Is participatory photography the promise for social change?

About the role of collaboration in documentary photography
Words by
Martha Rosler | The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-1975), no 11, Stewed (courtesy of the artist)

“Photography consists of collaboration” (Azoulay, 2016). This statement, which entitles the essay written by Ariella Azoulay, Susan Meiselas, and Wendy Ewald, introduces this dissertation about the role of collaboration in documentary photography. The aim of this research is contributing to the discussion which identifies participatory photography as a powerful tool for social change. The conversation on documentary photography often comes with leitmotifs as “giving voice”, “raising awareness”, and “making a change”, which are unquestionably honourable aims, but with minimal effects, if the act is limited to freezing the “decisive moment”, suggesting that producing images is the summit of the photographic event.

Instead, it is our engagement with pictures through discussion, consumption, and reaction, which defines the power of photography to fueling change (Brooke, cited in Turnbull 2014 p.2). For this reason, this research focuses on the participatory photography potential to set the environment for taking collective action; starting from dismantling the idea of single authorship and leading to the definition of photography as the democratic tool for excellence (Azoulay, 2008).

The first chapter begins with examining the inherent collective work behind the event of photography, which implicates a troublesome definition of authorship; historically simplified by attributing it to single individuals. The conversation continues examining the impact of Postmodern ideas, such as the studies on semiotics, Marxist theories, and the Feminist Movement, in encouraging the participatory practice. The first chapter concludes with tracing a history of civil photography, using the TAFOS story as a landmark of participatory photography.

The second chapter sketches the relation between documentary photography and social sciences, focusing on “Photovoice”: a popular participatory methodology used for locating issues, empowering individuals and making policy change.

The last chapter analyses the issues related to governability in participatory photography and its increasing popularity, rising accusations of neocolonialism, exploitation, and corruption of its original aims.

The dissertation concludes with an evaluation of the meaning and importance of participatory photography, questioning its potential to promote social change.

Photography as an act of collaboration

This chapter analyses the historical relationship between photography and authorship, which have been controversial from the very origin of the medium.

Starting from the concept of author in The Pencil of Nature, the research analyses the collective labour behind the production of images, raising the question of what determines the attribution to particular individuals and why history privilege a narrative of “single authors”.

The research continues with the contribution of Postmodernist undercutting ideas to encouraging new solutions of representation and revisiting the possibility of “truth” in the documentary genre, leading some practitioners to explore the relationship with their “subjects”.

The chapter concludes tracing the history of the participatory practice, rooted in the long tradition of grassroots civil photography, and drawing a landmark with TAFOS: the first extended photography workshop.

From single authorship to collaboration

The attribution of authorship to photographs has been problematic from the very origin of the medium. In 1844, one of the first commercially published books entirely illustrated with photographs came out under the name of “The Pencil of Nature”. The author, William Fox Talbot (1844), enforces in the introduction what already claim the title: "It may suffice (...) to say, that the plates of this work have been obtained by the mere action of Light upon sensitive paper. They have been formed or depicted by optical and chemical means alone (...) It is needless, therefore, to say that they differ in all respects (...) from plates of the ordinary kind, which owe their existence to the united skill of the Artist and the Engraver. "

This statement, along with other captions in the book, suggests that photographs were made by the things they depicted and not by who operated the camera (Batchen, 2012). In this sense, Geoffrey Batchen (2012) addresses the lack of an explicit agreement concerning at which point of the process a photograph is made and, considering the complexity of the photographic apparatus, where should be placed the boundary between the creative moment and the mere “labour”?

The Pencil of Nature
represents a perfect terrain for exploring this dilemma. In fact, despite what suggested in the title, the book came out as a collection of Talbot’s photographs. Furthermore, the argument becomes even more complicated when we consider that one of the twenty-four pictures illustrating the volume (Fig.1) has been taken by Talbot’s former valet Nicolaas Henneman, but nowhere is acknowledged his name, and nor are credited the people (which may have been as many as nine) who worked on the print (Batchen, 2012).

Henneman, N. The West Façade of Westminster Abbey, before 1945 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

This was not an unusual practice at that time. Photographs taken in commercial studios, where multiple people worked and took pictures, were commonly credited to a single name (usually the studio’s owner), functioning as a trademark of the business and enhancing the marketplace value of the pictures (Batchen, 2012). Ignoring the subjective talent of people working behind the production follows the logic of 1840s industrial capitalism which alienated the person from the product of his or her work, privileging profit over individuals (Batchen, 2012). Acknowledging the “collective labour” (Azoulay, cited in Fairey 2015 p.23) involved behind the production of an image opens the door to a political dilemma. As Batchen (2012) explains: "Any exchange, even when it is voluntary, involves a differential of power, an unavoidable negotiation of difference. And this is what continues to make collaborative or collective image making a provocative activity; not because it subverts the market place (...) but because it necessarily asks us to engage the politics of exchange-- because it presents photography itself as the embodiment of this politics."

Authorship and power are interwoven with each other and collaboration cannot be detached from the political frame. Batchen describes the authorship of individual photographs as “a collective enterprise stretched over a considerable time period” (Batchen, 2012). However, the history of photography tends to avoid accounting this complexity and prefers to privilege authorship under the logic of individualism (Batchen, 2012).

