Exploratory Workshop for Participatory Visual Methods: a subjective commentary

Tamás Péter Szabó

The workshop was held on 13 May 2016 as a cooperation of researchers from the Department of Arts and Culture Studies, the Centre for Applied Language Studies and the Department of Languages at the University of Jyväskylä. Six papers, three exhibitions and a friendly atmosphere guaranteed that all attendees could take part in an exciting experience. The workshop was a result of curiosity-driven interaction with wonderful colleagues, and was part of a process that leads towards a fuller understanding of societally engaged scholarly work.

How it got started

First, we organizers heard about each other’s work from various sources and wanted to discuss our data and find ways of cooperation we could engage in. So we organized some informal meetings, and during those meetings it was fascinating to see how easily we could find common points and interests in our work. I think the keywords of the workshop title – participatory visual methods – express greatly the most important areas of our shared interest: (1) a better understanding of how we choose certain methods and how we make use of visuality in our work; and (2) an urge to reflect on our own role in the research process. To me, the expression participatory visual methods means certain forms of more or less regulated interaction in which I as a researcher communicate with other people, and this interaction is somehow facilitated by reflections to some visual aspects of material environments. Further, I understand participatory methods in a way that I am also a participant in research encounters. That is, understanding how my preferred methods work and, more specifically, how I interact with people in research settings gives me new knowledge about my relationship with other people, and I can use this knowledge in my out-of-academia life as well.

Organizing meetings on a regular basis, we found our discussions so intriguing that we decided to involve others into the process and organize a workshop. To make the dialogue more diverse, we invited guest speakers and research participants with whom we work together. The expression exploratory workshop, I believe, refers to this latter, non-traditional feature of the event that not only researchers talked about the ‘subjects’ of their research but also research participants had the chance to articulate how they perceived the projects in which they took part. Further, the workshop was at the same time a course for university students which meant that sharing our experiences helped future professionals in finding the most suitable methods for their research.

Invited speaker Kimmo Lehtonen is giving his presentation in Musica building. Opening Boombox and Fermaatti together created an excellent space for discussion (Fermaatti is on the right).
Invited speaker Kimmo Lehtonen is giving his presentation in Musica building. Opening Boombox and Fermaatti together created an excellent space for discussion (Fermaatti is on the right).

 

Venue and introduction

Since I am especially interested in educational spaces and their impact on interaction, I would like to mention that the venue enhanced a friendly and informal atmosphere greatly even though the attendees were numerous (more than 70 people signed up). People sat around tables and thus could easily get engaged in chatting while enjoying some coffee and pastries. The multi-function rooms Boombox and Fermaatti were designed recently by university students in cooperation with researchers of Agora Center, a multidisciplinary research unit of the university, showing the result of successful cooperation between users and researchers. The workshop included three exhibitions in the entrance hall Skaala which meant great impulse for exploration and discussion.

As Tuija Saresma (Department of Arts and Culture Studies) and Petteri Laihonen (Centre for Applied Language Studies and the Department of Languages) emphasized in their introduction, a critical and ethical approach is crucial in studies that are organized around visual materials. Producing and presenting images, and being involved in discussions that refer to images are activities that construct, deconstruct, negotiate and challenge agency and power relations among social actors. Initiating and further discussing certain topics, scholars are responsible for the ways in which they produce or collect, present and interpret visual materials in interaction with various audiences (e.g. academics, stakeholders, journalists, etc.).

Approaches to participation, materials and processes of interpretation

The sessions consisted of six papers altogether, diverse in their topic, methods and approaches to the notion of participation. The first invited speaker, Kimmo Lehtonen (director of the Centre for Creative Photography, Jyväskylä) discussed examples of professional photographers’ projects on documenting Kangas area which is a former site of Finnish paper industry and currently is famous for several plans of construction projects that would significantly re-shape the local landscape. Photographers reflected on the notions of change and time in many ways, using for example certain visual effects for creating nostalgic feelings, or focusing on personal objects that they found in the otherwise empty, abandoned and uninhabited buildings. Lehtonen emphasized the role of images in telling stories and making arguments, and reflected on his own role as a presenter who chose certain images (and not others) to tell the story and the main findings of the photographic projects.

