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Collaborative Visual Ethnography: Practical Issues in Cross-Cultural Research

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This Methods in Action case draws on my field experiences working with groups and communities in Brazil, Canada, Central Asia, Europe and the United Kingdom. It outlines ethnographic fieldwork practices – such as conversational interviews, participant observation and other emergent field research methods that complement participatory video and photography workshops and facilitate a dynamic, ongoing dialogue between researchers, participants and the wider community through public exhibition and collaborative review. Collaborative visual ethnography refers to research practices that make use of co-production and public exhibition of visual narratives as a focus for ethnographic research. Focusing on examples from Visible Voice cross-cultural research, this Methods in Action case presents collaborative visual ethnography as a practical example of research and community engagement in action across different communities and cultural groups. Visible Voice is an international network of projects, participants and researchers using collaborative visual ethnography as the primary methodological process for ethnographic research and community engagement. The Visible Voice process provides multiple opportunities for participants and researchers to engage in reflection and critical thinking about sociocultural forces that shape everyday lives and social conditions in different communities. Throughout the fieldwork process, researchers and participants work together to identify, explore and share lived experiences, social and cultural perspectives in an attempt to bridge the perceptual gaps that exist between communities, service providers and policy makers. Project participants are both the focus of ethnographic research encounters and the creators of their own ethnographic narratives. Throughout these projects participants engage in a visual narrative production process deciding how and what to record, making editing decisions and developing narrative styles through sharing and debating viewpoints as part of a dialogic process of production, public exhibition and co-analysis of completed visual narratives and audience responses.

Learning Outcomes

Working through the case description and engaging in the suggested learning activities and discussion questions will enable you to

  • Gain a broad understanding of the nature and practice of collaborative visual ethnography
  • Develop your awareness of practical and ethical challenges posed during cross-cultural research
  • Develop an understanding of how visual methods and collaborative practice can be used to capture and analyse fieldwork data
  • Identify essential interpretive and technical skills required to gather and analyse visual data

In 2006, I began what I thought would be a short-term study of everyday life in the remote mountain villages of Tolok and Kokjar in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. I had planned to offer the villagers a few days of participatory visual-media workshops as part of a long-term community programme led by the Kyrgyz non-governmental organisation (NGO) Ak Terek. Although I had been working with academic partners in Kyrgyzstan for many years, I had never visited the villages and I didn't speak Kyrgyz. My initial experiences in Tolok and Kokjar, in what was the first in a series of Visible Voice projects, were real aha moments for me and a critical turning point in shaping my development as a researcher.

I was working in a geographically remote location, seeking to understand the lives of semi-nomadic communities, attempting to bridge the language and cultural boundaries using cameras and computers to explore everyday life in the villages. I had used these techniques in my work with students in the United Kingdom, but this project posed technical as well as cross-cultural challenges. I was working with cameras and computers in an environment where electricity supply was at best unreliable and with people who had, up to that point, never used a mobile phone, touched a camcorder or used a computer. To my surprise, at the end of the first day the villagers had planned, recorded and edited two short films that provided a rich insight into everyday life and community concerns. As I watched the villagers at work on their films, I realised that in handing over the cameras to the villagers I had also handed over the focus and means of production of the research. I saw quickly the value in letting go of the reins. Following instead of directing gave me access to parts of village life that would have taken months to reveal and record had I controlled the production process. The villagers were better placed than I would ever be to capture their everyday lives, to tell their story, to explore and debate competing versions of needs, realities and concerns in the community. I provided technical support (e.g. on how to use the cameras) which gave me a privileged position as an outside observer. I watched the groups as they discussed and negotiated different ideas about what was important, how they might best represent community issues and what should be included or left out from their stories. As a participant observer, I could see what was included and what was being left out of the films and photographs. Working with my Kyrgyz partners, I was able to ask questions and engage people in conversations. As I went around the village with the groups, I used photography and video to record my own observations of the activities, conversations and environments that provided the context for everyday life in each community. Quite spontaneously, the project began to emerge as a rich, multilayered, collaborative ethnographic process with researchers and participants simultaneously gathering valuable social, environmental and cultural data through the use of participatory video and photography.