Acknowledging the “collective labour” (Azoulay, cited in Fairey 2015 p.23) involved behind the production of an image opens the door to a political dilemma. As Batchen (2012) explains: "Any exchange, even when it is voluntary, involves a differential of power, an unavoidable negotiation of difference. And this is what continues to make collaborative or collective image making a provocative activity; not because it subverts the market place (...) but because it necessarily asks us to engage the politics of exchange-- because it presents photography itself as the embodiment of this politics."

Authorship and power are interwoven with each other and collaboration cannot be detached from the political frame. Batchen describes the authorship of individual photographs as “a collective enterprise stretched over a considerable time period” (Batchen, 2012). However, the history of photography tends to avoid accounting this complexity and prefers to privilege authorship under the logic of individualism (Batchen, 2012).

The decay of Modernism and the origin of participatory photography

Before the critics arisen during Postmodernism, the objectivity of the camera was not put into question and documentary photography was considered a truthful document. Elizabeth McCausland described the photograph as “reality captured, set down for as long as negative and print will endure”(1939, p.28). According to her, it is crucial that the photographer is in a “simple and modest” mood while taking pictures, in order not to interfere his or her own personality with the message to transmit (1939, p.28).

From this statement, the cultural and personal background carried by the photographer, along with the infinite interpretations of the images, were not taken into consideration. Photography was considered as the “impassive lens [able to] stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it (...) and present it in all its virginal purity” (Bazin, cited in Trachtenberg 1980).

In the 1970s, Postmodernism new theoretical models, as semiotics, psychoanalysis, feminism and Marxism (Batchen, 1997 p.5); conducted an undercutting function toward the role of art and the artist in the culture (Grundberg, 1986 p.4), contributing to questioning the indexicality of photography.

The study of semiotics evidenced that the reading of images is inherent to our own experience and shaped by the specific context; consequently, in the same picture are conveyed multiple (and not necessarily congruous) meanings.

In this attack to modernist beliefs, photographs become “signs” to be decoded (Barthes, 1977); things do not “own” their pure meanings and they must be deciphered in order to comprehend their deeper structure (Grundberg, 1986 p.4).

Daston and Galison commented that “objectivity is related to subjectivity as wax to seal” and, even in mechanically reproduced images, “the mediating presence of the observer” cannot be eliminated (1992, p.82). The dismantlement of objectivity is not only a consequence of our interpretations of images, but it also relates with the impossibility to claim “pure” single authorship. In 1968, Roland Barthes announced the “Death of the Author”. According to him, the notion of “author” is a product of our society, which at the end of the Middle Ages discovered the prestige of the individual, the “human person”, and confirmed its importance under the capitalist ideology (Barthes, 1968 pp.142-143).

Images are combinations of innumerable sources weaved together; they cannot be considered inherently original and they should be read as “multi-dimensional” spaces (Barthes, 1968 p.146). Giving a fixed author invites to a unidirectional reading of the work, “imposing a limit” to its interpretations and simplifying its understanding (Barthes, 1968 p.147). Postmodernist “deconstruction” debunked the myths of the “author-god” (Barthes, 1968 p.146) and the claim of originality (Grundberg, 1986 p.6), demystifying the idea of a “single theological meaning” (Barthes, 1968 p.146) imposed by the author’s intentions.

Under these deconstructionist attacks, documentary photography experiences an overturning “blues”, leading to a reconsideration of its premises (Grundberg, 1984 p.196).

Documentary photography has always arisen controversies; its reporting function claims to represent objective facts and has historically involved privileged professional photographers commissioned to take pictures of particular subject matters. As a Western rooted practice, it traditionally implied the photographer to be an outsider, if not a foreigner, of the community to be documented, “giving voice” to people who could not relate with.

American artist Martha Rosler “raised concerns about the potential unfairness of liberal documentary photography” (Wang and Burris, 1994 p.175), accusing its original reforming aim to have fallen into “combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics, trophy hunting-and careerism” (Rosler, cited in Wang and Burris, 1994 p.175). Rosler questioned the disparities that arise in the distribution of agency between the photographer and the subjects, highlighting the problem of “othering” when representing powerless people, minorities or other subcultures (Wang and Burris, 1994 p.175; Rounthwaite, 2014).

In support of her position, she took the example of the world-famous Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (Fig.2). Despite the fame, forty-two years later the photograph was taken, Florence Thompson (the woman depicted in the picture) was still living in complete poverty, never benefitting from becoming an icon (Wang and Burris, 1994 p.175). This, amongst others, is an example of failure in making a positive change for the subject. Although Florence Thompson’s photograph may have helped other people in similar condition, it failed in helping her: the woman who gave her face to the iconic image (Wang and Burris, 1994 p.175).

© Dorothea Lange | Migrant Mother, 1936

As a response to the ethical and indexical issues raised in the Postmodern environment, photographers felt the necessity to move away from the conventional uses of the medium, aiming to achieve concrete social transformation (Sekula, 1978 p.866).

Some photographers responded to the accuses of subject exploitation and authenticity immersing themselves in the documentation of their own private lives: photographing their family, relationships, and often acknowledging their presence in the scene (Robinson, 2011 p.118; Sekula 1978 p.871; for examples see the work of Clark, L. Tulsa, 1971; Steinmetz, P. Somebody’s Making a Mistake, 1976; Goldin, N. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986).

Other photographers started experimenting the use of different media together, abandoning the modern tradition of a “fetishistic concentration on the medium” (Grundberg, 1999 p.6) and rejecting the notion of the photograph as an “object of connoisseurship” (Sekula, 1978 p.866).

