In early 2014 Dr. Bettina Paul invited me to give a guest lecture in her Master’s methodology course at the University of Hamburg, and at the end of April I found myself searching for the building that housed the Institute of Criminological Social Research. After wandering through echoing cement corridors with industrial looking machines in the classrooms (which I later found out was the department for soil sciences), I eventually found my way to the Institute and Dr. Paul made me feel right at home.
My guest lecture included a 30-minute talk about my doctoral research, plus a participatory photography activity for the students. More information about my doctoral research can be found at this link: http://chicksonthecorner.tumblr.com/ and in this interview: http://participatoryphoto.wordpress.com/
For my research project methodology I used the technique of photovoice, a participatory photography method that gives cameras, and the power to shape the research data, into the hands of the participants.1 Such an approach raises a number of ethical issues and questions around informed consent and anonymity with human subject research in general and participatory research in specific.2 Furthermore, photographs have to potential to capture facets of people so that they are easily identifiable, most notably by showing a participant’s face. Especially if participants are involved in a ‘socially vulnerable’ or ‘at-risk’ group where revealing their identity might compromise their safety,3 employment status or societal stigmatisation, then discussions around confidentiality and anonymity must be discussed before and during participants’ activities of taking photographs.4 One example taken from my own research is participants who took photos of or were involved in illicit activity such as drug use. In order to protect the anonymity of participants in the photos (which could be used as evidence of committing a crime), people’s faces were either blurred or the photograph was cropped before it was shown to other participants and to the public. Informed consent is an intertwined issue yet needs specific attendance and diligence throughout the research process in order to assure (as much as is possible) that participants are aware of what exactly they are consenting to and how the photographs will be disseminated. These issues are often complicated and messy when conducting fieldwork.
In order to demonstrate these complexities and hopefully stimulate the students to think critically about their own research projects, I facilitated a participatory photography activity with the students. Class participants were split into groups and given a digital camera, which I provided. They were instructed to make as many photos as they wished, but be prepared to only show two images to the class. One photo was supposed to capture issues of consent and anonymity with someone they know (in their group) and a second photograph should be taken of a stranger (or group of strangers). After an extended lunch break students returned their cameras with their top two choices, and we collectively reviewed the photographs together.
This rich discussion emerged as a result of an engaged and dynamic group of clever students who critically unpacked a number of methodological and epistemological questions surrounding ethical standards in image-based research. Below is a selection of photographs from two groups that gave permission for their photographs to be shared on this blog. Each photograph has an accompanying text box that describes the context of the photograph and the in-class discussion surrounding the image.
The image to the left is a group photo of the students. In class they discussed how they were trying to keep themselves anonymous by turning their heads away as they capture the photo in the reflection of the mirror. This photograph illustrates a great photo technique that is both aesthetically interesting (with the bended reflection) and attempts to address the conundrum of taking photos of people while maintaining confidentiality and anonymity. However, other students in the course pointed out that in a full size photo, some participants are still recognizable. While there was not time for elaboration, this photo touched on discussions of the differing power dynamics between participants and researchers. As the researchers are guiding the research (to a certain extent) and have autonomy over their level of representation in the project, is it important that their identities are also anonymous? If an assessment is reached that no harm will come to the researcher within the parameters of the display of the photographs, then is confidentiality a concern?
Another group different than the previous two photographs took the photo to the right. This image captures one of their group members, obscured by a drawing strategically placed over the subject’s head. Students responded to this photograph with laughter, saying it was playful and surreal. One student noted that it is a visually interesting photo in many aspects of composition, including the blurred edges and the subject in the centre of the picture. Students agreed that this was a well put together photo in terms of composition, as well as a good example of creatively adhering to principles of subject anonymity.
The photo to the right generated much discussion among all the student groups. The two people in the photograph are strangers, and the group did not inform them of the photo or ask for their consent to take the picture. Some students from other groups found this problematic, and discussed how they would personally feel uncomfortable if they were the subjects of this photograph. Throughout the class discussion a thematic issue arose of legal versus ethical duties of informed consent. In one student’s words, ‘just because you’re allowed to take the picture doesn’t mean you should’. While the legal obligations should be followed while conducting research, the guidelines for ethical responsibility are much more open to interpretation based on the epistemological and ontological positions of the researcher.
Wang, C. and Burris, M. (1997). Photovoice: concepts, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education Behaviour 24(3): 369-387. ↩
Khanlou, N. and Peter, E. (2005). Participatory action research: considerations for ethical review. Social Science & Medicine 60: 2333-2340. ↩
Manzo, L. and Brightbill, N. (2007). Towards a participatory ethics. In S. Kindon, R. Pain & Kesby, M. Participatory action research approaches and methods: connecting people, participation and place. London: Routledge. ↩
Wang, C. and Redwood-Jones, A. (2001). Photovoice ethics: perspectives from Flint photovoice. Health Education Behaviour 28: 560-572. ↩