Theoretical Foundations

Drawing on a broad paradigm of participatory research (Pain & Francis, 2003), collaborative visual ethnography is a form of emancipatory research designed to have a direct and positive impact on the lives of the participants and their communities. Within Visible Voice, an international network of projects, participants and researchers who use collaborative visual ethnography as the primary methodological process for ethnographic research, we seek to facilitate transformative experiences among participants by engaging them as co-researchers with the aim of collaboratively uncovering causal and contributory mechanisms that create and sustain social disadvantage. Using public exhibition as a distinct part of the process, we are carrying out what Herbert Gans (2010) and others (Bailey, 2010) have termed public ethnography. Working through collaborative visual ethnography, we bring together research, engagement and visual activism for social change. In his influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996), Brazilian philosopher and educationalist Paulo Freire argued for adult education practice that would engage participants in collaborative exploration of their personal and social predicament. Collaborative visual ethnography parallels Freire's pedagogic motivations and seeks to raise critical consciousness among participants and across the wider community through the production and exhibition of visual narratives as a mechanism for social improvement. Collaborative visual ethnography places strong emphasis on bringing together participants and researchers as co-creators of knowledge in order to develop authentic representations of the viewpoints, concerns and lived experiences of participants and communities. As participants work with researchers, they develop basic research and analytical skills through the construction and dissemination of visual narratives that in turn can help transform their lives (see Figure 1). In this way, collaborative visual ethnography makes explicit a desire to shift the power dynamics of knowledge creation away from researcher-driven enquiry and towards a more egalitarian pursuit of knowledge through collaborative introspection and public display.

Figure 1. Collaborative research. The diagram indicates how researchers share ideas to generate the focus for the study. They share analysis but may disseminate findings and experiences to different audiences. Researcher and participant activity is intended to result in action signified by the rocket shape.

As a visual ethnographer, I work closely with participants to identify common areas of interest and explore narrative potentials using participatory video and photography as primary means of engagement. An important feature of fieldwork practice, the ethnographic encounter between researchers and participants, is the development of rapport between researchers, participants and communities. Visible Voice researchers use cameras and camcorders as the main tools to collect, edit and analyse the rich data gathered during projects. Initial technical training is provided during visual-media workshops; and ongoing collaborative construction, dialogue and public exhibition of completed visual narratives lie at the heart of these ethnographic encounters. Providing guidance and technical support during visual-media workshops provides numerous opportunities for researchers to take on the role of participant observer, noting individual and group interactions and physical, social and cultural environments while, at the same time, collaboratively engaging with, reflecting upon and interpreting the rich array of sociocultural data that emerge during the project. From the outset, participants are invited to choose a topic of common interest, to explore the ways in which that topic might be represented visually and to create and exhibit visual narratives in the form of short videos and photographic materials. The process of production and public display provide the main opportunities for data collection and encounters with and between participants. Throughout the project, ongoing review complemented by conversational interviews, review meetings and ad hoc activities such as field photography and video recordings are used to explore, clarify and refine different understandings of lived experiences and meanings.

Collaborative visual ethnography transcends the dominant conventions of researcher-driven research in which the interests, understandings and assumptions of outsiders (researchers) are given priority over those of insiders (participants). The process encourages a collaborative learning experience in which researchers and participants learn as they produce, display and reflect upon the experiences, stories and diverse meanings revealed during the production process and framed within the public exhibits. Researchers and participants contribute to the project from different perspectives. While researchers seek to understand how participants understand and give meaning to their social experiences, the participants are focussed on identifying, prioritising, selecting and telling their stories. As the participants work to clarify, select and present selected viewpoints, the researchers gain privileged access to the lived experiences of the participants. In this way, researchers can gain insights into the participants' ways of thinking, interacting and living in exchange for providing technical support during the construction and exhibition of visual materials. The study ethos and design of these projects explicitly seek to create opportunities for the participants to make use of their research experiences as experiential learning opportunities for broader personal and community development. Collaborative engagement in production and public exhibition enables participants to reflect on their understanding of their lived experiences and those of others while developing basic research, technical and communication skills. The project moves from original ideas (storyboarding/recording/editing) to public exhibition, with concurrent review and analysis emerging from researcher and participant interactions throughout the whole period of the engagement (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The collaborative visual ethnography process.
Key Methods

Collaborative visual ethnography is both a research and a dissemination process that allows people to explore lived experiences and speak for themselves. Working together to create video and photographic narratives enables participants to identify, review and present their views on complex issues through powerful visual-communication formats. At the same time, the researchers' attention is focussed on the authors of the message, the people who shape the content and messages drawn from lived experiences, personal and shared worldviews. Throughout fieldwork, researchers are privileged to observe and engage in dialogue between and with participants. This dialogue takes place during and after production, at the point of public exhibition and in follow-up meetings, as the participants, supported by the researchers, decide on their next project initiatives. Using participatory video and photography challenges the traditional practices that continue to dominate social research and popular media reports. In the dominant model, outsiders operate as ‘experts’, documenting, interpreting, defining, producing and disseminating their own interpretations of lived experiences of people and their communities.

