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Using Participatory Photography for Peace: A short guide for practitioners

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Author, Copyright Holder: DR VALENTINA BAÚ

Photography is a powerful medium to unite people and communities around shared images and experiences. Yet despite the large number of initiatives that employ the media as tools for peacebuilding, few address issues of conflict through the use of photographs. Here I begin to fill that gap, introducing a new project design for practitioners to employ participatory photography in peacebuilding work.

This design was developed through the planning and implementation of Lenses of Conflict and Peace, a participatory photography (PP) initiative that I conducted with a group of young people living in a Kenyan slum who had been affected by the 2007/2008 Post-Election Violence (PEV). The project structure that I describe here shows how a participatory approach to the use of photography and images can contribute to opening up a dialogue between (former) enemy groups in post-conflict communities. Built around a Communication for Development (C4D) in Peacebuilding framework, the activities allowed the youths to think critically about conflict and peace in their community. They also contributed to an understanding of the different experiences of the conflict among participants, who belonged to different tribes. I believe that this type of project design can ultimately contribute to processes of social change in the aftermath of violence.

The primary legacy of the PEV in Kenya is a strong loss of trust between the various tribes who were involved in the fighting. The intensity of the sudden violence left a deep sense of fear, accompanied by the belief that a stable peace is not possible, because there will always be the threat of violence reigniting. Maynard (1997) explains how in conflict-affected societies individuals’ fear for their safety, distrust for other groups and inability to look at the future positively impact their perception towards the importance of rebuilding peace’ (p.207). This is part of the social damage caused by the fighting, which can only be addressed at the grassroots level. Another crucial feeling left by the conflict is anger over the loss of property and livelihood that many families endured, in some cases even becoming internally displaced.

Finally, investigations carried out by the International Criminal Court were hindered by large criticism and by a lack of cooperation on various sides, the issues brought to the court remained unresolved in many ways, as many people felt the crimes that were committed against them and their families went unpunished. This strengthened negative feelings and reinforced hatred between (former) rival group(s). Within this fraught context, initiating communication between antagonised parties is an essential course of action for rebuilding trust and understanding, and for creating an environment of collaboration towards sustainable peace.

Lenses of Conflict & Peace participatory photography project

The project, organised in collaboration with local organisation A-Step (Africa Sports Talents Empowerment Program), took place in Eldoret, the main urban center of the Rift Valley. The activities were implemented in Langas, the largest slum on the outskirts of town. The group of participants consisted of nine young people aged between 20 and 34.

On day 1, participants were introduced to participatory photography and given clarification on its meaning and purpose. The objectives of the project were identified:

To express what the conflict meant to participants and to their tribes;
To show what changed in the community since the end of the violence;
To understand what the conflict meant to fellow participants and to their tribes;
To offer a lens on peace in Langas community.
After introducing the objectives, I introduced myself through the use of photographs that depicted people and places in my life. This engaged participants’ attention and creative imagination, as the group thoroughly enjoyed this presentation and was fascinated by the photos I showed them of cities and subjects they had never seen.

After an ice-breaking exercise, I introduced basic photography notions such as shot types, camera angle, composition, light and framing. I split the participants into two groups of four and explained to the first group how to operate a basic digital camera. The first group then demonstrated to the other.

In pairs, participants practised by taking portraits of each other, experimenting with different shots and angles. They were then encouraged to write captions for each other’s photos indicating their partner’s name, age, country of birth (this was suggested in order to transcend reference to tribal belonging), and what he/she thought was the main difference between conflict and peace (Figure 1). This activity allowed people to get acquainted with the idea and the importance of captions.

Following that, a thorough discussion was held on the risks of working with images, the importance of keeping the equipment safe and the ethics of photography, more reflections and details of which are offered later in the paper. Participants then left the workshop premises with their cameras for the first time and took five to six photos per pair of important or well-known places in the slum. This introductory exercise, which was not strictly related to the themes of the project, was helpful for participants to experience the community’s reaction to the cameras and to learn how to approach people and articulate to them the aim of our activities.

Day 2 focused on connecting images to feelings and emotions. The participants were shown a series of images and encouraged to share the feelings each image elicited within themselves, and then acknowledge the different responses of different participants. They were then asked in pairs to take photos that expressed a list of predetermined feelings. All the images were projected back on the computer screen and discussed in the group, highlighting once again individual differences in interpreting what was being expressed through the photos.