The second invited speaker, Saara Särmä (University of Tampere, School of Management) presented how she uses her own artwork in political research. She makes collages of images (mainly memes) that are circulated online to reach a better understanding of processes of parody. She downloads images and prints them out. She cuts, glues and overwrites the reproductions on a board; that is, instead of using editing software, she produces images as part of embodied actions, making her work more personal. She creates artwork as part of the research process, and then uses the collages as illustrations in her papers, challenging common perceptions about the relationship between arts and research. As she argued, working on a collage and writing an article are similarly intuitive processes, even though academic discourses tend to emphasize rationality in research, and popular ideas of arts idealize intuition. You can find her thought-provoking collages on her blog Junk feminism.

Ethnographic projects

The afternoon sessions consisted of four papers, all of which presented ethnographic approaches. First Sari Pöyhönen (Centre for Applied Language Studies) and her group provided insights into photography-based activities that help asylum seekers in establishing a personal relationship with their current environment. The presentation was extended by a photo exhibition of young asylum seekers’ works that were created in cooperation with a staff member of the Oravais group home for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. Sari’s project has the title Jag bor i Oravais (Swedish ‘I live in Oravais’), asking what it really means to live in a reception centre (Oravais is a town in Finland where more than 80% of the population is Swedish speaking). The photos and the young men’s written comments helped the audience of the exhibition in understanding both the challenges and the joy that are parts of their everyday life in a period of uncertainty. Authors of the photographs and the supervisor of the photo project, who himself is a professional photographer, were present at the workshop. In research narratives (mainly in articles and conference papers) it is the researcher who gives voice to participants, publishing their utterances in an edited manner, but this seminar gave a unique occasion to listen to the participants directly. The boys, as Sari calls them, confirmed the basic idea of the project, telling that taking photographs helped them in finding ways in which they can relate to the new landscape and society they now live in.

The presentation illuminated some practical issues as well. First, taking the photos was an efficient means of communication in situations where limitations of the linguistic repertoire of both the researcher and the participants made it impossible to conduct traditional research interviews. As Sari recalled, being present and watching the pictures together substituted many words and helped her to understand the life experiences of the boys. Second, tensions between standard ethical regulations and the participants’ needs resulted in new solutions. As a common ground in research ethics, the anonymity of the participants must be protected, and photo materials with recognizable faces must be manipulated (e.g. blurred) in order to make people unrecognizable. But what happens if participants enjoy taking selfies and group portraits, and want to be mentioned by their original names? Considering the boys’ preferences, the exhibited images showed recognizable faces (however, taking photos about the prints and circulating them in social media was not allowed). Visitors’ written feedback was collected during the exhibition. Two quotes show the positive reception of the images and, more broadly, the project:

“I’m very happy that such project is going on in Finland. Keep on a wonderful job!”

“Hieno projekti. Hyvä pojat! Kertoi hienosti sen, miten sanat ovat välillä todella marginaalinen asia, kun halutaan kertoa jotain merkityksellistä. Kiitos, lisää!” [‘A great project. Good boys! It told wonderfully, how words can be marginal if you want to say something meaningful. Thanks and [give us] more!’]

At the beginning of his talk, Antti Vallius (Department of Arts and Culture Studies) gave a comprehensive introduction to photo-elicitation, a method popular in human studies of various kinds. This method is based on the idea that taking photos and talking about them helps people to talk about their past and present life experiences and construct relations to their environment. Antti’s participants were asked to take photos, choose one among them and participate in an interview to tell why they chose that particular picture and what that means to them. Antti conducted three interviews with each participant, organized around different photos every time. With the comparison of the interviews, changes in people’s perceptions about their environment and their belonging to certain places and communities become visible.

Antti is also interested in connections between personal and discursive dimensions of photography. For example, he found that people often recycle certain elements of canonized imageries and choose tourist brochure-like perspectives, angles and foci to capture sites that are meaningful to them. A rich illustration of Antti’ work was an exhibition in the entrance hall which showed some forty photos from his corpus. The pictures and their authors’ comments were linked together so attendees could get a rich understanding of how the method works and what meanings were attributed to the visuals during the interview sessions. Since the comments were not on the boards but printed on separate sheets of paper, an alternative way of reading the exhibition was to get involved in a personal dialogue with the pictures and try to find new meanings for them. As the attendees could learn from the presentation, it is another way of carrying out photo-elicitation: own photos and ‘found objects’ can equally facilitate discussion about belonging.