In line with the work of visual sociologist Howard Becker (1995) and others (Bery & Stuart, 1996), collaborative visual ethnography calls into question the notion that visual materials, such as photographs and video sequences, are neutral records of social events or simple snapshots of lives and events frozen in time. The supposed neutrality of the visual record is undermined by the fact that the camera lens is always pointed with purpose, a purpose known only to the person behind the lens. Pointing the lens and pressing the record button is a part of active framing, a way of focussing and making sense of the object of interest. Visual records, including those produced during our Visible Voice projects, are socially constructed representations that reveal as much about the camera operator as they do about the subject of the recording. Visual records represent the explicit and implicit views, opinions and experiences of participants as they take on the roles of camera operators, actors, editors and production teams during the projects. Researcher interest centres on the construction and dissemination of visual narratives as a process: a means to access and understand the social world of the participants. The completed visual narratives are the public expressions, subjective representations, of views and experiences that participants have chosen to share with a wider audience. The participant exhibits produced within the projects provide a means of gaining insight, increasing understanding and engaging in dialogue about the issues raised (and hidden) in these public narratives. More than being simple end products that reveal a ‘truth’ about the authors' lives, the exhibits represent an ongoing process of production, display and review that can reveal the critical and complex mechanisms at play in the authorship and display of viewpoints to a wider audience. As such, they hold significance that extends beyond the surface visual content intended to hold the interest of the viewer.

Visible Voice projects use multiple research methods to access, record and analyse the rich array of sociocultural data that emerge throughout the whole process of constructing and disseminating participant-produced videos and photographic narratives. While different locally and culturally appropriate methods and techniques emerge within each project, the use of participatory video and/or photography is common to all and provides a focal point for collaborative ethnographic encounters and the use of additional research methods including

  • audio and video recording of interviews with key participants;
  • collaborative review;
  • conversational interviews;
  • creative visual activities such as drawing, community mapping, storyboarding, photo sharing;
  • community screenings and dialogue;
  • photo elicitation interviews;
  • recording of public activities and exhibitions;
  • the use of photography and video to enhance researcher field notes.
Participatory Video

The use of participatory video has its roots in the early work of Canadian activist and academic Don Snowden during the late 1960s (MacLeod, 2004). Snowden's early work demonstrated the potential of community participation in filmmaking as a community-development tool and helped to establish the notion of participatory filmmaking, but the high cost of equipment and technological complexity of filmmaking at that time meant that filming and editing of the stories needed to be undertaken by skilled technicians. This, perhaps more than anything else, limited participatory visual research to a relatively small number of technically proficient researchers and also limited the extent of participatory engagement from community members. More recently, the development and subsequent ubiquity of digital media technologies have substantially reduced both the cost and the technical complexity of visual storytelling. It is now possible, with much less technical support, to turn over almost the whole process of visual storytelling to community participants.

Using creative visual activities, such as video and photography, encourages participants to identify, reflect upon and articulate their own values, understandings and viewpoints. The process of visual narrative construction encourages critical reflection among and between the participant and researcher groups and can sometimes lead to identification of potential solutions to troubling community issues. The videos and photographs created during the project workshops provide the initial focus for ongoing discussion and debate within the participant group and the wider community.

