Enhancing narrative capabilities and the capability for epistemic contribution through photovoice: possibilities and limitations

Mathebula, Mikateko (2019). 'Enhancing narrative capabilities and the capability for epistemic contribution through photovoice: possibilities and limitations' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Whilst there are arguments in favour of using participatory visual research methods as an effective tool for integrating underrepresented student voices in higher education research, and for communicating their views to wider audiences and policy makers, data and analysis on these processes are generally lacking. As argued by Pauwels (2015) participatory visual methods are based mainly on undisclosed assumptions, often characterized and advocated by their intended outcome, but lack empirical evidence or methodologies for arriving at proposed outcomes. An example of such a visual research method is photovoice (Wang, 1994).

Since its inception in 1994, photovoice methodology (Wang & Burris, 1994) has been used expansively in the areas of healthcare, homelessness, and education (Sutton-Brown, 2014). Photovoice methodology rests on three theoretical underpinnings (Wang & Burris, 1997): a) education for critical consciousness (e.g., Freire, 2007); b) feminism and notions of ‘voice’ (e.g., Hooks, 1981); and c) participatory documentary photography (e.g., Ewald, 1985; Hubbard, 1994). Additionally, it has three main aims, to: 1) cultivate critical consciousness among participants; 2) allow participants to document aspects of their lives on their own terms; and 3) reach policy makers with the project’s findings in order enact change (Wang & Burris, 1997). Typically, photovoice participants are given cameras and asked to document various aspects of their lived experiences through photography (Latz, Phelps-Ward, Royer & Peters, 2016). These images are then used to elicit analytic discussion during focus groups or interviews with members of the research team, where participants narrate the personal significance of the images (Latz, et al. 2016). Photovoice practitioners often argue that asking participants to create visuals in addition to spoken responses to interview questions creates a layer of richness within the data not possible through words alone, and that photographs can generate visceral responses from consumers of the project’s findings - which is important for connecting with policy makers (see Wang & Burris, 1997; Latz, et al. 2016).  Photovoice projects typically conclude with an exhibition, which is the space where the findings should reach policy makers (Latz, et al. 2016).

Drawing from data collected in a longitudinal (2016-2020) mixed-methods project on inclusive higher education learning outcomes with 65 rural and township youth across five diverse universities in South Africa, the paper mainly uses 5 selected student photo stories for its empirical base.  The paper also draws from 5 corresponding video clips, and 4 group discussions with students, as well as reflections on a photo exhibition for supplementary data. The aim of the paper is to offer a comprehensive description of the photovoice approach followed in the project, in order to provide sufficient grounds for conclusions that are made about the possibilities and limitations of its usefulness in reaching policy makers and taking up underrepresented voices in and through higher education research in the South African context.

In the discussion of the findings,  the paper describes how each photo story - which consists of 6 photographs that were taken, selected, arranged and individually titled and captioned by students - speaks to experiences of inclusion and exclusion at university, but also of aspiration, resilience and hope. The discussion also shows that the photo stories can be seen as not only a contemporaneous record of events, but also as situated, storied constructions of students’ realities which reflects the linguistic, artistic and material resources on which they draw to develop these narratives. 

Using a capabilities lens to understand the value of participatory visual research in this project, the paper thus describes how students’ narrative capabilities (Ricoeur, 2006; Godwin Phelps, 2006) and opportunities for epistemic contribution (Fricker, 2015) were developed and supported through a photovoice approach (Wang & Burris, 1997) to researching South African low-income students’ experiences of university. At the same time, the paper theorises on the connection between these two capabilities i.e. narrative capability and the capability for epistemic contribution, arguing how they a) are interdependent b) can be enhanced through participatory visual research processes and c) ought to be considered as key higher education learning outcomes. By positioning the simultaneous expansion of students’ capabilities for storytelling and capability for contributing to knowledge as an explicit and important goal of higher education research, the paper also aims to broaden the evaluative space for assessing what constitutes inclusivity in knowledge making and knowledge sharing processes in higher education settings. Importantly, the paper also discusses the challenges and limitations of the approach taken in the project, thus giving a more nuanced account of what participatory visual research can and cannot do.

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