Among these, Rosler’s work The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (Fig.3) is a photo-text piece which questions the “inherent limitations of both photography and language (…) to address a complex social problem” (Whitney Museum of Art, 2020). In her piece, alcoholism and social precarity in New York’s Bowery are represented by carefully composed photographs of storefronts but with no visible human presence paired with typed words in groups of metaphors describing various states of drunkenness (Packard, 2014).

Martha Rosler | The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-1975), no 11, Stewed

In this “metacritical” relation to the documentary genre (Sekula, 1978 p.867) some practitioners started seeing the camera as a vehicle for social interaction (Palmer, 2013 p.120) offering opportunities for dialogue and the inclusion of new original perspectives. There is not a single photographer who can be considered the pioneer of participatory photography, but rather a range of practices starting to evolve and spread in the same period of time (Robinson, 2011 p.118).

From the 1970s, asking the subjects to self-captioning their own images became a common process amongst both photographers and researchers, allowing the participants to speak out for themselves. One of the former examples of collaboration in documentary photography is 44th Irving Street, a project made by Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas at the very start of her prominent career. In 1971, during her first photography course, she realised a final project consisting of a series of portraits of her neighbours who decided where and how to pose in their home. Afterwards, she gave them their images (Fig.4) and asked to write a caption about how they saw themselves in the pictures (Meiselas, 2018).

From 1977 to 1985, Jim Goldberg, another Magnum member, photographed and collaborated with people living at both the extremities of San Francisco’s social spectrum. This long-term project gave form to the book “Rich and Poor” (Robinson, 2011 p.118); defined as “a shocking and gripping portrait of contemporary America” (Magnum Photos, 2020). Goldberg included handwritten comments written by his subjects (Fig.6-7), revealing their “innermost fears and aspirations, their perceptions and illusions about themselves, with a frankness that makes the portraits as engrossing as they are disturbing” (Magnum Photos, 2020).

However, in these former examples of collaborative projects, the collaboration is still limited to the active participation of individuals without handling them the camera. Photographers and subjects are working together, but still maintaining a clear boundary between the “photographer” and the “subjects”, who are more contributors rather than producers.

One of the first practitioners to explicitly reversing the agency between photographers and subjects is the photographer and educator Wendy Ewald. In the summer of 1967, when Ewald was still in high school, she started assisting classroom teachers in a settlement house, making visual aids to teach black history (Ewald, 2016). In 1969, the Polaroid Foundation provided her with cameras and she started teaching photography to Native Americans Innu kids (Ewald, 2016). Along with taking pictures together, she gave them assignments in which they had to photograph and write about their images. In an interview with Esther Allen (2016), Ewald says: “It came to me that the kids were taking more powerful and more intimate pictures than I could”. Their privileged access to private family situations and acquaintance with their surroundings enabled Ewald to “see into their lives” (Ewald, 2006 p.59).

Despite independent practitioners, such as Ewald, Goldberg, and Meiselas, undoubtedly pioneered participatory photography; the development of the practice cannot be understood as a linear trajectory originated as an “alternative” to the social documentary convention (Fairey, 2015 p.98).

Azoulay (2014, cited in Fairey 2015) reminds us the inherent civil contract of photography, drawing a “potential history” which roots the participatory practice in the overlooked long civil tradition of grassroots photographic activism. Civil photography has taken different forms during its history, shaping to best suit the needs of who used it (Fairey, 2015 p.98; Ribalta, 2009).

In the 1920s and 1930s, the emergency for revolutionary politics has seen in the documentary genre a visual translation to the working-class demand for democracy (Ribalta, 2009).

Largely ignored by historians and eluded by the archives, the Worker Photography Movement of the 1920s was already denouncing in Germany the proletarian working-class conditions under the “social ills of capitalism” (Ribalta, 2011).

In Britain, during the 1970s, collectives as the Half Moon Photography Workshop and The Hackney Flashers Collective provided community darkrooms, workshops, and cameras to the working class and women groups, claiming the right to self-representation and repossession of agency fostered by the feminist movement and Marxist theories (Palmer, 2013 p.119; Studio Voltaire, 2012).

The “radically democratic” attributes of documentary (Stott, ca. the 1970s, cited in Ribalta 2009) makes the genre a “civic duty or public service” (Ribalta, 2011) and an outstanding means of propaganda. The history of the first extended community photography workshop is an essential chapter to understand the civil history of photography. Started in Peru under the name of Los Talleres de Fotografia Social (TAFOS), the workshop run from 1986 to 1988 and involved more than 270 photographers (Fairey, 2019 p.1). The history of TAFOS is a story of activism. It started when Gregorio Condori, a Campesino leader, needed evidence in order to file an official complaint in a case that was favourably for the community. He borrowed a camera from Thomas Müller, a German photographer, and took a picture of the corrupted judge with the high breed alpaca he demanded as a bribe, becoming able to report the injustice (Fairey, 2019 p.4).

After the denunciation, the Campesino leader and Müller decided to propose to the Oncogate Committee of Human Rights to run some photography workshops in order to enable members of the local committee to act as community photographers (Fairey, 2019 p.4). TAFOS started as a collective need, it was demanded from those who were part of the community and the camera was the privileged means to protest and denounce (Fairey, 2019 pp.4-5). According to Müller, this is the reason that allows civil projects to have meaning: their very integrity with the participants’ demand (Fairey, 2019 p.4).