In common with other forms of collaborative ethnography (Lassiter, 2005), collaborative visual ethnography engages participants in all stages of the research and dissemination process and seeks to

  • engage people in active listening and dialogue around community issues,
  • create a safe environment for introspection and critical reflection,
  • facilitate movement of people towards actions that can improve conditions in their own communities,
  • inform the broader community and more powerful social actors in support of actions for social change.
Collaborative Analysis

Collaborative analysis is an important part of the research process that takes place throughout the fieldwork phase and continues as part of the longer term relationships that emerge between researchers and participants. Participant and researcher agendas are different, but each can help to inform the analytical process. Researchers bring an outsider perspective to topics and issues, while participants provide insider viewpoints. Both perspectives help to illustrate the subjective nature of social experiences, and the dialogic environment helps to uncover issues and perspectives that were unforeseen at the outset. Using a multilevel approach to analysis, researchers and participants engage in formal and informal strategies for reviewing materials, messages and understandings (see Figure 3). The engagement of a variety of specialist and non-specialist analytical contributions helps to open up new perspectives that may be missed if research methods and analysis are limited to the conventions of established academic or cultural perspectives. Opening up the design, implementation, analysis and dissemination of the ethnographic process helps to facilitate the production of authentically verifiable outputs that are acknowledged by the participants themselves as plausible representations of lives and viewpoints.

Figure 3. Multilevel collaborative analysis.
Practical and Ethical Challenges Posed During Cross-Cultural Research

Linguistic and cultural boundaries between researchers and the participant communities are often present in cross-cultural research and add to foreseen and unforeseen challenges common in all fieldwork research. Fieldwork research attempts to understand the lives of people as they go about their everyday lives. Operating in naturalistic settings, fieldwork is dynamic and at times intense, and the unpredictable reality of people's lives means researchers have to be flexible, patient and creative when they face unexpected challenges. Controlling variables, a major concern for positivist researchers, is not possible in naturalistic settings. Instead, researchers need to become skilled observers and communicators. They need to engage with participants and communities while minimally disrupting the normal flow of social interactions, making sure to clarify initial perceptions and to look for expressed and implied meanings in everyday settings. Researchers working across cultures need to be flexible and willing to change when the circumstances change around them.

Within the confines of their own culture, people generally share common understandings of everyday social roles, traditions and behaviours; even if they do not always fully subscribe to the norms and values of their cultural community, they at least understand what is expected. People within a shared culture often share a common language in which the shared meaning of words, tone of voice, speech patterns and non-verbal communication is largely understood by everyone. When people enter a different cultural environment, they have to be more vigilant about their own cultural assumptions.

Some of the key challenges researchers face in cross-cultural work include the following:

  • language and translation issues
  • entering and understanding new cultures
  • gaining trust and developing rapport
  • clarifying and authenticating narratives and shared understandings
  • self-awareness and reflexivity
Language and Translation

Interpersonal communication consists of verbal and non-verbal forms of communication operating within cultural contexts. The meaning of communicated messages is expressed and interpreted within inner ecologies, the shared cultural spaces in which participants interpret experiences drawing on the shared values, traditions and beliefs that provide framework for mutual understanding. Within shared cultural spaces, people often take for granted the meaning of verbal messages, underestimating the extent to which the shared cultural and linguistic knowledge informs their understanding. Language is more than just a set of words and grammatical rules, and translating across languages requires more than simple replacement of one set of words with equivalents from the second language. Words may have more than one meaning, and those meanings are strongly linked to the social and cultural contexts in which the words are used.

Much of the information people get through interpersonal communication is non-verbal, implied by context, prior knowledge and existing relationships, and so on. Working visually provides multiple opportunities for dialogue about meaning and messages. Both the authors and audiences of visual narratives are engaged in a reflexive encounter through the visual materials. Authors are likely to ask themselves, Does this image say what I want to say? Will my audience understand the message? Those viewing the materials may wonder, What is this about? Is this real/authentic? Working visually helps to improve communication by opening up a dialogue between researchers and participants around messages, meanings and interpretations.

Dialogic Research

Collaborative visual ethnography is a form of dialogic research, an approach to research which aims to bring researchers, participants and communities together in a rich dialogue about the themes, issues and meanings that have been attributed to social phenomena and lived experiences. Engaging in dialogue through visual communication, combined with collaboration with local researchers who have a good understanding of the local social context, helps the researchers and participants to overcome some of the barriers presented by linguistic and cultural barriers encountered during cross-cultural research.

Following the Interests of Participants

Finding out how people understand and misunderstand issues, the extent to which understandings are shared across groups and communities, is an important part of ethnographic research and one that might be missed if the researchers have an undue influence over the direction of discussions. An underlying principle in Visible Voice is to follow the interest of the participants rather than to try to make participants comply with the interests of the researchers. Even if participants choose to abandon Visible Voice's original research focus, the researchers can learn more about what is truly of interest to participants. One of the weaknesses of researcher-oriented research is that the researchers are normally outsiders to the everyday life of the community. Researchers bring to their studies a way of looking and understanding, which is strongly informed by their own life experiences. While this can be very useful, researchers may also miss important local and cultural messages that are more evident to the participants as cultural insiders.

