'Whose Pictures Are These? Re-framing the promise of participatory photography’ is the title of my PhD thesis in Visual Sociology completed in 2015 at Goldsmiths College, University of London under the supervision of Professor Caroline Knowles and Dr Alison Rooke.
Participatory photography initiatives promise to ‘empower’, ‘give voice’ and ‘enable social change’ for marginalised communities through photography. This thesis questions this promise, demonstrating participatory photography to be a contested practice defined as much by inherent tension, ethical complexity and its limitations as by its potential. Caught up in governmental practices and instrumental discourses, ‘NGO-ised’ participatory photography has lost its purpose and politics. Using multiple case-studies and presenting empirical research on TAFOS, a pioneering Peruvian participatory photography project, this thesis explores under examined areas of participatory photography practice, including its governmentality, spectatorship and long term impact on participants. It establishes the effectiveness of photography as a tool for fomenting an enduring critical consciousness (Freire 1970, 1973) while questioning the romantic narrative of participatory photography’s inherently empowering qualities and capacity to enable change.
Pluralism is used as a theoretical and conceptual framework for re-framing the promise of participatory photography. It is argued that a pluralized notion of participatory photography highlights the paradoxical, uncertain and negotiated character of the practice. It re-conceptualises the method as a mode of mediation that enables a plurality of seeing, that supports emerging and unrecognized claims and that cultivates a critical engagement with difference; qualities that are vital to democratic pluralism. The notion of a ‘Photography of Becoming’ re-imagines the critical and political character of participatory photography and the complex and vulnerable politics of voice in which it is immersed.
A copy of my thesis is available through my Academia.edu page