To conclude this chapter, dismantling the process of photography reveals an inherent “collective labour” (Azoulay, cited in Fairey, 2015 p.23) in which no one can claim absolute authorship, ownership, and credits over the outcomes (Azoulay, 2016 p.189). Furthermore, the camera itself (or any other light-recording medium) is not a passive tool; images are the product from a combination of the photographer’s intentions, the medium’s recording abilities, and the actions of what stands in front of the lens (Rutherford, 2014).” However, for approximately 150 years, photography has been conceived under the logic of individualism, an act attributed to single authors: the photographers (Azoulay, cited in Fairey 2015 p.22).

Azoulay’s concept of “civil contract of photography” (2008) offers a frame for understanding the development of participatory photography not as an “alternative”, but as a deeply embedded civil practice. In fact, from the first worker photography movements, cameras have made people equipped with simple and available instruments able to denounce injustice and claim the right of self- representation, producing images with incredible social, cultural, and political effects (Azoulay, 2008 p.130).

Participatory Photography as a methodology

This chapter aims to sketch the historical background which led to the development of participatory photography as a methodology.

Until the 1990s, participation in documentary photography did not represent a “model”, but rather an approach existing from the very origin of the medium and shaped through time and context.

This lack of solid theoretical frames, along with the growing success of participation, brought the attention of researchers to investigate its possible use within social sciences and qualitative research. The work of Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris gave born to Photovoice: a “form of participatory action research” (Latz, 2017 p.28) based on the premise that the inquiring quality of images makes photography a privileged tool for promoting social change (Latz, 2017).

The first paragraph gives a brief background of the relationship between photography and social sciences, which is essential to underpin the understanding of Photovoice, the main body of this chapter.

The discussion concludes with a focus on “empowerment”, evidencing the individual and community benefits stemming from taking part in participatory photography activities.

Photography as a research tool

Photography has a long history within the social sciences. Both sociology and anthropology have seen the potential of photography to “bridge communication gaps” (Collier & Collier 1986, cited in Shaw 2013 p.786) and it is not clear which discipline used it first (Latz, 2017 p.16).

Already in the 1960s, anthropologists John and Malcolm Collier theorised the method of photo- elicitation in their book Visual Anthropology (1967). However, some argue that visual sociology can be traced back to work of photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who worked between the 19th and 20th century (Stasz 1979, cited in Latz 2017 p.16).

Howard Becker (1974) suggested that “sociologists should study photography” (cited in Robinson 2011 p.115). In fact, the inclusion of photographic material in social sciences enabled to offer more critical researches (Robinson, 2011 p.115); on the other hand, documentary photography needed to fulfil its lack of “sociological frames or theories” (Harper, cited in Robinson 2011 p.115).

As a result, the disciplines raised interest in the opportunity to crisscross each other’s, benefitting from supporting their work with multi-disciplinary sources.

The born of Photovoice

In the early 1990s, Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris (1994) developed the “photo novella”: a theoretical and practical methodology underpinned by empowerment education, feminist theory, and documentary photography (Wang and Burris, 1994 p.171).

Wang and Burris (1994) used this participatory action research strategy with rural Chinese women living in two counties of China’s Yunnan province, the goal was incentivising political action at a provincial level for improving their health status and living conditions in their communities. However, the aim of the project has been wider than catalysing political action towards the community’s needs from the outset. It was also envisioned as a collective empowering activity, enabling women to meet, discuss and organise.

In their publication Empowerment through Photo Novella: Portraits of Participation (1994), Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris wrote: "Photo novella does not entrust cameras to health specialists, policymakers, or professional photographers, but puts them in the hands of children, rural women, grassroots workers, and other constituents with little access to those who make decisions over their lives (p. 171).

The term “photo novella” denotes “picture stories” (Wang and Burris, 1994 p.171) and aims to use people’s photographic documentation of their everyday lives as an empowering tool and a catalyst for social change. The term “photo novella” had been later replaced with “photovoice” and identifies its closest relative in the work started by Wendy Ewald (Wang and Burris, 1994 p.175), who already in the 1970s taught literacy through photography, training children to photograph themselves, their families and communities; and to articulate their dreams and fantasies (Ewald, 2019).

This interdisciplinary approach aims to challenge the conventional model of research and documentary photography in which subjects are passive elements studied and represented by outsiders (Latz, 2017 p.3). Photovoice encourages participants to self-represent their own lives, rejecting the notion of the professional photographer “giving voice” to the subjects and reinventing the role of the professional figure (the photographer or researcher) as a facilitator “making space” for the participants to speak for themselves (Latz, 2017 p.43).

Usually, the participants of photovoice projects come from marginalised social groups who are otherwise hardly listened from who is in a position of decision-making power (Latz, 2017 p.4). The so-called “others” have been historically obsessively (mis)represented in the Western culture, making them even more distant and undermining our empathy towards them. Photovoice brings the “others” to the centre and aims to create a bridge towards the authorities and the public opinion (Latz, 2017 p.4).

When Wang and Burris started their work with the Chinese peasant women, they soon realised the necessity of asking the participants to self-captioning their images (1994 p.180). By including their own explanations of the photographs, the original message of the pictures could be conveyed to an outsider audience, who would be otherwise left to make its own assumptions.

