Participatory photography, to which extend is participatory?

woman-246237_640 (1)
I guess we all commonly have heard about a ‘photo voice’, ‘talking picture’ or visual voices’, a technique of participatory photography that puts the camera in the hands of the people that are encouraged to document and share their own reality through photos.

Inspired by the Freirean technique of mutual dialogue (presented in my previous post) cameras were handed out in 2002 to 11 listeners (7 Women and 4 men) of Taru, an entertainment soap opera radio program in India. The radio itself was a collaborative project of PCI-Media Impact, an international NGO and local organisation such as Janani, and All India Radio.  Clearly the project was not initially initiated by the community itself, but with a support of a non- governmental organisation, the voice was handed over to the community. Listeners in villages -Abirpur, Kamtaul, Madhopur were asked to shed a light on their engagement with the Taru radio series through the language of images. It was interesting to see how the photographs’ narrative created by the participants could flag issues that were addressed in Taru as being important for discussion within the whole community, such as gender inequality, patriarchal norms, family size, reproductive health, caste, denied access of young girls to education, women’s health risk due to poverty in political context and communal harmony.

I will just mention a few photographs to draw a clear picture.

The photo taken by Soni (16 years old) of an old woman, who is trying to cover her head with a sari, presents strong patriarchal connotation. She states ‘that this is a very old woman who always covers her head when any man passes by, like now it was her brother in law and she must show him respect.’

Several pictures captured how young boys and girls are engaged in manual labour. Manjeet’s (19 years old ) photo is described : ‘This boy is planting some seeds. This represents how this boy goes to school as well as works on the farm’. Another photo depicts a young girl with the following statement: ‘The girl is planting potatoes . She is farming’.

Kumkum’s (19 years old) photo of a woman in front of her sewing machines was supported by the call to the community to engage in a self-help and income generating activities. ‘This woman teaches sewing at home and earns money. Every village should have a stitching centre. Women who don’t go to school or are illiterate can do this to stand on their feet. They don’t have to depend on anyone for money or anything else.’

It is obvious that creation of images through the camera lens includes a degree of subjective choice through what must be captured, which images are collected and how they are framed. It is true. But in this case the subjective opinion of community members is rather needed. Their network is born by taking pictures, sharing them and discussing them with community members. The powerful identity of community is created. This network that transfers information can shift power away from the centre to the periphery.  One thing must be kept in mind: for the photography to be come truly participatory is not enough to the photo and share the stories with the researcher, but to share with other community members, citizens and policymakers.

Placing cameras in the hands of people takes us to their daily life experiences which were previously silenced, rejected, overlooked or presented in a stereotypical manner.  They are in power to decide on things that matter to them the most. Not us , citizens of the Global North looking through the prism of our own experiences and necessities deciding on their being and what is the best for them. They know themselves.

The conclusion falls in line with Amartya Sen’s capability approach, which Kleine (2010) rephrases in her article ‘ICT4What?…’ that development is a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy and live a lives that people value. Sen (1999) proposes a freedom of people to participate in development processes to influence decision that affects them. He also argues that functioning of individual relates to the achievement, while capability is the ability to achieve. Capabilities provide space to achieve different combinations to functioning within a freedom to chose desired life (Kleine, 2010). Likewise  community members of Abirpur, Kamtaul, Madhopurchose chose how to use ICT (photography) , chose which images to capture (old women wearing sari, farming girl, playing boys) and chose what is important for them to be achieved, for instance to be healthy, to celebrate also girls birth not only boys, women to take a part in a life community.  Kleine (2010) remarks that funding institutions might set an economic prosperity as a top priority but like in our case community might value gender equality, respect for elderly women, women access to education, caste discrimination more. Participatory way of development although more time consuming and more complicated, as culturally and locally appropriated it reduces risk of failure, and foster a sense of citizenship which is a fundamental drive for the social change . ICT has enormous potential to give individual choices but is determined by dimensions of access, availability, affordability and individual capabilities.


Another participatory photography examples in action: PhotoVoice:Participatory Democracy for Social Change and Life through the Lens

Kleine D (2010) ICT4What?- Using the choice framework to operationalise the capability approach to development. Journal of International Development 22
Sen A (1999) Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Singhal, Harter, Chitnis & Sharma (2007) Participatory photography as theory, method and praxis: analysing an entertainment education project in India. Critical Arts 21 (1) 
Srinivasan R (2012) Rethinking Digital Cultures and Divides: The Case for Reflexive Media. Information Society 28 (1) 


Participatory Communication

The discourse of participatory communication gathered momentum in 1970s as dissatisfaction mounted with top- down communication approaches to social change. However although all the participation is communication driven, not all the forms of communication are participatory. In fact participatory communication means working with and mainly by the people, as opposed to working on or working for the people.

