Visualising communities: Refocusing perceptions of the Welsh Valleys

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

As part of the Representing Communities project I worked with a group of Year 10 pupils for four months. The aim of this part of the research was to engage with the young people through photography to explore their perceptions of community life. This included some discussion of their feelings towards media representations of their community, which can be a source of stigma and shame for many residents. People living in this community have described how media portrayals, such as Channel 4’s Skint, present an unfair picture of their community and their neighbours. This type of ‘territorial stigma’ can be internalised by residents, leading to feelings of intense shame. The idea behind Pen y dre Photovoice was to give young people the opportunity to create their own representations of where they live.

The project ran from February until June and it felt like we were just beginning to scratch the surface of what the group could be capable of in terms of the images they produce and the messages they can convey through photography. We are planning to continue working with the group in their final year at high school to develop what they have started through the photography.

Photovoice is a type of community-based participatory research based on educational empowerment, where participants take photographs of their local area to discuss issues, with a view to creating some form of knowledge exchange and dialogue with policy makers through the photographs and narratives. Our approach was adapted from the structured Photovoice format, to allow participants to shape more of the process. Although we encouraged the group to address issues they felt were important to them, they didn’t begin with an idea of something that they wanted to change, which many Photovoice projects do. So the project ended up being a more gentle and exploratory insight into how this group of young people experience childhood and community life.

We met in weekly workshops which I co-facilitated with professional photographer Joe Singh, a member of the English department, and our project partner Jen Angharad who is project manager on POSSIB. We used a combination of smartphones and digital SLR cameras. Each week, the group would take photographs and upload them to a Flikr page created for the project, and we also went on two walks of the local area. Each week the group would decide which photographs they wanted to talk about and they led the discussion, although it was guided by the photographer and the researcher. Whereas I was interested in the sociological aspects of each image, Joe would talk from an aesthetic point of view, training the young people to look at their photographs critically and to talk about them using aesthetic language. This was a really important element of the project; creativity and aesthetic were at the forefront of the project and the group experimented with different angles, close-ups, filters and effects. The group were really engaged by this and this is the glue that held the project together.

In terms of the themes which emerged from the visual data, there were attempts to directly challenge the negative visual representations of their community. The young people felt quite strongly that the images seen in the national media were not painting a fair or accurate picture of their home town and they took a lot of photographs of landscape and natural beauty. When we went on walks of the local area, the young people were also struck by the neglect of their community through fly-tipping and rubbish littering the area. Taking these photographs enabled them to make a statement about what they think needs to change.

One of the prevailing sites for negative media attention has been the ‘Gurnos Shops’. The group wanted to present their own version of what the Gurnos Shops were like, both from the outside which shows the shopping area in a less stigmatised way than it is portrayed in the media, and the inside which shows people smiling and working in the area, several of whom own their own businesses, a sight rarely seen in the negative media portrayals of the community.

Some of the boys took several photographs on the theme of loneliness, which they had spent some time constructing and were enthusiastic to tell us how they had set up each shot. But, when I asked them to talk about what the photographs meant, they couldn’t actually say anything about loneliness as a feeling or experience. Dialogue could not get at this issue of loneliness, but the images capture it beautifully and emotively.

There is something about arts-based methods which is allowing people to bring to the surface topics that are not able to be spoken about through dialogue. This is a place-based issue, because what we are seeing is that in post-industrial communities, particularly in places with a mining history, young men don’t have the space to talk about affect and emotion. There is a stigma surrounding masculine identity which prohibits this kind of dialogue, so it is perhaps unsurprising that these images contain so much emotion, because it is absent from the boys’ talk.

Having the input of a professional photographer has been crucial. Being able to think and talk about aesthetics has changed how the young people interact with and experience their environment. They have told us they see things differently, in more depth, as Dawn Mannay has called ‘making the familiar strange’. And this is at the heart of what visual methods are doing in this context. Yes, alternative representations of place are being created, and stigmatised discourses are being challenged through the young peoples’ photography. However, importantly, photography is enabling them to see themselves in their ‘place’ differently. By integrating professional photographic expertise and teaching into our Photovoice project we have co-produced a participatory arts project that conceptualises the arts in terms of their intrinsic and instrumental value. This is where the balance of aesthetics, participation and research has felt right, and we have been able to witness how aesthetics can deepen engagement and the experience of participation, and in turn the richness of data and the strength of the research relationship. Also – importantly – through the photography we’re beginning to see how aesthetics can facilitate a different way of seeing ‘place’, of being in and experiencing ‘place’ and of representing ‘place’.

About the author: Dr Ellie Byrne is a Research Associate at the Cardiff Institute of Society, Health and Wellbeing (CISHeW). She is a social scientist with a particular interest in creative methods, community arts, health, wellbeing and policy. Her PhD was in the use of photography as a research method and the interpretation of visual images. This led to a fascination with the arts, humanities and culture as forms of knowledge and evidence about peoples lives, histories and communities. Her current project explores this idea in a post-industrial town in the South Wales valleys and aims to look at how policy makers might consider evidence produced through the arts and humanities in the policy making process.