Empowerment in participatory photography

Individual and community empowerment is a key goal of participatory photography strategies. According to Wang and Burris, “empowerment includes at least four kinds of access: access to knowledge, access to decisions, access to networks, and access to resources” (Chu, cited in Wang and Burris 1994 p.180).

The process of talking about their own pictures with others engages the group to participate in a discussion, allowing to identify and share the community’s realities (Latz, 2017 p.39). The collective recognition and critical dialogue of shared issues is an essential step to move toward action and social change (Latz, 2017 p.39).

Photography fulfils a dual role for those involved: to rebuild identity by a process of “auto- reconocimiento” (self-recognition) and to speak out to the people outside the community (Llosa, cited in Fairey 2017 p.624).

In order to understand the empowering process in participatory photography is essential to define what empowerment is.

According to Marc A. Zimmerman (2000, p.58) “participation, control, and critical awareness are essential aspects of empowerment”. In his theory, he identifies three different levels of empowerment: individual, organizational, and community. The individual-level involves learning decision-making skills, managing resources, and working with other; the organisational level provides individuals with opportunities to exercise control, sharing leadership and responsibilities; finally, the community-level extends these skills to a group environment, allowing individuals to collaborate together on a common goal (Zimmerman, 2000 p.47).

Although these levels are separate in their description, they are inherently integrated when it comes to their actual manifestation, representing both cause and consequence of each other. In fact, an empowering community would not be possible without empowered members; who are in turn empowered by the positive feelings stemmed from the involvement in community activities (Zimmerman, 2000 p.46-47).

Looking at the photovoice methods and political agenda, it is clear how empowerment is embedded in its structure. Common activities as photo-elicitation, dialogue, and sharing of personal experiences, contribute to community building and enhance a sense of “social identity”, which is fundamental to move towards political action and social change.

Photovoice dialogical approach is grounded in Paulo Freire’s “problem-posing education” (Wang and Burris, 1994).

Freire believed that “education is never neutral” (Wallerstein and Auerbach, 2004 p.7) and knowledge is collectively produced by re-framing reality in social exchange with others.

Central to Freire’s pedagogy is the premise that everybody participates in the learning process as co- learners, building knowledge from critical thinking and responding to it. According to Freire, learners are not “empty vessels to be filled by the teacher” (Freire 1970, cited in Wallerstein and Auerbach, 2004 p.7) but distinct individuals able to “create and change things” (Freire 1971, cited in Wallerstein and Auerbach, 2004 p.7-8).

The role of dialogue is central to transformation, as critical thinking represents the essential step to move toward action (Wallerstein and Auerbach, 2004 pp. 7-8; Fairey, 2015 p.173); on the other hand, silence about issues brings to a normalisation of the problem (Wallerstein and Auerbach, 2004, p.12). In support of this theory, Nina Wallerstein and Elsa Auerbach (2004, p.12) take the example of the “historical trauma”. As a consequence of a traumatic experience, entire communities can suffer from feelings of blame, oppression, and related symptoms, even for generations after the event itself.

By facilitating dialogue and identifying the historical trauma, community members have been helped to elaborate the sense of powerlessness embedded in their social context and eventually overcome it (Wallerstein and Auerbach, 2004 p.11).

Talking about power dynamics with the participants represents a pivotal aspect of Photovoice. Wang and Burris (1994, p.174) conceived power as three different abilities: the ability to achieve things; the ability to work with others toward accomplish a mutual goal; and the ability to influence others and have an impact. They summarised these three skills as “power to, power with, and power over” (Wang and Burris, 1994 p.174).

In fact, even if an actual policy change may not be achieved in the immediate, the development of these skills positively conditions participants lives (Zimmerman, 2000 pp.58-59; Wang and Burris, 1994 p. 172). The social engagement provided by the activities allows participants to improve their abilities in communication and decision-making, developing a sense of empowerment and strengthen their feeling of social identity within their community. It is important to understand that even the most successful project cannot solve deeply-rooted problems, such as poverty and discrimination; however, it has the potential to influence decisions that affect participants’ lives and facilitates the conditions for taking action towards policy change (Wang and Burris, 1994, pp.172-173).

In conclusion, photography is a natural inquiring medium, which renders our encounter with images never passive: they make us reflect, understand, and react (Latz, 2017 p.8). The advent of the camera radically changed the way we see and experience the world (Latz, 2017 p.6), making pictures an integral part of our society, culture, identity, and personal life (Latz, 2017 p.7). Photographs are by definition, signs, collections of data, making them not only a means to tell stories, but also a valid tool for supporting social sciences in qualitative researches. In the participatory practice, the indexical nature of photography combined with the inquiring quality of pictures has grown the interest toward its potential for promoting social change, leading to the attempt to define a “model”.

Governability in Participatory Photography

Since participatory photography is based on “interweaving dynamics of power, truth claims and politics” (Fairey, 2015 p.29), analysing the practice under the lens of governability offers a critical framework to help understanding its most problematic aspects.

Michael Foucault conceived governability as a “conduct of conduct” (Foucault, cited in Fairey 2015 p.29) referring to the set of practices aiming to “shape, guide or affect” someone’s behaviour (Fairey, 2015 p. 29).

Power, truth, and politics, are inevitable in the participatory photography discussion. They are interwoven in the practice and they cannot be isolated from each other. This forms a complex paradoxical apparatus in which arguments do not lead to single or general answers, but rather raise further open-ended questions that need to be analysed in their specific context.