Participatory versus non-Participatory Strategies

  • Horizontal lateral communication between participants vs  Vertical top down communication from senders to receivers
  • Process of dialogue vs Campaign to mobilise in short term without capacity building
  • Long term process of change vs Short term planning and quick fix solution
  • Collective empowerment and decision making vs Individual behaviour change
  • With community involvement vs for the community
  • Specific in content, culture, language vs Massive and broad based
  • People needs are the focus vs Donors’ must are the focus
  • Owned by community vs Access determined by social and political and economic factors
  • Consciousness raising vs Persuasion for short term

Source Gumucio Dagron (2001)

In 1990s the new consensus has put participation at the center stage of social initiatives. I will risk oversimplification now, but there seems to be two approaches to participatory communication. One is drawn on the dialogic pedagogy of Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire and the second one is shaped by the UNESCO New World Information Order debates from 1970. To Paolo Freire dialogic pedagogy enhanced the role of a ‘teacher as learner’ and ‘learner as teacher’, where learning is never ending and fully transformative process. True participation for transformation and social change does not involve subject –object relationship but subject-to-subject one. However Castells (1997) criticises Freire’s concept of information as too simplistic and linked to oppression, rather then a re -centring a traditional central -peripheral power dynamics. He is also criticised for the universalisation of the oppressed and oppressor as it ignores the nature of the connections between those two categories and it victimises the oppressed local people (Srinivasan, 2006).  Although existing criticism , Freire opens up the new ways of perceiving development , not as information transfer , but a process where communities develop and articulate their own visions and goal of information access (Srinivasan, 2006).

Castells M(1997) The power of identity. Oxford: Blackwell
Freire P (1970) Pedagogy of oppressed. NY: Continuum
Gumucio Dagron (2001) Making waves – Stories of participatory communication for social change. New York: The Rockefeller Foundation
Singhal, Harter, Chitnis & Sharma (2007) Participatory photography as theory method and praxis, Critical Arts 21 (1)
Srinivasan R (2006) Where Information Society and Community Voice Intersect, The Information Society 22 (5)

The Digital Divide in India: A Gender Perspective

The digital divide is a major threat to use ICT appropriately for development issues. Especially, the gender divide is still a huge issue when it comes to ICT use and excludes women widely from the participation in the digital sphere.

A recent rule of a rural muslim panchayat might seem unbelievable from a the perspective of the Global North. Women should not own mobile phones to prevent violence against women in these rural areas. According to these rural male leaders, mobile phones, next to t-shirts and jeans, are the “root of all evil”. This shows that access to ICT is not given across in India and goes beyond economic issues, especially for women. Women often face (human-) rights based issues and violations, as they are oppressed in the patriarchal society of India. India is a society where women belong, across all castes and social classes, to the most marginalized women in the world. It is a men dominated society and while searching for appropriate technology or ICT for development, one needs to keep this in mind.

The patriarchal culture, in the Indian context, is a polariser of ICT access and there is not a “one size fits all approach” in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation, where the divide between men and women is arguably the biggest on earth.

What can ICT4D do in this context?

If women have access to ICTs, technology can be used as a tool for women to tell their story, like the example of participatory photography or video shows. The participative forms of communication can help to counter narratives, which are mostly dictated by men in the society of India and in South Asia in general.

Participatory Video in India

Appropriating ICT, like cameras, is for the people a (new) way for storytelling.

With the use of participatory video (PV), they can tell their stories and counter media narratives, which are dominant and induced by the mainstream media and other stakeholders, like corporate companies.

Like the example of Lalavadar Green Messages shows. Telling about the social realities from a personal or community perspective, is an excellent example of appropriated ICT for local needs. The media here is a gatekeeper for channelling personal stories.

Especially, for teenagers and younger ICT literate adults, the availability of resources like smartphones and other ICT, makes it easier to become a content producer. Like Rheingold (2008) finds, young teenager tend to participate and produce context, while also spreading this content via the Web and its social networks. This applies also to Indian teenager, as Rheingold (2008) points out. Video is just one example of this kind of content, which helps to be a producer in a hyper-mediated world.

Another case study of participatory video in practice, is the use of PV in the field of agricultural extension by the Indian NGO Digital Green. The produced videos are also shared and screened amongst the community to spread awareness about agricultural practises and to improve the outcomes based on scientific practises. Sometimes “seeing is believing” and therefore the adopting rate through PV practises is much more efficient than classical agricultural extension projects. The community is integrated right from the beginning, hence making it “participatory” through all levels and targeting the local needs.



Rheingold, H. (2008). Using participatory media and public voice to encourage civic engagement. Civic life online: Learning how digital media can engage youth, 97-118.