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Posts Tagged ‘Participatory Research’

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…..

Agenda-setting
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…

Production
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

Dissemination
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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A couple of months back, my PhD supervisor, Dr. Christopher High, invited me to be a part of a Participatory Video project in Hungary. It was a week-long training programme held in the Forest School near a village called Nagyvazsony. The participants were from LEADER groups from various parts of Hungary, working on rural development. The project was called Naturama KoVi (Community Video).

With some time in hand before my viva, I decided, I really had to go. After all, there’s nothing like a bunch of excited participants, tons of quirky ideas and cameras to train them with. The sheer energy in the air, of learning storytelling and video-making through lots of participatory exercises, the excitement of shooting, the rush in the final-minute editing before a presentation and all the madness to go with it, make PV trainings a great experience, and so was this one.

The group made around seven videos on the tourist trail in the village. These videos were then mapped on the Google Maps and are intended for use by tourists, through GIS. (See below)

I, as a facilitator, had a very different learning about participatory training through this project. On Day 1, Rupesh (co-facilitator) and I were told to have some activities lined up for the participants – from introductory exercises to those on filmmaking and storytelling.  We kept thinking of and creating new participatory exercises everyday, ones, not done before. And, this is what I found so exceptional about anything participatory – the flexibility and adaptive nature of what you want to do, how you want to do them. There are no rules (other than keeping them participatory, of course).

We also modified a lot of exercises to suit the need of this group, which was going to make films related to tourism. For instance, instead of the usual sitting in a circle to introduce the camera, we interviewed the first participant and asked her about the journey she took to reach the Forest School. We then introduced the camera to her and asked her to interview the next participant who came, introduce and hand over the camera, explain how it functions and so on. This went on, till the last person arrived. People, who had not held a camera ever before, got interviewed and had conducted an interview, even before the training actually started.

In one of the new activities, we had a group of three. We asked them to look at things around them from someone else’s perspective, in this case, a 5-year-old child. They, then, would direct another person in making a video of what they understood, without handling the camera themselves. During this exercise, most of the participants agreed that it was difficult to look at things with such a different point of view (even though it was just visual); it was even more difficult to explain to someone else, what s/he saw. As communicators, we often have to do that – understand someone else’s story and communicate it to others. Unless one gives up his/her own notions, it might be impossible to understand other alternative ways of looking at things – something that’s the basic to understand the meaning of participation and more importantly, here, participatory communication.

We too, as facilitators, looked at others’ ways of viewing situations and that lead us to engage with the participants (through these activities) in a manner that was relevant to them. It is about participants having control, and about them knowing, even other people can/may/should have control. This, as an ethos, when furthered from one person to another leads to more participatory environments.

Something of this nature was especially important for a project like this, as the participants, beyond just attending such a programme, were supposed to go back to their regional groups, conduct participatory video trainings and also make videos on tourism in their own regions.

I have seen this participatory ethos furthered in many ways, small and big. It is the same, whether, it was Rupesh asking a mother, whom his group interviewed, to record her daughter with the camera, or a girl from WAVE explaining the cab driver, how to record and then shooting herself for her profile video, or Apna TV modifying a Digital Storytelling module to start training college students in visual media.

I’d say, if you know video, then just go ahead and teach someone else how to – someone out there might want to tell their story, someone else, just might need to.

As I was told recently, ‘I can now talk about things, I couldn’t earlier.’

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Few weeks of chats with Helen from the Open University (UK) on phone, Skype and in person, and a few days after the last one, I found myself lugging the camera, tripod, pens, chart papers and such, into her car. Admittedly, it seemed like a great break from all the books I had, otherwise, buried myself into – courtesy, literature review for the PhD. On that sunny morning, as the prints of letters and words began to fade away from my mind, while Helen drove, I looked forward to a world that’s always drawn me– one that of kids – one, I have always wondered, what would it be like to work in, in letting those little citizens’ minds go, wander and capture their world through their own, sometimes shaky, but always untamed lenses.

Day 1: Scripting

A day before that, I had sat down and planned each of the 4 hours that we had with the kids on the first day – the introduction, the ice-breakers, the camera exercises and all that’s required… I was very clear about how the day should go and what we should end with. Well, it just didn’t go as planned. When we reached there all the kids were busy doing their own thing. It took us some time till they got together and even then only few of them really seemed interested in what we wanted to do. They did sit around in a circle, talking to us – talking about their neighborhood, discussing the kind of film they’d like to make, thinking about the structure, but few of them, still remained very disengaged. This, I should have thought about. After all, how many kids like just sitting and talking? A sinking feeling started growing within me. I could already see a disaster here, coupled with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to handle the kids as the video facilitator. Towards the end of the day, I had lost most of my confidence and somehow introduced the camera to them. I thought when they to play with the camera, they would turn their attention. They would begin to enjoy it. But no such thing happened! They remained busy going in and out of the room, jumping around the couch and stuff like that. I really felt I didn’t have it in me to handle kids.