Participants were subsequently split into two groups and engaged in a game that required them to match a series of images to a number of captions that indicated either feelings (i.e. happy, sad, scared, betrayed, etc.) or general themes (i.e. freedom, conflict, fear, justice, injustice, etc.). This was a key activity as participants had to reflect on the connection that each picture had with its potential caption; most importantly, each group had to engage in a dialogue and reach an agreement over how to match the different items, as this choice would often differ from individual to individual. Furthermore, the images outnumbered the captions I had supplied, hence group members had to write additional ones (based again around feelings or themes) to describe the remaining pictures. This was an exercise that required critical thinking and the achievement of a consensus.

Participants were then paired according to their tribal affiliation, and asked to take their cameras out to their community to take one photo each of a place within the slum that represented for them a strong reminder of the Post-Election Violence.

Upon return to the workshop room, they worked on the creation of a map of the slum using the photographs they had taken during the exercise of the previous day (Figure 2). This was an extended collaborative activity, which engaged them in a group reflection on their area. After completing the map, I asked the group to present to me through the various roads and places they had either drawn or photographed. I then asked them whether and how any of those places had changed from the time of the conflict to the present day. This type of activity was a powerful prompt for participants to begin to identify the differences in their community; by thinking critically about how things had changed from the conclusion of the fighting, they distinguished elements related to peace that may have gone unnoticed with the re-establishment of the everyday routine within the slum. At the same time, they were also able to point out how some of those changes show at times that the road to a sustainable peace is still a long one.

On day 3 we began with the first storytelling session. Each participant told the story around the picture they had taken the previous day, in relation to what was for them a reminder of the conflict in their area. Each story was an intense and powerful moment, and everyone listened attentively. Sad memories were brought back but rather than a sense of division, it seemed as if everyone was feeling united by the shared suffering they had experienced. At the end of the storytelling, in silence, each participant wrote on a piece of paper what he or she had learned about the experience of the other tribes.

After that, participants engaged in another participatory photography exercise, which encouraged them to capture images that showed the progress towards peace that had been made in their community since the end of the PEV.

This was followed, again, by sharing stories around those photographs with the group. Later, participants wrote down the themes that they were able to recognize from those stories, and provided an illustration for each of them (Figure 3).

he main activity on day 4 revolved around a further participatory photography exercise, which saw the young people taking photographs of what they felt still represented barriers to peace in their community. Following the image-taking, everyone told the story around their photo, explaining how barriers were still present, where, and in what form. After that, the group worked on writing a list of the barriers that were highlighted during the storytelling, providing an illustration for each of them and highlighting how different tribes were affected by them.

During the final session on day 5, the group engaged in its last participatory photography exercise. This activity was designed to create a further understanding between different tribes and identify a way forward. This time, pairs of different tribes were formed. After leaving the premises, each person explained to the other how they felt their tribe had been affected by the violence, and how they believed they were still being affected and/or discriminated against to this day. Upon listening to this story, the other person had to take a photograph of their partner in a place or in a way that was connected to what they had just heard, also considering his or her suggestions over the composition.

For the storytelling process, this time each participant had to tell the story they had heard from their partner. This way, individuals belonging to a particular tribe had to communicate to others how someone from a different tribe felt during the violence and how they believed they were still affected by the issues that had led to it. They also had to explain how the photograph they had taken was meaningful to the circumstances described.

Afterwards, the young people worked again in groups to bring together the issues that were raised during the storytelling, placing emphasis on the problems each tribe is facing. They then tried to design solutions that could lead to a more equal and peaceful community (Figure 4).

This session also involved a group decision-making process on the future use of the images and stories that had arisen from the project. This was followed by an in-depth explanation of the issue of ‘consent’ and by participants signing their consent form and seeking consent from their photo subjects.

In preparing a list of ethical issues to reflect upon and to debate with participants, I found helpful this manual (link is external) from the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, which focused on the following points:

The photographer should avoid intrusion into people’s privacy while taking photos, and always ask for permission before photographing someone;
The photographer should not take photos that would cause embarrassment to the person/people being photographed;
The photographer should not take photos that display people in a false light, creating a distortion of the truth;
When asking people for permission to have their photo taken, the photographer must explain clearly why they are taking that photo and what the project is about;
During group discussions, each photographer shall engage in reminders about ethics, power and responsibility when taking photos of the community;
Both the project staff and the photographers will ensure that the photos taken express the real voice of the community.
The risks of working with images were identified by the group as:

the possibility of upsetting people; making people recognisable in photos, when they should not be; putting people in danger.
These were important considerations in this context, as the fear and mistrust over the happenings of the conflict are still strong; hence, ensuring safety of the participants was a key aspect.

