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It has been quite a while since my last entry. With the thesis writing in the final phase, it has been almost impossible for me to think in writing in any other style than academic! But I have found this little window, to write another post.

I have been thinking hard about how to explain in a simple manner about what I found, what my research results are. What does it really say? So here I talk about one of the basic issues in a Participatory Video project.

Researching the two organisations doing long-term PV projects in India showed that people at different levels of the project have different expectations from the project. The donor agencies want something else, the project implementing NGO wants something else, and the participants have their own expectations from doing such a project. Which, I think is fine. And I would think that holds true for any project. But the problem comes when these different expectations are not in sync.

When participants started expecting, for example, that doing a participatory video project would give them media production skills to go join television news channels, it did not match with what the donor agency wanted to happen with their money. The donors had their own set of objectives to be met for the project to be called a ‘success’, like number of people reached through the videos. The NGO wants the participants to continue producing videos over the years, which strengthen its advocacy campaigns or grassroots work, whereas the participants start looking at ways to further their careers, or earn better money.

When the donors want to ‘empower’ participants through such projects, they often want participants to be empowered enough to fulfil the project objectives, but they are not prepared for participants to become empowered enough to create their own objectives. The NGOs, who implement the project, usually follow what the donors want. If they decide to listen to what the participants want they might end up without finding much funding for that purpose.

The different expectations do not build on each other to make it a project that is successful for all involved, a project that sustains itself.

Though, this does not take away from what participating in a Participatory Video process does to the participants. In fact it is the self-confidence that they gain through the process that enables them to think about what all they can do for themselves and their communities. Participation works, Participatory Video works, it is just that donors and NGOs may fail to realise fully what it can do for the participants’ and communities’ lives and how they can use PV to promote participants’ agency.

Very interestingly, where the hierarchical relations within the community were challenged, such as young Muslim women shooting with cameras openly, or young women from Mumbai slums taking up leader-like positions, the hierarchy within the project was extremely difficult to challenge! So, donors always held more power than these young women participants, who were at the bottom rung during decision-making (in spite of being the ones for whom the project was built).

My research looks at several other factors that come into play, including social and cultural issues, that may affect what a PV project is able to achieve. I have come up with a tool that considers these factors and can be used by donors and NGOs to find out how participants’ agency can be promoted during the PV process and how it becomes a meaningful process for those who take part in it.

There is a lot of academic thinking and changes innovated by practitioners, since participatory approaches have been facing a lot of criticism. My concerns emerged as a practitioner and through academics I have found possible answers to a lot of those concerns.

Would love to hear what your experiences say about expectations in PV or other participatory projects.

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This one week taught me so much about doing Participatory Video, as a researcher. Going in, I never thought, it will be as tough – negotiating the thin line between Namita Singh, the trainer, and Namita Singh, the researcher. The former being my role throughout my working life prior to my PhD, the latter, I am supposed to strictly adhere to, so as not to lose sight and data, while I am at it.
Every bit is important. Every bit might have some key, some vital insight – a hidden answer to my research questions – some serious business, this!

I had wanted to use PV in my research, as I wanted to work with a method that the participants would be very comfortable with. Since both the groups I am doing my research with, have been doing PV for more than three years, it seemed like the most apt method for my research. They know the technique, they are already experts in what they know, and they do make films… I thought, what better than PV, in such a case. It was a rather uncomplicated decision for me. So I discussed the possibility of doing PV as a part of my research with the organisation. It was a definitive ‘yes’… The participating girls were really excited about it too. Then came the little request from them, ‘Why don’t you train us a bit too, while we make this video for the research? We could learn some more’.

Tricky! How could I say no? They are giving me their time for my research. They are participating in it. They just want to learn a bit more, while being a part of it. On the other hand, it is a research, I did not want to compromise on my data-collection, while trying to train them and mixing up two very different things. Would research be research, if things did not complicate themselves?
So I put my dilemma aside, and thought, ‘Well, I could probably design the video-making in a workshop-format. I have done this as a trainer, as it is an extremely participatory process. I can do the same, as a researcher too.
It was not as easy as it seemed. There are things I did as a trainer, which I could not as a researcher, and vice-versa…..

Namita Singh, the trainer, has been used to negotiations – between the participants’ agenda and the organisation’s or that of the funders’. Being on the middle ground, as a trainer, it was always difficult to take a position, but I still had the option of choosing one or the other. But, there could never be any of ‘my agenda’. (I had even been told off once, for calling the community ‘my community’, and asked by one of the organisations involved, to stick to the plan!). Choosing the participants’ agenda here, would have meant, making this video to showcase their work. Something they could show to their community, other NGOs… Fair negotiation, this…

But here, Namita Singh, the researcher, had one of her own – the content of the video. It was supposed to be analysed for the research – some serious business, this! It was supposed to respond to my research questions. I had such an urge to control! Fair negotiation, this too…

So I kept looking to balance it out, so that, while they make such a video, I get my data. While discussing the concept of the video, it did take me a lot to not keep pushing my agenda, and negotiate with them on the content of the video.
Fair negotiation… is always a tough task! Research taught me…

The production side of things brought out the other part of the urge to control – the urge to make them use the tripod, the urge of taking the camera in my hand to frame a new kind of shot for them, the urge to set the pace of the video in the edit… Namita Singh, the trainer, after all, has had trained participants in making videos – scripting, shooting, editing…the works! Participants were trained for months to shoot good quality video. They had to learn the nuances of good editing. The video had to look good. There is a norm of what ‘good’ means.

But Namita Singh, the researcher, even with all her training skills? It was clear to me before we began making the video that my prime objective is the research, and I could not lose sight of it. I had to give up my notion of a technically perfect video. I had to keep reminding myself that it does not matter here.
I decided, I would not compromise on their wish to learn more though. Instead, I would attempt to make the entire process an experience, without interfering with the technical stuff…
Falling into the trap of a norm is always such an easy one! The research made me understand…

Girls shooting for the video

For Namita Singh, the researcher, the dissemination of this video would be of the research kind – used as part of the thesis. Probably show it in some conference. Maybe use it in some other research, or with other research participants for… Namita Singh, the trainer, of course, gets reminded, there’s another here, that would be of the organisational kind. They will screen it in communities. They’ll show it to other NGOs. They’ll probably use it to pitch to funders.
There was a suggestion from their coordinator, that they can make the video in English. It’ll make an impact on the NGOs, and the funders. That would make a useful point in my research as well – the confidence of the girls and how far they have come. They are not just making a video, but making it in English. In most of the communities in India, it is a sort of a statement to be able to speak in English.

But the girls pointed out, ‘Our communities don’t know English. They’ll not understand what we are saying. Even if we put subtitles, they don’t know how to read. Those who know English can read. So let only the subtitles be in English’. The girls were sensitive about their community, and vocal about it too. As a trainer, the focus was always to respond to such needs of the community. In fact, use of local words, encouraging local songs, etc. was an integral part of the process. After all, for them, it was for the local community that was to engage with the video more.

My ‘audience’, as a researcher had changed. I was sensitive to the needs of those. Here, it was not for the needs of any other.
An alteration of sight on certain aspects can, and do happen! This research just taught me to be aware of, how and what.

The week ended with both the participants and me feeling happy. They said, ‘We love our video’, and smiled at me. I smiled back. ‘We liked it this week…come again.’, as I was leaving.
I will be going again, ready to learn some more.

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