The Prospects and Limitations of Visual Participatory Methods for Decolonizing Visuality: A Critical Evaluation

Luc Pauwels

Keywords: Visual participatory research; Respondent-generated image production; Visual elicitation; Photovoice; Auto-driven photo elicitation

Participation: presential

This intervention focusses on the wide variety of approaches currently presented under the umbrella of ‘participatory’ or ‘collaborative’ visual research methods. But rather than the customary celebratory and vague accounts of these approaches in many studies, this contribution seeks to provide a critical constructive view on its ethical and epistemological potential as well as on its unsolved issues.

The current proliferation of ‘participatory’ approaches and labels (photo-voice, photo-novella, community video, auto-driven photo-elicitation) can be traced back to two distinct techniques or research approaches with a long history – namely the use of visual stimuli in an interview situation (‘visual elicitation’) and the idea of stimulating the field to produce its own imagery with respect to a certain issue (‘native Image Production’ cf. Worth and Adair, 1972; or ‘Respondent-Generated Image Production, RGIP, Pauwels, 2015; Chalfen, 2020)

The central premise of RGIP is the idea that significant patterns of the respondent’s culture may reside in both the form and the content of visual images and artifacts that are being produced by the respondent at the explicit request of researchers. RGIP not only comprises the use of camera-based images, depicting aspects of the respondent’s material world, but also includes a variety of drawing methods and techniques whereby the respondent may be prompted to give a concrete shape to more internal processes and views.

Whereas the purpose of RGIP in a research project is primarily to acquire unique data about the respondents’ world (their visualized experiences and environment as an entry point to their culture) and thus to generate scholarly knowledge, the primary aim of many photovoice and community video projects is to initiate a positive change in the world of the participants, ideally by raising awareness of a problem in a community, empowering community members or marginalized individuals, or by trying to exert influence on authorities or policy makers to improve a problematic situation. These activist participatory approaches are often characterized and advocated by their proclaimed outcome (increasing empowerment, civic involvement, awareness, dialog) while lacking criteria and a propensity to evaluate whether these claims and intentions have been realized.

Images produced by the field in response to an assignment of a researcher usually are not self- explanatory and require further elucidation. So often respondent-generated images will need to be commented upon by their makers, which means that this research approach generates visual and verbal data, both of which are important to the researcher.

While visual interviewing or visual elicitation usually involves visual stimuli selected or produced by the researcher, the term has gradually expanded to include interviews that depart from images produced by the research subjects in response to an assignment by the researcher. These approaches are known under names like ‘auto-driven photo elicitation’ (Clark, 1999) or ‘respondent-controlled photo elicitation’ (Padgett et al., 2013), though again the term photo-elicitation should be changed to the more inclusive term ‘visual elicitation’ as in fact many types of images and visual artefacts can be used besides photographs.

In short, this presentation aims to clarify and discuss the specific strengths and weaknesses of the different options in participatory research as well as interrogate their underlying and largely undisclosed assumptions.


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Padgett, D. K., Smith, B. T., Derejko, K., Henwood, B. F., & Tiderington, E. (2013). ‘A picture is worth …? Photo elicitation interviewing with formerly homeless adults’. Qualitative Health Research, 23, 1435–1444.
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Luc Pauwels is a Full Professor of Visual Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Antwerp (Faculty of Social Sciences), Founding Director of the Visual & Digital Cultures Research Center (ViDi) and Vice-President for Research of the ‘Visual Sociology’ Research Committee of the International Sociological Association (ISA). He is also a former Vice-President of the International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA), of the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA) as well a Past Chair of the Visual Communication Studies Division of the International Communication Association (ICA). Books include: ‘Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication’ (2006, Dartmouth College Press, UPNE), ‘Reframing Visual Social Science. Towards a More Visual Sociology and Anthropology’ (2015, Cambridge University Press) and ‘The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods’ (2011, 1st ed. with E. Margolis; 2020, 2nd ed. with D. Mannay).