Picturing waters: a review of participatory visual research on water governance
In Cairo at the sunset the bridges are transformed in open air cafes: unconcerned by the noisy traffic, people align their plastic chairs on the sidewalk and drink tea while watching the flow of the Nile. Everywhere in the world people enjoy sitting by lakes, rivers, sea, canals and watching at waters. How this mesmeric property can be used to study water governance or to communicate scientific research? To address this question I did a review of Photovoice and similar participatory visual research on water governance, recently published on Wires Water (in Open Acces!).
Why participatory visual research? The review aims at contributing to the debate on equity and justice in water governance, focusing on one of the main problematic of environmental governance, that of political participation: whose voices get heard and who makes decisions? I started by looking at research using Photovoice since this is one of the most popular participatory visual techniques.
As stated in a seminal article by its initiators (Wang and Burris, Photovoice: concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Educ Behav 1997) the main goals of Photovoice are:
- to enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns,
- to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues through large and small group discussion of photographs, and
- to reach policymakers.
I found a total of 23 articles related to 20 projects adopting Photovoice or similar participatory visual methods to study (1) water, health, and sanitation; (2) participation in water management; (3) landscapes and water spaces; and (4) domestic urban waters. There seems to be a connection between geography and themes: participatory visual research is used to study water, health and sanitation issues only in Sub-Saharan Africa, while the same methods are applied to indigenous water resources management and to domestic urban water mostly in Australia and New Zealand.
The review has been also an opportunity to discover inspiring works like Travelling River a collaboration between scientists, artists and the people of the Motueka River catchment (New Zeeland), and to get a few books with interesting photos like Picturing freshwater justice in rural Australia by Jennifer McKay, Ganesh Keremane and Adam Gray (2010).
The review highlights two main achievements and one gap in participatory visual research on water governance. The first achievement is the potential of Photovoice in terms of generating knowledge about the distribution of water, as well as on eliciting emotions, values, and concerns on these issues. Visual research allows also to link these emotions to natural spaces, technical systems or water infrastructure. Second achievement: participatory visual methods are reported to facilitate the dialogue between different actors involved in or affected by water governance processes, like farmers and policy makers, researches and indigenous community, or girls and local authorities. Visual methods seem therefore a useful tool to address or mediate conflicts over water access and distribution.