In this chapter, I look at how the dynamics of power, truth, and politics act in the participatory photography exercise, validating or invalidating the efficacy of the practice.

The negotiation of power in participatory photography

In participatory photography, power relations permeate every aspect of the practice: from the negotiation of leadership and authorship between the facilitator and the participants to the choice of founders and use of the material produced. Critics of participatory practices argue that there is a “fine line between collaboration and exploitation” (Ruby 1991, cited in Fairey 2015 p.137). In fact, the negligence of power dynamics reduces participatory photography to a romantic practice promising positive outcomes. Indeed, the process is complex and problematic, and a naive execution can potentially lead to ineffective outcomes, or even be harmful to the participants (Fairey, 2015 p.7; Prins, 2010).

Early participatory photography narrative framed power on a binary structure, suggesting that equipping people with cameras reverses power dynamics and re-assigns them the agency (Fairey, 2015 p.132). This view falls into limiting the understanding of power under a Freirean “black or white” perspective (Wallerstein and Auerbach, 2004 p.10), assuming that power can be concentrated in someone’s hands.

This notion of power relationships is outdated for contemporary critics. Michael Foucault always refused to offer a general definition of power (Gallagher, 2008, p.396) arguing that it is more accurate to think about “powers” rather than power as a sole entity, as it operates differently according to the particular context and the effects it produces (Gallagher, 2008 p.398).

In Foucauldian terms, power does not exist in the abstract, yet “power exists only when it is put into action” (Foucault 1983, cited in Gallagher 2008 p.398), it circulates at different levels and extensions of society (Foucault, cited in Gallagher 2008 p.399) and it is impossible to ever be outside of power relations” (Foucault 1984, cited in Fairey p.136).

In the participatory photography context, the relationship between participants and the facilitator is a crucial aspect of the practice. Finding a balance between the control undertaken by the stakeholders is essential for accomplishing a successful outcome. The facilitator has the delicate task to run the project without overcoming with his or her own ideas; however, an equally balanced distribution of power is utopian (Sutton-Brown, 2014 p.182) and not inherently beneficial.

In “A Conversation on Social Collaboration” (2006) Nina Felshin stated: "Many find the notion of a leader problematic and feel that no one should have greater authority than anyone else in a collaboration. The real challenge is to remodel the notion of a leader. Most forms of democratic practice need leadership to function properly. (Felshin, 2006 p.67)"

According to Doug Ashford, “the key (...) is legibility” (2006 p.67), power itself is not bad as long as it is legibly democratically exercised (Sennett, cited in Ashford 2006 p.67). Indeed, participants require support and encouragement; the facilitator needs to find a balance between ensuring adequate guidance and do not dominate with personal ideas or aesthetic choices over the participant’s voice (Robinson, 2011 pp. 127-128).

Retaining the agency for certain aspects crucial to reach or engage the audience, and consequently moving toward the realisation of social change, is essential to be maintained by the facilitator (Robinson, 2011 p.127-128) or other professional figures. According to Jim Hubbard, founder of Shooting Back, images quality needs to reflect the industry standard and compete with professional models in order to be sealable and reach the maximum media diffusion (Hubbard 2007, cited in Fairey 2015 p. 145). For this reason, professional curation of the images and editorial choices need to be retained by who has the competence. Hubbard argues that this process reflects the reality of the photography industry in which the photographers rarely have complete say over editorial control (Hubbard 2007, cited in Fairey 2015 p.145).

The input of the facilitator is also essential as a tool to translate participants’ thoughts to an external viewer. In this sense, the process of captioning images strongly requires encouragement (Robinson, 2011 p.127) or the message carried by the participant may fail to be legibly expressed.

According to Robinson: "those left to caption images on their own are likely to write only a word or two, or perhaps a short sentence at most. Often, participants photographers (...) struggle to find anything to say. This may be in part a reluctance to write (perhaps due to a lack of confidence) but also reveals a lack of understanding concerning how the image might need to be contextualised to have meaning to someone else."(2011 p.127)

In support of his statement, Robinson takes the example of a young girl who took a picture of a demolition truck (Fig. 9). She could not think about a caption, but when she was asked why she took that picture she said that it represented what was happening to her community (Robinson, 2011 pp.127-128).

This example demonstrates how a powerful message needs support to be conveyed into words, allowing to be understood by an audience for whom the image would be otherwise meaningless.

Of course, there is no approach in photography that is able to guarantee the authenticity or accuracy of the images produced and the meaning they carry with them (Robinson, 2011 p.131). Studies of semiotic reveal that there cannot be a universal reading of a picture, and, as Brian Winston (2000, cited in Robinson 2011 p.131) beautifully explains: "We must be sophisticated enough not to believe a photographic image is like a window on the world, a window unmarked by the photographer’s fingerprints; but to acknowledge the presence of the photographer is not necessarily to deny totally that one can still see something of the world. You can.’"

Fairey highlights how photography framed as “a collaborative encounter (...), multi-participated, ongoing event” consists of an endless number of decisions, and “attempts to claim full ownership of the process seem misconstrued and fruitless” (2015 p.145).