Day 2: Shooting

Somehow, I gathered myself the next day morning, hoping for the best. We had only few hours to shoot and we needed to edit the next day, finishing a film in almost 10 working hours!!! Once there, Helen and I decided that since the group was quite big – around 10 kids, it’d be best to divide them into two groups. So, we asked them who wanted to film and who wanted to take photographs. To our delight, this was worked. The younger kids decided to take photographs and the older ones decided to film. Soon, I had a team that was all ready to go around the neighborhood with the camera and start shooting. That previous day’s sensation on my nerves crept back, as we stepped out to film – from there on, the kids had total control over the entire shooting process. I still can’t fathom how it happened, but after the first interview that they took near their shopping center, they just got totally confident, and went about interviewing people and shooting their own neighborhood. Their confidence with the camera was just quite amazing. I have trained several groups, and people are usually scared of the camera and end up fumbling. But here, these kids were pros from the word go. Looking at the film, it is difficult to believe that they shot for the first time and that too, within just 3 hours. Many of them, who were not comfortable with me earlier, started to come and ask a lot of questions about the camera. It was so different from what I had imagined, after the first day. Suddenly, it was a team, helping each other and enjoying making their video. They managed to interview various people in the neighborhood like their friends, young people and an old lady, representing views from a cross-section of people. I left happy, mostly because the kids really seemed to enjoy what they did.

Day 3: Editing

The next day was to be the real difficult one – editing! Even PV practitioners or researchers using PV, often mention the issues they face, related to editing. Since, it is such a technical process, it is difficult to train participants to do it in a short period of time – and here I was, struggling with time as well, with hardly 4 hours left in hand. What we came up with then, was to let them do visual editing – choosing the shots to be retained from the review of the footages and then the photographs, they wanted to insert in between – creating structure of the final video.. Very soon, I had the group looking at the footage, and noting down the parts they want to include. I have to mention, they got bored of it in some time. It is a very tiresome process indeed! But, I had one enthusiastic candidate, who sat with me through it. Helen had another girl with her, who meticulously chose the best pictures till the very end. Well, the editing was done! All that was needed, was to put it all in one place and get the film together. I would also have to admit that I had more control over the editing process, as I made the final version, and so had to take certain decisions on behalf of the kids. They never got to choose the music, for instance. Another such instance was when one of the participants mentioned getting bullied. Helen and I decided to keep that bit out to ensure safety of the child. But one has to remember, we were working with kids and as adults, even in a participatory process, it becomes our responsibility to ensure that, and if need be, take certain kinds of decisions on their behalf.

Watching the footage.

It’s been almost one and a half months that they shot this video. I often remember my three days there and the wonderful time I had, working with these kids.

I list out some key things that I learned during this process:

  • Working with children is not very easy, but IT IS real fun, once they get involved.
  • Do ‘real’ activities with them. This is what keeps them going. Directing their energies is extremely important.
  • They have a lot of energy, but that energy gets over sooner than adults. So, plan your day in such a way that children are involved for 3-4 hours a day and not more.
  • It is a really creative process and does enhance creativity and critical thinking in children. Carefully think about the activities and your process, and note down, how they can support the children. Make them think about the stories, how they want to shoot, what they want to say.
  • You have to let them have the control, even if you feel things are not going right. Going through this process can provide a lot of self-esteem and confidence to children. Make sure they feel responsible for what they are doing, and feel confident about making their own decisions. Let them go ahead and approach people for interviews. Let them decide on their questions.
  • You will see a lot of group dynamics as well (like in any other group actually). Try and make it positive and give roles to children accordingly.
  • Video-making needs a lot of team work and can actually be a great facilitator towards building a team. Encourage them to help each other during the production. With kids, building a team is critical, as it is related to skills they can learn for life.
  • Lend  a good ear. In a group of children, it is very normal to have small fights and arguments. Be ready to face those and resolve them. Also, be open to what they are saying and expressing. For some children, this might be their own way of communicating and they might communicate things, they do not otherwise.
  • Make your own decisions as an adult to respect their privacy and safety.
  • And, of course, have a lot of fun!!!!

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