methods.

But how do we know whether these methods actually ‘give voice’ to participants? The project entitled Do participatory visual methods give voice? is exploring the evidence. Such evidence will be important for both academic researchers, and for advocacy groups and practitioners who make use of these methods in their work. To assess of the relationship between participatory visual methods and voice, the project includes researcher understandings of this relationship, participant assessments of participatory visual methods, and audience understandings of visual outputs.

The project was funded by NCRM in September 2017 and runs until the end of February 2019. So far, the project team have engaged in a review of the literature, as well as carrying out two workshops with experienced researchers. In addition to highlighting different conceptualisations of voice, preliminary findings show variations in what researchers count as participation. Furthermore, questions remain about whether methods are ever participatory in and of themselves, or whether these are part of a wider participatory approach to research. Workshops with researchers have shown an appetite for ongoing discussion, so an online forum is being established to facilitate this. Anyone wishing to join the conversation should get in contact using any of the means at the end of this article.
In the coming months the project team will facilitate participatory visual research with a so-called marginalised community about their experiences of living in a stigmatised area associated with poverty. Participant feedback will assess both the methods and the voice offered through them – prior to, during, and after data generation. The team will also ask audiences about their understandings of the participant voices evident within visual outputs.
Initial findings from the early part of the project will be presented at the British Sociological Association (BSA) conference in April 2018, and further findings from the project will be presented at the ESRC Research Methods Festival in July 20188.

Twitter: @methodsandvoice
Instagram: methodsandvoice

1 Pauwels, L. (2015) Participatory’ visual research revisited: A critical-constructive assessment of epistemological, methodological and social activist tenets. Ethnography, 16(1): 95–117
2 Fairey, T. (2017) Whose photo? Whose voice? Who listens? ‘Giving,’ silencing and listening to voice in participatory visual projects, Visual Studies, Advance online publication, doi: 10.1080/1472586X.2017.1389301
3 Luttrell, W. & Chalfen, R. (2010) Lifting up voices of participatory visual research, Visual Studies, 25(3): 197–200
4 Couldry, N. (2010) Why Voice Matters, London: Sage
5 Dreher, T. (2012) A Partial Promise of Voice: Digital Storytelling and the Limit of Listening, Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy, 142: 157–166
6 Thomson, P. (2009) Children and young people: Voices in visual research in P. Thomson (ed) Doing visual research with children and young people, London: Routledge, pp. 1-20
7 Mannay, D. (2013) ‘Who put that on there … why why why?’ Power games and participatory techniques of visual data production, Visual Studies, 28(2): 136–146