Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Using Photography as a Creative, Collaborative Research Tool

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Using Photography as a Creative, Collaborative Research Tool

Article excerpt

Youth research and participatory photography in many ways seem natural companions in social research. The challenge set out almost two decades ago by Morrow & Richards (1996, p. 97) for social researchers to "find ways of eliciting children's opinions and experiences" has been comprehensively explored, tested and debated in a burgeoning youth studies literature, particularly within sociology and geography, such that convention in this field now requires that young people be provided with diverse, appropriate, and even empowering means through which to take part in research on their lives, in order that we (the adults) may understand their worlds.

The foundations of this new social studies of childhood have been carefully discussed in a number of key works (for example, James et al., 1998; Holloway & Valentine, 2000; Matthews & Limb, 1999), and need not be repeated here except to reiterate some of its key foundations, including the recognition of: (1) the general subordination of children as a social group in late modern society; ( 2) the importance of a critical understanding of adults' representations of children; (3) individual children's active agency influencing the world they live in; and (4) children's perceptions and use of social space (Hill et al., 2004). A participatory philosophy seems to fit easily into this approach, in aspiring as it does to generate knowledge through an interactive, reflective, collective and transformative research process with different groups of people. More specifically, there is a growing body of work which argues that using visual methods and especially participatory photography in research can provide valuable insights into the lived experiences of (young) people (e.g., Anderson & Jones, 2009; Bolton et al., 2001; Dennis et al., 2009; Ho et al., 2019; Mizen, 2005; Morrow & Richards, 1996; Newman et al., 2006; Rudkin & Davis, 2007; Sime, 2008; Winton, 2005; Young & Barrett, 2001).

This broad context provides the backdrop for the paper. I continue with a more critical reflection on this context, and go on to discuss the particularities of the different uses of photography in social research. The paper then presents a photography project carried out with a group of young women and men in a low-income neighbourhood in Mexico City, which was an experimental attempt to use photography in both a creative and a documentary/narrative capacity in academic research.

Questioning the Notion of Participatory Research

Initial widespread enthusiasm over the participation revolution has gradually given way to a steady stream of critiques, making it something of a thorny issue today, particularly as it seems to have become a virtual epistemological orthodoxy in many fields (see Kesby, 2005), youth and development research included. The concerns raised include often misconceived empowerment claims of participatory methodologies (Cornwall, 2000; Gallacher & Gallagher, 2008; Guijt & Shah, 1998; Pain & Francis, 2003; Spyrou, 2011), a lack of attention paid to issues of power in participation more broadly (for example Franks, 2011; Kesby, 2005), the romanticization of the local (e.g., Crawley, 1998), the risk of cooption of the participation process by the already-powerful (Cornwall, 1998), and depoliticized notion of space in participation discourse (e.g., Cornwall, 1998; Guijt & Shah, 1998).

More scathing critiques argue that participation as currently understood and practiced is tyrannical, and fundamentally incompatible with a radical, poststructuralist agenda (Cooke & Kothari, 2001; Williams, 2004). However, as Kesby (2005, 2044) points out, rarely are solutions provided to the problems raised, nor are viable substitutions for the energy, optimism, and practical utility of participation offered, and moreover "calls for resistance to all forms of power are unnecessarily immobilizing." In this way, it has been important to continue to seek improved ways of doing things, rather than to abandon ship completely when it comes to participatory research. …

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