Participatory photography should be understood as an organic process that needs to be adapted accordingly for every different scenario (Felshin, 2006 p.69) and cannot rely on a “ready-made” portable model. According to Felshin, collaboration it is not a matter of hierarchy, everybody brings something to the work (2006 p.70); the beauty of the approach lays on “losing oneself in other people” (Ashford, 2006 p. 70) and what has been given to the participant should be valued more than what has been taken from them (Robinson, 2011 p.132).

Neo-colonialism and instrumentalisation of participatory photography

The use of participatory projects with marginalised communities has been accused to represent a form of Neo-colonialism (Fairey 2015, p.76). The usually white photographer, going to start a project with a group of people labelled as “marginalised, vulnerable, and without voice” (Sutton-Brown, 2014 p.181) raises the question about who has the power to label and how the selected group actually perceive itself (Sutton-Brown, 2014 p.181). It is argued that traces of imperialist traditions and “othering” tendencies are carried by naive executed participatory practices (Fairey, 2015 p.76) and the polarity between the “West and the rest” (Hall 1978, cited in Fairey 2015 p.87) has still not been resolved (Bate, 1993)

This becomes particularly relevant when projects are financed by NGOs, corporations, institutions, or other structures which may have economic and political interests in supporting such initiatives. While some institutions may have genuine community-focused intentions in funding participatory practices, others might abuse the activities as a means to be portrayed as socially engaged and make profits, falling into a “social washing” game (Vezin, 2018).

The discussion of collaboration cannot be isolated from politics or institutional structures (Phillips, 2006 p.61) fundings priorities can jeopardise what is produced, how it is used, and who make a profit

from it (Felshin, 2006 p.63; Sutton-Brown, 2014 p.180) potentially compromising the original aim of the work.

During the last decades, participatory photography initiatives have seen a world-wide proliferation and got mainstream attention (Fairey, 2015 p.7).

Especially within NGOs, the participatory practice has become a trend; the romantic idea of the deprived community empowered by taking pictures and subsequently obtain policy change (Fairey, 2015 p.7), particularly fits the image that organisations want to sell of themselves.

Already with TAFOS, by the time it gained success, its founder Thomas Müller has been asked by an endless number of NGOs to “do a TAFOS with them” (Müller 2011, cited in Fairey 2015 p.91).

The problem with “NGOised” (Yudice 2003, cited in Fairey 2015 p.15) projects is that the practice has become a standardised package to be “scaled-up”, leading to de-politicise the activity and neutralise its critical potential (Fairey, 2015 p.7). This led some critics to declare the participatory photography model “broken” (Wilson-Goldie, cited in Fairey, 2015 p.7); often found to “serve donors more than recipients” (Ballerini 1997, cited in Fairey 2015 p.25). It is illusory to think that putting cameras into the hands of people systematically empower them and improve their life conditions (Luttrell-Chalfen, 2010 p.198); quoting Craig and Mayo “empowering the poor has become an almost universal slogan” (1995, cited in Fairey 2015 p.83) and the image of the white “saviour” going to rescue the poor recalls historical Western traditions of colonialism (Pixley, 2017).

However, Fairey evidences that the actual use of participatory photography projects by large NGOs is limited due to its difficult implementation within the NGOs schemes (Fairey, 2015 p.96). The very nature of participatory work, which should belong to the people making it, cannot adapt to the NGOs’ need to shape the material produced for different communication purposes and destinations (Fairey, 2015 pp.93-94). Although the idea of participatory projects is tantalising as an alternative to stereotypical visual strategies, its concrete implementation has not become mainstream within humanitarian communications (Fairey, 2015 pp.90-91).

As participatory photography projects normally require a considerable availability of funding, practitioners should be cautious in choosing their donors, as economical and political interests may compromise the work and turn it in a “measurable service economy” (Ashford, 2007 p.63). According to Ewald “people are scared to lose their funders, so self-censorship comes in (...) there's a flowering of people working with kids in photography, and where are those photographs sold? Sotheby's, for example” (Ewald, 2007 p.63).

In the same interview, Ashford points out that “the idea of community has become instrumentalized. Take the artist, drop him or her into a housing project, take a picture with people of color, get your funding, move on” (2007 p.63).

Subjected to criticism and accused of Neocolonialism, have been also practitioners who received significant media attention. The relatively recent case of the film Born into Brothels by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman is an example of this (Fairey, 2015 p.76; James Smith, 2009; Sengupta, 2009). Briski is a British documentary photographer who was in Calcutta, India, to photograph the prostitutes of the red-light district. While there, the children living in the brothels became curious about her camera and asked her to teach them photography. This marked the beginning of a collaboration in which, over the course of three years, from 2000 to 2003 (Hawken, 2005 p.11), Briski taught photography to a selected group of about nine kids, while selling their images in New York in order to get fundings and provide them education. The film is a documentary which follows Briski’s intervention and the children lives, including her efforts to place them in boarding schools and the attention the children photographs received in the West through platforms as the World Press Photo. In the film’s coda, we are acknowledged that only a few children continued their education, with some dropping-out and others withdrawn by their parents (Sengupta, p.372). The film won the Oscar for best documentary in 2005 and, while widely acclaimed by the Western critic, it received accuses of Neocolonialism in India.

Sengupta accuses the film to represent reductive realities, reinforcing negative stereotypes and falling in advocating the marginalised communities depicted (2009, p.367). While he strongly agrees that these stories must be told, he argued that film-makers often “undermine or appropriate whatever hard- won voice the poor may have succeeded in acquiring, usually through long and bitter struggle” (p.368). In the case of Born into Brothels, he disputes that the film ignores the engagement in political action of the local communities, and that “predictably [proposes] solutions that are external” (p.368) recalling the long history of Aboriginal children removed from their families and placed in care of privileged White (Swami 2005, cited in Sengupta 2009 p.375).