I have spent most of my life living and working in cities in Europe where sanitation, piped water and heating are taken for granted as essential to community life. During my first visit to the remote mountain communities of Kyrgyzstan, the Visible Voice research team asked the villagers to rank a list of 10 village issues, which they had raised, during the Visible Voice workshops. As an outsider from Europe, I had assumed that the lack of piped water and poor sanitation facilities would be given the highest priority. The villagers thought otherwise and had ranked the health of their livestock as the top priority. Having grown up and lived most of my life in cities, I was surprised and asked why this was more important. The villagers told me, ‘If our animals are unhealthy then so are we. We depend entirely on our animals for our life in this village’. In my own home environment, my wellbeing is, in part, dependent on the availability of a complex commercial food chain, a salary to buy food, housing, water and heating, and so on. The villagers in Tolok and Kokjar were living in a different economic and cultural environment. Each of us brought into play different life experiences and cultural assumptions that clearly influenced how we determined basic needs priorities. This was just one of many valuable lessons I learned about the importance of insider and outsider perspectives during my Visible Voice work with different communities and cultural groups.

Field Photography and Video Recordings

Taking photographs and making video recordings of events in the field enables researchers and participants to revisit, share and revise earlier insights and viewpoints that have emerged during fieldwork. In addition to the images and recordings made by the participants, researchers may also take photographs and make video recordings during the projects. This is especially useful when researchers are invited to take part in informal cultural events and as they walk around the community seeking to orient themselves to the local environment. Images and recordings captured by researchers and participants can be reviewed during the editing workshops, and during review meetings and public exhibitions. This may be done through an informal process such as photo elicitation (Harper, 2002) where viewers (researchers, participants and wider audiences) are invited to talk about what they see and can make inferences from the messages and images contained in the visual materials. Conversational interviews arise naturally during the course of the fieldwork and enable the researchers to explore selected issues, test and refine their understandings of the participants' personal viewpoints and cultural perspectives.

Through the whole process, researchers and participants engage in a collaborative review of insider and outsider observations, understandings and insights. This can be done formally during review meetings, but also informally during lunch breaks, in the evening when groups meet for social activities or when travelling between different locations. This ongoing reflective process helps researchers to refine and refocus their ideas as they go along, enabling them to modify and develop the focus and methodology of the study in line with an emergent understanding of significant issues and viewpoints.

Formal Workshops

The intention of Visible Voice's first workshop in each new project is to explore initial issues and provide an opportunity for participants to contribute to the overall design and development of project. As a researcher, my aim is to engage with the participants and to open up discussions about the nature of shared experiences. The workshop group constitutes the initial core of ‘visual activists’ who work together to produce materials exploring and presenting themes and issues of interest to the wider community. Later, these groups often recruit other members of the community to the project, acting as mentors to pass on technical knowledge and skills as the project matures. Completed films and photographic exhibits are screened at community events and larger scale public exhibitions during which the groups engage in discussion with their audience about the topics and ideas presented in their work. Public exhibitions provide a means to engage the participants in dialogue both within and outside of their home community.

Each workshop programme begins with a short introduction to the research project, along with discussion and clarification of issues such as consent, copyright and personal safety before moving on to a technical skills session. The technical skills session (1–2 hours) uses examples of visual materials and narratives drawn from popular media sources to explore visual language, metaphor and messages. Participants also have opportunities to try out cameras and camcorders in simple point-and-shoot exercises.

A whole group discussion of possible topics provides a starting point for the formation of smaller groups of four to six people who work together on specific narratives. Each group determines narrative content and style. Technical guidance is given as required by members of the project team. Participants usually spend a short time storyboarding and on more detailed planning of content, narrative style, locations and outline scripts. The amount of time and attention spent on storyboarding varies considerably with each group. After discussion and reminders about technical, ethical, legal and safety issues, groups are free to go out and capture images and video footage.

Preparing and Presenting Exhibits

As they work through their ideas and the production plans, participants have to think about how and which topics to include in their exhibits, how to represent complex and abstract issues visually, who the audience might be and how the exhibits might be received. Narrative styles and techniques used in the exhibits draw on what the participants already know and often mimic the styles and formats of film and television. As with everything else, narrative style and format is negotiated within the group, and the finished product represents the outcome of the struggle between the dominant or most articulate members of the group and the conventions or expectations of the wider community. The production process is always socially and culturally contingent, reflecting the perceived norms of the participants and their relationship with the wider community.

