Broadening the normative and evaluative space for assessing the impact of photo diary research in higher education: A capabilities approach

Mikateko Mathebula and Carmen Martinez-Vargas


The use of photo diaries and other participatory visual methods in higher education research can be partially attributed to the ‘participatory’ turn in the social sciences, in response to feminist, postcolonial and postmodern critiques against positivist conceptions of objectivity (Gubrium & Harper, 2013). In particular, research that is based on photographs taken by participants is said to shift the power dynamic in the researcher/participant relationship that typically privileges the researcher, thus empowering participants (Mitchell, de Lange & Moletsane, 2017). Claims about empowerment are also made due to the idea that researchers empower participants by privileging participant knowledge and experience throughout the research process, allowing participants to construct meaning from the photographs they take, unconfined by the researcher’s preconceptions (Clark, 2010). However, as Pauwels (2015) points out, participatory visual methods are based mainly on undisclosed assumptions, often advocated on the grounds of their intended outcomes, but lack empirical evidence or methodologies for arriving at proposed outcomes. While some studies do encourage critical reflections on the potential to empower participants through participatory visual methods and suggest different ways of understanding empowerment in development contexts (see Mikhailovich, Pamphilon & Chambers, 2015) - none propose alternative evaluation criteria for assessing the impact of these methods.

This chapter proposes a framing and extension of the evaluation of the impact of photo diary research, drawing on data from a project that used a photovoice approach to research the university experiences of low-income youth from rural and township areas in South Africa. Using the capabilities approach (Sen, 1999) as a normative and evaluative framework to make a judgment on the value and impact of our photovoice approach in the context of higher education research, we propose that photovoice approaches, understood here as an extension of photo diary methods, be assessed according to three criteria. Namely, the extent to which they enhance opportunities for (a) epistemic contribution, (b) well-being achievement and (c) collective agency. We argue that these criteria broaden theevaluative space for assessing what constitutes justice in knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing processes in photo diary research, and that this matters particularly in Global South contexts, where participatory' visual research methods are often used to interrogate structural inequalities that prevent marginalised groups from enjoying certain freedoms. We see the proposed evaluative framework as applicable to participatory' visual research methods more broadly, but to diary' methods in particular.

The chapter begins with a discussion of various methods that incorporate photographs, focusing on photo diary' research and photovoice approaches with an emphasis on their similarities and differences, as well an explanation of how we see photovoice as producing photo diaries. Thereafter, we briefly discuss literature on the use of photovoice as a higher education research method in the South African context. Following this, we discuss the theoretical foundations of our proposed evaluative framework. We then describe the photovoice project upon which we base our reflections, before elaborating on and justifying our argument on the broadening of the evaluation criteria of photo diary' research. This is then followed by the conclusion.

Different approaches in photography research: understanding photo diaries and photovoice

Photography' methods in a variety' of forms e.g. photo elicitation (Harper, 2002; Leonard & McKnight, 2015; Chapters 6 and 8, this volume) photo diary' (Swallow, Petrie, Power & Edwards, 2015; Chapter 10, this volume) photo novella (Wang & Burris, 1994; 1997) or photovoice (Wang, 1999, 2006) emerged as a turn from documentary’ photography to more reflexive and participatory' approaches (Mikhailovich et al., 2015). Used as a method in social research (e.g. in areas of healthcare, homelessness and education), photographs are usually' used to elicit information to inform research and as tools to stimulate self-reflection and interactions with others (Liebenberg, 2018; Mikhailovich et al., 2015). Used as a method in higher education research, photographs can be used for the same purposes mentioned above, but also to create a visual record of the ‘everyday context’ of one’s life, thus creating a photo diary (see Baker, 2020). Depending on the aim of the research, participants may' be asked to make a diary' entry’ by taking a photograph every' time a particular event takes place, or to do so periodically, according to a predetermined amount of time that an entry' ought to be made, regardless of the event that may' be taking place. This could be done, for example, to gather a longitudinal narrative picture of participants’ educational decision-making and choices (see Baker, 2020) or of how their personal values change while they are at university’ (see Chen, Yamal, Hustad & Sims, 2016). When used this way, photo diaries are particularly for documenting changes within a person over a period of time (Milligan & Bartlett 2019).

Similarly, photovoice also facilitates the creation of a narrative picture based on photographs that are taken by participants. However, in photovoice, participants usually' take photographs over a shorter period, with the photographs being more symbolic and based on reflections about an issue or problem that a community seeks to have addressed. As conceptualised by Wang (1999) photovoice is intended to galvanise communities, to get them gathered around a particular cause and to collect evidence that can help to make a case for that cause, ultimately leading to some action that supports that cause. The key difference then between photo diaries and photovoice, is that the former typically requires participants to take photographs of the actual event under exploration, or to take photographs at particular moments or set intervals, while the latter usually' requires participants to take photographs that convey' a specific message or story' that the participants have constructed beforehand.

Photo diaries and photovoice therefore have important similarities; they' are clearly interrelated and can inform each other well (Bartlett & Rhynas, 2016). That is, they' are both examples of how photography can be incorporated into research, they both have participatory elements, especially' because the photographs are taken by' participants, not researchers (this is not necessarily the case in photo elicitation) and they both enable the creation of a narrative picture of an aspect of people’s lives. As such, in both cases, photographs are not necessarily objects of analysis in the research, but entry points to discussions and a basis for developing situated, storied constructions of participants’ social realities. For these reasons, we acknowledge them as distinct participatory' visual research approaches, but consider photovoice as a mode of producing photo diaries, even though the photographs taken by' participants of photovoice projects are not captured as and when a particular event occurs on a day to day' basis.

Before we proceed to the discussion of our proposed evaluation criteria and the theory' that underpins them, we contextualise and locate this chapter within contemporary South African higher education literature that uses participatory' visual methods in the next section. We do this not only to locate this chapter in this literature, but also to highlight the political dimension of photovoice, particularly' in South African higher education research. We return to this point in the conclusion to discuss how this aspect of photovoice may' complement other photo diary methods.

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