"Briski’s reductionist portrayal of Sonagachi enhances the significance of her various interventions, including her making of the film. In fact, Brothels poses Briski as a standard ‘White saviour’, who knows what is best for ‘natives’, ultimately saving them from themselves." (Sengupta, 2009 p.375)

Briski’s positive intentions and outstanding efforts to improve the children's lives should not be nullified. It may be argued that the problem with Born into Brothels has been the very mainstream attention it received through the choice of platforms used to diffuse it, combined with the controversial origin of its fundings, as Sotheby’s auctions.

Representing the “subaltern” (James Smith, 2009) from a position of privilege, although well- intentioned, is inevitably problematic as it polarizes the Western moral spectatorship from the sufferer (Boltanski, cited in James Smith 2009 p.161) reinforcing a form Neo-colonialism (Spivak 1996, cited in James Smith 2009 p.160).

According to Debbie James Smith, by ending the film with the report of the children pursuing or not education, Briski avoids to fall into portraying herself as a heroic “white saviour”; instead, she concludes with an honest demonstration of the complexity to find solutions to human rights abuses (2009, p.171).

In conclusion, the question of leadership, institutionalisation, and neocolonialism cannot be eviscerated from the participatory discussion. Undertaking a project without considering the potential risks of overlooking power dynamics derived from economic interest, historical facts, and cultural traditions may lead to controversial outcomes.

However, especially in the context of a globalised society in which we live, is it ever be possible to be outside of criticism? Does the “broken model” (Wilson-Goldie 2008, cited in Fairey 2015 p.7) of participatory photography make it meaningless?

Quoting Robert Godden (2017) “the debate over the pros and cons of participatory photography is a proxy war”. Participatory photography is not “more authentic” than “conventional” photography and “it would be a mistake to replace professionalized communication practices with participatory ones” (Godden, 2017). The importance of participatory photography should be understood as its contribution to developing “a more complex representation through diversity” (Godden 2017) enriching the “bigger conversation” with its variety of viewpoints. Paraphrasing Godden (2017): controversies have the power to raise questions and fuel the debate “in a way that more correct practice rarely does”.


This dissertation opened with the premise that “Photography consists of collaboration” (Azoulay, 2016). The aim of this research has been contributing to the conversation which promotes the power of photography as a tool for social change and recognises in the participatory approach the opportunity to involve pluralist voices in the dialogue on representation.

The research started with de-mystifying the concept of photography as an event in which stories are written by single heroes: the photographers (Azoulay, 2016).

Chapter 1 demonstrated how photography consists of a complex apparatus in which collaboration is intrinsic to every aspect of the event (Azoulay, 2008 p.123). In fact, photography does not conceive single authors: every image is the product of a collective labour, involving the photographer, the photographed, the tools, and all the manufacture behind and beyond the act of pressing the shutter. Considering photography under the logic of pluralism involves us to engage with the negotiation of power, opening questions on the politics of its distribution (Batchen, 2012). Consequently, explicit collaborative practices coincide with a political statement, which makes participatory photography an inevitably provocative activity (Batchen, 2012).

History has seen grassroots photographic movements and individual practitioners using participation for denouncing social injustice and claiming policy change. Education and social sciences demonstrated the empowering potential of participatory projects at both individual and community level, able to improve the lives of those involved. Furthermore, challenging the conventional roles “photographer - subject”, by negotiating the agency between the stakeholders, seems to open a window on the “others” world and, consequently, producing “more truthful” images.

Given these premises, participatory photography seemingly offers “a jack of all trades” (Godden, 2017): the solution to achieve the noble “social change”. However, as Chapter 3 investigates, we need to be cautious with promising solutions; there is no “passe-partout” in the complex social, cultural, and economic net; “solutions” are context-specific and inevitably open-ended.

The central point emerged from this dissertation is the role of photography as a community event, a “site of action” (Azoulay, 2016 p.198), in which producing images is not the final destination, but only the “opening gambit” (Brooke, cited in Turnbull 2014 p.2).

In order to understand the value of participatory photography, we need to re-frame photography as an ongoing event in which protagonists are the interactions and connections it promotes.

For Wendy Ewald (2014) “the active dialogue between the photographer and the subject (and inevitably the viewer) became (...) the essential point of a photograph” (cited in Turnbull 2014 p.2). Participatory photography projects cannot be reduced as one “kind”, which either produce positive outcomes or not (Godden, 2017); therefore, the question whether it represents a “better” practice cannot take place. We need to fuel “more complex representation through diversity” (Godden, 2017) including both professional and civic made images, and engaging with it.

To conclude, in order to adequately answer the initial question of this dissertation: “Is Participatory Photography the Promise for Social Change?” we need to start with re-framing the concept of participation in photography and disconnecting it to the idea of a “model”. Participatory photography needs to be re-considered as the social engagement offered by the ongoing conversation on representation, promoting dialogue between individuals and communities. With this premise, making change does not represent a possibility, but the very experience of the photographic event.


A Dissertation in the Department of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography

Presented as part of the requirement for an award within the Academic Regulations for Taught Provision at the University ofGloucestershire

February 2020


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