Images, storytelling and dialogue

Below are some examples of the photographs taken and the stories told by the participants in relation to the four core participatory photography exercises conducted during the workshops:

1) Take a photograph of something in the community, which strongly reminds you of the 2007/2008 Post-Election Violence.

“As you can see, this is a church built using iron sheets, but it was initially not there, it came up after the violence. Before, this used to be a playground. We used to come here to play football. It was just a ground where also [religious] crusades could take place. But right after the [2007] elections, this was a battlefield because one day the Kikuyus and the other tribes met here and there was a lot of fighting. Many people were killed. And when we woke up in the morning we found a lot of bodies here, which had been cut into pieces by both groups. There were also children who had been killed and the dogs came here and they were eating these people who were dead. So this was filled with many bodies. And after that, the communities around decided to build a church to bring religion in order to encourage peace.

Every time I walk past here, this church brings back a lot of painful memories. Because I remember when we were kids I used to come here to play. It was filled with grass, and then people turned it into a bloodspot. And then it became my church. So there are a lot of things that come to my mind when I see this place.” - Mitchel, 22yo

2) Take a photograph that shows the progress towards peace that is being made in the community since the end of the 2007/2008 Post-Election Violence.

“I took this picture because during the post-election violence, this shop did not use to be there, but now at least because we have peace it is easy and the owner of the workshop can make those beds and chairs, and every different tribe comes here to buy.

During the violence you wouldn’t find things of wood being made because workshops were the best places to be put on fire. But nowadays at least they are making them again. Only the Luos are the ones who are making this furniture. Before, the owners of this business had run for their lives because of the violence, but now they are back and they are still making furniture. In fact, I have two pieces at home, the chairs and the bed.”- Antony, 22yo

3) Take a photograph that shows the barriers to peace that are still present in the community, even after years since the end of the conflict.

“As you can see, in this photo there is a garage. It is where they repair bicycles, motorbikes, vehicles and other things. So I decided to take this photo because they have people there but me, I hate it – I hate that because you can only find one tribe working there. They’re Luos, and Luos are good at mechanics, repairing vehicles and motorbikes and other things. But the thing that makes me very angry is that there are no other tribes, there is only one tribe. Luos only.

I think it would be good if there was a mix of tribes like Nandi, Kikuyu and others, because that is the only way of building peace. Because, you can see, one tribe only, maybe, to an extent, it leads to conflict because they only talk about politics and support the guy who is from their own tribe.” -Stephen, 20yo

4) Listen to the story of a member of another tribe on how they feel their tribe has been affected by the conflict and how they are still experiencing forms of injustice or discrimination. Take a photograph of that person, which is meaningful to the story they have told you.

“This is M and I decided to take his photo outside this building because he is a Kikuyu and most of these premises are believed to be owned by the Kikuyus, and people feel that they are the ones who, at least in this part of Kenya, are the upper class, not comparable to other tribes.

So due to the way they live and the way their life is, they are thought to be better than others. And that’s why I decided to take this photo, because of that house.

M is not happy when he hears people saying that the Kikuyus are the ones who rigged the votes, because he always thinks that the president won by himself, not by rigging. So people would go about saying that they are the ones who stole the votes, but he says that it’s not that way. He told me that he feels his tribe is being discriminated by people calling them thieves; they feel that people think they live by stealing, but it’s not that way, it’s that they are hard workers.” - Brenda, 23yo

The images and their stories were a catalyst for participants to reflect on the situation in their community and provided them with “lenses” to analyze some of the existing factors that were related to both conflict and peace. The aim was not to create a common perspective, as each “lens” was unavoidably altered by the views and beliefs held by the native tribe. It was rather to offer a platform to reveal those views and learn about one another. This way, an understanding of differences began and a number of commonalities were unveiled. At the same time, the act of sharing knowledge and listening to one another is a significant step towards restoring the trust that is needed in order to initiate social change.

Access the full study (link is external), which includes literature review, analysis, assessment, safety considerations and methodological limitations of the project.

[Maynard, K. A. 1997, ‘Rebuilding Community: Psychosocial Healing, Reintegration and Reconciliation at the Grassroots Level’, in Kumar, K. eds, Rebuilding Societies after Civil War: Critical Roles for International Assistance, Boulder: Lynne Rienner: 203-226]