Reflexivity and Analysis

Cross-cultural research operates in an environment in which linguistic and cultural boundaries combine with the different social and academic perspectives of researchers and participants to produce a research environment in which acknowledgement of the different experiences and perspectives of outsiders and insiders becomes a critical component in the analytical process. Ethnographic studies generally seek to produce insights into everyday lives that are authentic rather than generalisable. Ethnographic outputs should be recognisable to the participants as plausible, authentic representations of their lived experiences. This is not to say that the researchers' retelling of the participants' lives is definitive, fixed or even necessarily accurate in every detail. It should, instead, be something that is recognised by the participants as a realistic interpretation of their lives. To achieve this authenticity, researchers need to adopt an explicitly reflexive (Russell & Kelly, 2002) approach to their work. In simple terms, this means the researchers take systematic steps to ensure that they examine the possible influence of their own experiences, assumptions and orientations on the design, implementation, analysis and interpretation of the study findings.

Visual materials produced during these projects are constructed representations of the underlying narratives that inform everyday lives of the participants. They are created for public exhibition and need to be considered as a part of a wider narrative told by the participants throughout the project. Researchers engage in regular dialogue with each other, with participants and community audiences throughout all phases of the project in order to maintain a reflexive, self-aware insight of their own assumptions, understandings and interpretations of the explicit and implicit content and meanings present in the visual materials. Analysis of the essential content of each image or video clip (content analysis) may be useful to establish certain narrative patterns or attributes across different participant groups. But it is important to recognise that the content, style and focus of visual materials, especially those present for public exhibition, are informed by broader personal, social and cultural conventions. For this reason, a more reflexive social semiotic (Vannini, 2007) approach is required. Social semiotic analysis explores social messages, themes and signs, and symbolic representations that arise in social life. In visual materials, these may involve looking for socially and culturally significant statements presented in the materials. It may also consider the apparent omission of certain socially and culturally significant features. In this form of analysis, the visual materials are seen as contingent and concurrent with other sociocultural materials observed and recorded during the study. The visual materials are considered indicative rather than definitive representations of lived experiences.

Interpretive and Technical Skills Required to Gather and Analyse Visual Data

Researchers and participants engaged in visual research need to develop interpretive and technical skills in order to contribute meaningfully to the projects. The levels of skill and the degree of expertise will vary across the groups, but each research team must ensure that the team as a whole possesses the following basic skills, knowledge and personal qualities before embarking on fieldwork:

  • visual literacy – the capacity to understand, create and present visual messages to different audiences;
  • reflexivity – the ability to think about, question and revise everything one thinks one already knows as an everyday part of practice;
  • knowledge of essentials of photographic and/or audio-visual production recording and production;
  • the ability to fix computers and cameras when they break down in the field;
  • cultural awareness – the ability to recognise culturally significant features of one's own culture and those of others;
  • patience and the ability to stand back and let participants tell their own story in their own way.
Research Ethics and Cultural Differences

Western ethical conventions, drawing on a strong sense of individual rights, give priority to principles such as autonomy, informed consent, privacy and dignity. More collectivist cultures generally place stronger emphasis on co-dependency, collaboration and the traditional social roles that reinforce a person's contribution to the community. In strongly individualist cultures, such as in North America and Western Europe, it is usually considered important for researchers to gain ‘informed consent’ from each person taking part in a research study. In a visual research project, each person photographed or filmed in connection with the study may need to be informed of the nature of the study and how the visual data collected will be used. Prior to the start of a study, the researchers are required to develop a research protocol and associated paperwork that will include written consent forms and ‘plain language’ study protocols, which are given to prospective participants prior to the commencement of the research. Inclusion in a study, photograph or video recording may also require the consent of specific individuals within a family or community beyond those who are directly involved in the study. In other cultures (including minority cultures across western Europe and North America), different conventions apply. Ethical concerns about photography and video recording that are commonly raised by Western research ethics committees may not always be practical, because very few people may want to read a research protocol or sign a consent form before having their picture taken or agreeing to take part in an interview. Visual recordings are not just data collection methods employed by researchers, they are also part of the natural sociocultural environment in which participants live their lives. Many participants, having been provided with a camera or camcorder, want to include images of their children, friends, neighbours and other family members who are not directly involved in the study. The recordings are seen as social and personal records, not just research data, and some people simply want their image, their story or their viewpoint displayed.

