Participatory Video Workshop: Some initial reflections

Below are some very early thoughts and reflections on my first experience using video as part of a participatory research methodology. Comments, ideas and suggestions would be very welcome.


On 29 January I helped organise a participatory video workshop with 18 refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers, and two of their British friends. The other main organisers were workers from the International Community Organisation of Sunderland, the Regional Refugee Forum North East, and professional film-maker Elvis Katotoe, himself a refugee from DRCongo. This is part of the first stage of a programme of research that aims to explore the meaning of the ‘age of austerity’ for recent international migrants in North East England, encompassing unprecedented cuts to state welfare services and funding for third sector organisations, high unemployment and reductions in public and private sector pay, pensions, benefits and conditions. The aim for this workshop was to start with the everyday challenges and problems people are facing, rather than with pre-determined concepts and categories (such as employment, welfare services, housing, etc), and to use the insights produced through the workshop to shape the categories and questions that we will use in the next stage of the research. The methodology we used drew heavily on the work of Claudia Mitchell and Naydene de Lange.[1]

The day began with introductions, an explanation of the purpose of the research and discussion and agreement of groundrules. Participants were asked quite detailed questions about the video element, including whether they were happy to be filmed and separate questions on whether they consented to have footage of themselves shown in a variety of ways, including at conferences, community events within Britain, and online. We then had an open discussion around the table, lasting about an hour and half, about people’s experiences of living in the North East over the last few years. Much of the discussion focused on employment, including exclusion from paid work as a result of immigration status, difficulties finding paid work even for those who had a legal ‘right to work’, experiences of discrimination within employment, and the process by which some migrants decide they have little alternative but attempt to make a living through self-employment. Other issues that were covered were grouped through the discussion into a series of headings written up on a sheet of flipchart paper:

–          Employment

  • Access
  • Experiences within employment
  • Self-employment

–          Integration

  • Changes to ESOL funding
  • Reductions in integration-related funding for voluntary and community sectors

–          Discrimination

  • Racism
  • Lack of cultural sensitivity
  • Scapegoating for the economic crisis
  • Ignorance

–          Education

  • Non-acceptance of some qualifications from outside the UK
  • The need for education to support integration
  • Lack of access/funding for migrants to study at university

–          Benefits Cap

  • The impact on large families

–          Housing

  • ‘Ghettoisation’
  • Stigma associated with particular postcodes
  • Housing benefit changes

–          Media representations of migrants

–          Unemployment and incapacity support

Many of these overlapped in multiple ways in people’s lived experiences, but separating them in this way was an attempt to identify three core themes that could provide the focus for videos produced by the participants. Workshop participants were then asked to ‘vote’ for the issue they thought was most pressing to discuss further, by placing a coloured sticker on the relevant part of the flipchart paper. The issues that received most votes in order were:

  1. Integration (5)
  2. Discrimination (4)
  3. Employment (3)
  4. Education and Unemployment/Incapacity Support (2 each)

In order to not leave out any of these issues, we combined themes into:

–          integration and discrimination
–          employment and unemployment/incapacity support
–          education

After some lunch, the participants broke into three groups and each was given the task of producing a short video on one of the three themes, with the option to present this as a dramatisation or documentary style. We had intended to use a ‘No Editing Required’ method for the filming, but this didn’t really work out as we had expected. Two out of the three groups decided to film themselves speaking about their views and experiences, rather a more fictionalised and therefore distanced approach that would draw on participants’ experiences but obscure the relationship between the participants and specific individuals and events. Although the participants were making the films with a view to them being shown publicly, one participant has already been in touch to ask for part of the footage to be removed where they are recounting an experience of institutional racism that involved an identifiable individual.

Participants have now been invited to an editing workshop on 27 February, where the intention is to streamline each of the films, and build around them a ‘composite video’ that also includes background contextual information and footage of the focus group discussion and other aspects of the process of the video workshop. Our aim was then to screen this video to audiences of migrants in different parts of the region, and to use it as a starting point for discussion and comparisons with the experiences of audience members. Given the ethical issues in the way this process has played out, we may have to think again and discuss with the participants how the footage will be used. One possibility is to take the approach of the ‘Irregular Voices’ project, which has used interviews to construct scripts performed by actors, to produce videos that convey the immediacy of listening to an individual’s story while maintaining the anonymity of the real individuals who were interviewed. Alternatively, where participants want to appear directly we might be able to use some of the video footage from the workshop but be selective and creative in how it is put together. However, both of these options have down-sides in terms of breaking the continuity of individuals’ narratives and adding layers of our own interpretation on top of and in between what the participants want to present. Clearly we will need to give a lot more thought to this, and very probably add additional stages to the process before we reach a stage of having something that can be shared publicly. I would be very interested in comments or suggestions that anybody reading this might have.

1.         Mitchell, C. and N. de Lange, Community-Based Participatory Video and Social Action in Rural South Africa, in The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, E. Margolis and L. Pauwels, Editors. 2011, SAGE: London. p. 171-185.


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