Antti Vallius’ photo exhibition just after installation.
Antti Vallius’ photo exhibition just after installation.

 To understand the researcher’s role in the research process, my presentation showed various ways in which photos are produced, presented and discussed in my study on school environments. I wanted to make my presentation more interactive so I invited Kristiina Skinnari who is a researcher at the Centre for Applied Language Studies and an elementary school teacher at the same time to share her research and teaching experience. First I reflected on the fieldwork process during which my data is generated. I use a method called tourist guide technique which practically means that I walk through school premises with local community members (students, teachers and parents) and ask them to lead me to sites that are meaningful to them, commenting on the environment as if they guided a tourist. I found that being on sites of their routinized activities helps the participants to talk about their experiences with the school community, and their personal role in it.

A quite dynamic regulatory sign from my school corpus: ‘Don’t run’ (the work of a Finnish 3rd grader).
A quite dynamic regulatory sign from my school corpus: ‘Don’t run’ (the work of a Finnish 3rd grader).

During the walking tours it is I who take the pictures so it was interesting to think about how I choose certain objects or sites to capture during the walking tours. With reference to Antti’ paper, I organized a mini photo-elicitation session. I was thinking aloud in reference to a certain photo which is now part of my corpus. For many researchers, I think, it may be useful to think about what gets documented, what becomes part of the corpus and what gets lost from the fieldwork experience because of the lack of documentation. I found that my earlier projects and research interests still influence me when I take photos. For example, I found connections between taking photos about regulatory signs and my PhD thesis which was organized around the notion of rules and norms in school interaction. However, participants also guide my attentions and suggest objects and sites to be documented. I also asked Kristiina to talk about a photo she took in the school where she works. We have not agreed on the exact content of her part so I think she demonstrated clearly to the attendees that talking about pictures help a lot in articulating self-reflective observations.

The final paper of the workshop was Saara Jäntti’s (Department of Languages). Saara’s applied theatre project involves people who are diagnosed with mental illnesses of various kinds. Their belonging to places and their conceptions about home and homelessness are especially interesting because their agency is very restricted: they cannot choose independently where to live and what to do ‘at home’. However, their ideas about ‘home’ are, I think, quite similar to other people’s who live independently. Saara’s exhibition included a video animation created by her participants. To me the video was about everyday routines from the perspective of those who at this point can only dream about independent life. Preparing, rehearsing and performing plays were in the centre of Saara’s project, and playing dramas made it possible to involve people who cannot utter a word but are willing to tell something about themselves with gestures or body movements. That is, Saara’s paper extended the scope of visual methods towards multimodality and embodiment.

Summary

The workshop created an intensive dialogue among the attendees and the presentations as well. I found it especially interesting how Sari’s, Antti’s and my paper were in interaction with each other since we all made use of certain versions of photo-elicitation. The differences between the settings and the materials in the papers showed that it is not the methods itself that count but rather the relationship between researchers and participants, and the impact of the research project on the participants’ lives. Since we researchers are also participants of our projects, our methods do not only tell stories about the people we investigate but also about ourselves. This workshop course was an excellent occasion to think about our relationship with the work we do, and I believe it was insightful to the students as well and helped them in getting a fuller understanding of the complexities of scholarly work in human research.

We already started to think about the continuation and look forward to organize further events and perhaps develop a longer course for university students on the topic.

Acknowledgements

The workshop was financially supported by the Department of Arts and Culture Studies, and the Centre for Applied Language Studies. Tamás Péter Szabó’s postdoctoral research project Voices of diversity. A comparison of Finnish and Hungarian ideologies on the management of linguistic diversity and multilingualism is funded by the Kone Foundation (grant number: 44-9730). The project Arts of Belonging – Affectivity and Materiality of Homing (Tuija Saresma [PI] and Antti Vallius [postdoctoral researcher]) is funded by the Kone Foundation (grant number: 57-20828). Saara Jäntti’s research project Crafting a Universe, A Corner in the World. An Ethnographic Study on Finnish Mental Health Care Service Users’ Drama Project on “Home” is funded by the Academy of Finland (grant number:  275111). The project Jag bor i Oravais (PI: Sari Pöyhönen, 2015–2016) is funded by the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland and the University of Jyväskylä.