Negotiating these different sociocultural conventions requires researchers to take an active and considered approach to research ethics. Within Visible Voice, we typically make use of a three-stage consent process: (1) initial consent to take part in the study, (2) consent to audio and visual recordings and (3) consent to public distribution of edited images and video materials. We often make use of audio or video recordings to gain consent where written consent is not possible, or culturally appropriate. Signing a consent form holds different cultural significance for some cultural groups, and while some participants are enthusiastic in their desire to be part of a project, giving a formal signature may be seen as unnecessary or inappropriate where formal permissions are given only by cultural authority figures. At the same time, studies that cross international boundaries will also need to ensure that appropriate national and academic conventions are accommodated within the overall design of the study.


As a research methodology, the model of collaborative visual ethnography that we have developed within Visible Voice provides a rich insight into the lived experiences of participants and their communities and, at the same time, enables the researchers to uncover new areas of interest through participant observation of interactions and the lived experiences of project participants and others engaged in the local community.

In each project, our aim has been to assist participants to develop a ‘visible voice’ with which to clarify and express concerns, hopes, beliefs and lived experiences. During workshops, participants learn the basic skills and techniques that they need to enable them to create visual narratives. The groups work together to plan and produce their own visual narratives illustrating important aspects of everyday life and health in the local community. On completion, films and selected photographs are screened and exhibited to an audience from the wider community.

Project participants engage in an active process of exploration, dialogue and exhibition of issues that are of concern to people in the local community. Participants also gain skills in research, working together, setting priorities and communication with the wider community, professionals and policy makers. The process enables participants and communities to develop a coherent and powerful voice with which to engage with policy makers, support services, professionals and the wider community.


The use of creative research activities such as participatory video and photography have enabled us at Visible Voice to develop a new form of ethnography, which enables people to communicate across linguistic and cultural boundaries and to produce collaborative ethnographic narratives that express, in a meaningful way, insights into their own lives, thought and experiences. The use of visual recordings and the commitment to reflexive and transparent practice that underpins Visible Voice projects make the researchers' gaze explicit within the research process. In doing so, the process draws attention to the relationship between the researcher and the researched, the observer and the observed. Collaborative visual ethnography focuses attention on who is in control of the technology, what is being filmed and photographed and on how the visual narratives are produced, disseminated and received by different audiences. These projects signify an optimistic, trusting approach to research founded on a belief that the participants can move beyond the traditional limits of the ‘observed’, generating interesting theories and observations on their own lives and communities.

Collaborative visual ethnography provides a different way into a research question, revealing a potential for previously undocumented social narratives. The reflective process required for the creation of visual narratives takes time, and the act of making something that one can look at, think about and change brings different responses and insights to those found solely through interview- and survey-based studies. The collaborative process challenges researchers and participants, encouraging them to think in a more reflexive way. As participants and researchers create visual narratives for public exhibitions, they review and reconsider their own values, perceptions and understandings as they seek to explain their worldview to others using visual media.

Exercises and Discussion Questions
  • Visual communication and interpretation

    Visual messages can be analysed and interpreted in many different ways. For example, as researchers, we can use content analysis to analyse an image (i.e. the directly observable objects and shapes contained within an image) or use semiotic analysis to look for indicators of meaning. Semiotic analysis helps us to understand the message of an image and to make sense of what is taking place. Both content analysis and semiotic analysis rely on prior knowledge, that is, they are informed by the social and cultural assumptions we as viewers bring when we look at the image. Look at Figure 4 and answer the questions that follow.

    Figure 4. Making sense of the visual world.

    Content analysis

    • Make a list of all the ‘things’ that you can see in this image. Include only those things that are directly observable in the image.

      Semiotic analysis

    • What is happening in this image?

    • Where was the image taken?

    • What prior knowledge have you used to interpret this image?

  • Gathering ethnographic data in the field

    Part 1 – Choose a public space where you can easily observe people as they go about their normal lives. For 15 minutes, watch what is going on around you. You may wish to take brief notes on things that attract your attention but remember that the point of fieldwork is to observe rather than to sit around writing notes. After 15 minutes, go somewhere such as a cafe or library and write down what you saw. Make notes on how you felt and what you were thinking as you watched.

