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Participatory video-making

Nicola De Martini Ugolotti from the Department for Health reflects on engaging capoeira and parkour practisers and professional videographers with her research.

This project stemmed from a doctoral piece of research that explores the role of the body and space amongst young men of migrant origin negotiating their identity and social positioning through capoeira and parkour in public spaces of Turin, Italy. As part of the research’s methodology, a participatory documentary about participants’ practices and lives was made. The documentary involved seven young men of different migrant backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 21.

Participatory video methods represent a means of data collection and analysis which look to overcome power differentials between researcher and researched and that reduce the reliance on words in both gathering data and in representing respondents' perspectives in social research. They also aim to engage participants in a dialogical and self-reflexive process.

The process of the project

In this project, I looked to evaluate the use of participatory video methods through a further piece of participatory video production that enabled the original research participants to discuss and record amongst themselves and with their families and friends their experiences of the initial participatory video project. The research participants took control of the creative process, choosing whom to interview, in what settings, and the questions to ask. As a researcher, I simply coordinated and gathered the material produced.

Before engaging in the actual process of recording the evaluation video, participants attended four workshops where two professional video-makers provided them technical training with regards making video interviews (e.g. fundamental ethical requirements for the use of cameras; sound-checks; audiovideo synchronisation; video framing and editing; conducting and leading interviews etc.). The workshops lasted approximatively two hours each plus one hour for the participants to try out their new-found skills. The workshops underlined the official and valuable character of the research, highlighting ethical and legal requirements.

To record the videos, participants split into two groups and opted to interview themselves, close friends involved in capoeira and parkour, and family members who had witnessed their participation in the original video project. In total nine interviews were conducted and recorded. Participants then re-viewed the interviews to highlight moments in the footage when meaningful insights emerged. In supporting participants’ analysis of the material collected, I chaired discussions, posing some key questions that aimed to facilitate participants' dialogue with each other and as a group. My inputs were not regarded as undebatable authoritative truths, but were discussed lively amongst participants!

I also gathered and watched the material collected with the video-makers in order to co-create with the participants a summary video of their main insights. At the end of the project, a private projection of this video was screened to foster discussion amongst the participants and the video-makers over the project’s results and the meaning of the experience. This meeting was recorded and represented a further important element in the evaluation process. The table shows the differences in process between the original participatory video and the follow-up evaluation video.

Original participatory video Evaluation video
Interviewer Researcher Participants
Sampling Researcher Participants
Analysis / Creation of Final Product Co-constructed between researcher and participants Mainly participants, assisted by researcher
Dissemination Participants Participants

What I gained from the experience

Despite the emancipatory aims of participatory video methods, I learnt that the method is not devoid of power relations - the lens of the camera can evoke expression but also, invoke intrusion and surveillance. I thought that by placing the camera in the hands of community members, they would be better placed to reach and relate to other community members than myself. In fact, on several occasions, interviewed individuals manifested signs of unease or difficulty in speaking in front of the camera despite, or maybe because, a friend or relative was recording them.

I realised that issues of age, lay perspectives on generational relations and unwritten social hierarchies within families and amongst local communities need to be carefully considered when engaging in participatory video research. The researcher needs to dedicate time and effort to appreciate the context of the research and the different groups it encompasses before starting the research process.

A critical perspective on power relations is needed to observe both participants in-group dynamics as well as the relationship between researcher and ‘researched’.

What my partners gained

The project gave participants the opportunity to voice and discuss with me and the video-makers their perspectives and desires regarding the making of the video documentary. For example, when editing the video they suggested including images of an academic conference they attended with me in June 2014 where they had actively answered questions from the public. Participants and myself considered this experience an example of how the research process brought them into dialogue with new and never imagined publics (for example, school directors, health and social projects managers, psychologists, psychiatrists, lawyers, university students).

Through the project, participants gained an opportunity for self-expression through a creative process that allowed (self) inquiry and (communal) expression. They felt ownership over the final video and a desire to share it and their experiences with as wide a public as possible.

I think something will remain from this project because experiences like this show us that what we do is not worthless … experiences like this make us aware of our value.

What I'd do differently

The video interviews were more fruitful when the seven participants interviewed themselves perhaps because their involvement in the initial project made it easier for them to voice their experiences and perhaps because they were comfortable with one another. There weren’t the power differentials between these participants unlike in some situations where they interviewed families and friends. A greater awareness of these power differentials from the outset would have been helpful. In retrospect, I would get more involved in negotiating interview environments and processes in order to address some of the power differentials noted in this project.

Tips for other researchers

Get to know the community and environment you’re going to do research in before planning your research design.

Be flexible, willing to incorporate participants' motivations and agendas whilst being open about your own motives and objectives. This will help participants to understand the aims of your research and will limit the likelihood of you ‘hiding’ your own research agenda within participants' accounts and voices.

Consider and address participants' in-group and community power relations to ensure marginal voices are included.

Recognise heterogeneity within your community. This will help you to involve different actors who can engage in fruitful dialogues with specific segments or sub-groups in the research environment.

Carefully and thoughtfully consider the advantages, sense and meanings of using cameras at any moment of research. Cameras may represent an emancipatory and widely diffused tool for self and communal expression as much as they can represent an intrusive, unrequested intervention.

Contact us

If you want to discuss how you might engage publics in or with your research, the Public Engagement Unit can help.