The advantage of creative, participatory methods

Channel's favourite place: her late grandad's living room
Channel’s favourite place: her late grandad’s living room

The project used a variety of different methods as a way of providing participants with enjoyable ways to discuss sensitive, often difficult issues. At three different stages of the project, they were invited to take part in several different activities including taking photos, recording sounds and music, drawing the places they spent most of their time, designing their ideal homes, writing and recording their own songs and making a film about their experiences of transition. The participants told us (and their enthusiasm certainly suggested) that they really enjoyed using these methods. They further reported that the methods were fun; that they allowed them time to reflect on their personal situations; and that the focus on ‘doing’ activities in the interviews put them at greater ease than question and answer interviews. These methods also produced very rich data. We suggest that such methods could be employed in diverse practice areas to facilitate talk about difficult issues. The potential of these methods was also commented on by foster carers and keyworkers who found that the photos, sounds and music enabled them to begin to engage in conversations which the young people they looked after had previously avoided, or the carers had not known how to discuss.

Dylan's cat
Dylan’s cat

From a research perspective, these methods helped us to make connections we were very unlikely to have made in the context of a conventional interview without the visual or verbal prompts chosen by the respondents. In addition, the use of these methods transferred a degree of power to the participants who could decline to do any of the activities, and whose photos and sounds directed our discussions. While some participants struggled a little with technical aspects of the camera and sound recorder, several needed little instruction and went beyond the project instructions discovering film and editing functions.

A few respondents also used the equipment for their own purposes beyond the project. Channel, for example, took many photos connected to her friends to use in a college project.  All of the respondents were extremely happy to receive copies of their photos after the interviews and a number were especially grateful as they had so few photographs and no access to cameras.

There were several advantages of the visual methods used. Taking photos of people important to the participants often led to interesting perspectives on these relationships. Liz took a photo of a wrapped Christmas present and card to represent her younger brother. Through the ensuing conversation Liz told us about her relationship with this brother

Favourite object: my brother, Liz
Favourite object: my brother, Liz

‘I only see him once a month’, that’s why we really get on’.

As the discussion progressed, transitions in her brother’s living arrangements, and hence her reduced contact with him, also became apparent:

‘I dinnae ken where he lives. He just moved too, so, and .. I normally see him once every single month right, but I couldnae see him in November.. because November they were moving house’.

Looking at photos together in the interview also led to insights that would have been unlikely without these visual prompts. For example, Liz identified a tiny bike helmet as a memento of her first foster carers from eight years previously after being asked about its presence in a photo of her room. Channel’s answers to questions about objects visible in the photo of her aunt’s living room led to the realisation that this house (and the dog there) were particularly important to her as they had previously belonged to her late grandfather.

Channel. Aunt's dog
Channel. Aunt’s dog

The decoration of this room was also associated with her grandfather, and her photos of rooms she had decorated at her friend’s flat revealed that she had reproduced this colour scheme there. These insights gained through the use of photos further helped to understand Channel’s disarray on losing access to both these important places.

Channel's decoration of her friend's flat
Channel’s decoration of her friend’s flat

Sometimes the visual methods led to discussions of sounds. Dylan’s photo of a cat with a bell around its neck reflected both his feelings of insecurity in his flat but also his hatred of the silence there. Several respondents recorded silence; some as their favourite sound, others because it made them uncomfortable. Water was another commonly recorded favourite sound. For some, this related to a love of relaxing in hot baths. For Leah, rain falling outside created a sound of security and comfort and for Reggie, the sound of water generally or rain was both soothing and a reminder of the more natural life style he craved.