    Part 2 – Go back to the same public space and spend 15 minutes taking photographs of what is going on around you. Remember that there are some places that you cannot photograph without permission, for example, inside shops, offices, private building, and so on. Remember to also think about ethical practice. Think about privacy, dignity, and so on, especially if you are taking photographs of people in which they are clearly identifiable. You may need to obtain permission if you want to take photographs of individuals and specific interactions. You should also think about whether it is appropriate to take photographs of people who are drunk, homeless, begging or otherwise likely to be vulnerable. When you have taken your photographs, find a place to look through them and make notes about what they convey about the social environment that you were observing.

  • Visualising social and cultural worlds

    Think about your own social and cultural world. What kinds of things are taken for granted? What are the social role expectations that you have of yourself, of your parents or others in your group or community? In groups of three or four, share some of these ideas and make a list of different ways you could represent these values and experiences visually. As a group, devise a short visual presentation that illustrates some of these ideas.

  • What practical issues did you encounter when you used textual and visual methods to observe, record and analyse the social world?

  • To what extent are photographs and video recordings more than documentary records ‘frozen in time’?

  • What are the main ethical issues linked to photography and video, and how can you work ethically using these methods?

Further Reading
Atkinson, P. A., Delamont, S., Coffey, A. J., Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. H. (2001). Handbook of ethnography. London, England: SAGE.
Coover, R. (2004). Using digital media tools in cross-cultural research, analysis and representation. Visual Studies, 19(1), 6–25.
Gauntlett, D. (2007). Creative explorations: New approaches to identities and audiences. London, England: Routledge.
Pink, S. (2013). Doing visual ethnography: Images, media and representation in research (
3rd ed.
). SAGE.
Values Exchange. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Visible Voice. (n.d.). Retrieved from
White, S. A. (2003). Participatory video: Images that transform and empower. London, England: SAGE.
O'Brien, V. (2011). Research insights: Personal and environmental influences on research: How do personal experiences, environmental conditions and the social context influence researcher's understanding of observed phenomena during fieldwork? [film]. (Duration 3:06). Retrieved from
O'Brien, V. (n.d.). Visible Voices, Changing Lives: This film tells the story of Visible Voice, a Collaborative Visual Ethnography project that began in remote mountain villages in Kyrgyzstan. Examples of villager films are used to illustrate the way that communities think about and represent their lives. The films provide an example of how communities have used participatory video to lobby for change in their communities [film]. (Duration 16.38). Retrieved from
O'Brien, V. (n.d.). Researching Everyday Life Rural Health Project: A short film giving an insight into ethnographic methods used during the KazNMU Rural Health Project in Kazakhstan, 2012 [film]. (Duration 9:20). Retrieved from
O'Brien, V. (n.d.). [film] (Duration 10:42). Retrieved from
O'Brien, V. (n.d.). Who am I? Collaborative film about South Indian cultural identities. Made with members of the South Indian Community in Manchester and Upasana Arts [film] (Duration 8:22). Retrieved from
Bailey, C. A. (2010). Public Ethnography. In S. N.Hesse-Biber & P.Leavy (Eds.), Handbook of emergent methods (pp. 265–282). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Becker, H. (1995). Visual sociology, documentary photography, and journalism: It's (almost) all a matter of context. Visual Sociology, 10 (1–2), 5–14.
Bery, R., & Stuart, S. (1996). Powerful grassroots women communicators: Participatory video in Bangladesh. In J.Servaies & S. A.White (Eds.), Participatory communication for social change (pp. 197–212). London, England: SAGE.
Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.
Gans, H. J. (2010). Public ethnography; Ethnography as public sociology. Qualitative Sociology, 33, 97–104.
Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17, 13–26.
Lassiter, L. (2005). The Chicago guide to collaborative ethnography. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
MacLeod, P. (2004, October). Participatory filmmaking and video–Building on the legacy of the Fogo process. Symposium on communication for social and environmental change, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
Pain, R., & Francis, P. (2003). Reflections on participatory research. Area, 35, 46–54.
Russell, G. M., & Kelly, N. H. (2002). Research as interacting dialogic processes: Implications for reflexivity. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3, 209.
Vannini, P. (2007). Social semiotics and fieldwork method and analytics. Qualitative Inquiry, 13, 113–140.