VisCom4Dev explores ways of visually communicating empowerment and development visions, analyses and strategies of women and men in poor and marginalised communities – including people who cannot read and write – to influence those in positions of power in private sector, governments and development agencies. To promote more inclusive, equitable and transparent decision-making and policy.

How can community drawings of visions and strategies for empowerment be digitally ‘translated’ into powerful visual communication for advocacy in a way that ‘frees, transforms and multiplies rather than possesses, controls and defines’?

In particular:

  • How can tensions between ‘abusive fidelity’ and ‘professionalised distortion’ be addressed in different digitisation processes ?
  • How do the different media available for participatory workshops affect the types of meanings communicated and how they can be digitised? drawing media: pens/pencils, markers and paper in different colours etc, photography, collage?
  • Which wordless narrative design principles and techniques used by illustrators and animators can enhance visual communication for advocacy in a way that maintains community meanings and styles?
  • When is clarity empowering? When is flexibility/ambiguity better in ‘freeing, transforming and multiplying’? Is text necessary? If so for what, when and how?
  • Are ‘global translations’ possible? Or is there a need for a series of contextualised tailored translations for different audiences and cultures?

Why VisCom4Dev?

Much of my professional consultancy work has focused on development of a pictorial participatory methodology for community-led change: Participatory Action Learning for Sustainability (PALS) see my GAMEchangenetwork blog. Focusing on visual communication potentially enables:

  • clarification of complex ideas and concepts
  • more information to be conveyed in a much smaller space and  time
  • the resources to be accessible to all, promoting more equal communication and participation across barriers of literacy and power   inequalities
  • requires little or no translation across national and international language barriers

The outputs of these participatory pictorial processes have proved extremely powerful in terms of changing attitudes and behaviours of participants from communities and development agencies and governments.

Moreover, increasing numbers of men and women in rural as well as urban communities worldwide now have smart phones and are on Facebook, twitter, Instagram and other social networks, particularly youth. This opens up many new opportunities for large-scale low-cost mobile download of information on development issues by people in poor communities and rural areas. The rapid spread of technology and rapid growth in development of on-line apps and software potentially enable people in communities and staff in organisations to document and produce visual materials for other people at different levels of the processes they are involved in. However, despite the potential, there are currently some serious challenges:

  • ‘ the medium may not be the message’: many of the drawings and role plays around empowerment are very immediate and expressive – including drawings by people who never held a pen before. But the drawing style and content may be affected as much by local availability of particular media (pencils/biros/markers, lined/blank/coloured paper, role play props) The participatory workshops are also very time-constrained where the aim is empowerment of participants, not ‘effective’ design. This means that the visual outputs may not do full justice to the messages and meanings they represent.
  • ‘just pretty pictures by illiterates’: Visual outputs are rarely in a form that is easily communicated to people who were not participating in the process. A lot of the impact of the community-level imagery is lost because lack of visual literacy by people with formal education – ie those in power – who see just a lot of ‘pretty pictures by illiterates’.
  • top down ‘professional design’: there is currently a profound gap in development agencies between those who participate in and implement participatory processes on the ground and those who design ‘development messages’. Many visual materials produced for development agencies on empowerment and other topics are very standardised in appearance and simplistic in their messages. Their top-down (and often rather patronising) approach means that even important information risks being ignored. The most’professional’ design relies on written diagrams – often in English or French!
  • increasing exclusion of large numbers of of the most marginalised people – from minority ethnic groups, poorer backgrounds and many women – who cannot read and write and/or do not speak any of the major international languages.

VisCom4Dev explores different options for digitally ‘translating’ community-level drawings and narratives around complex concepts and communicating these outcomes for advocacy to a wider audience. See Assignment 1 Research Question and Plans.

The evolution and explanation of my research and thinking can be seen in the cumulative set of OCA Visual Research Assignments (top of right hand menu) that form the linking thread for this blog. It is hoped that bringing this information together on this blog may also inspire others to experiment further in their own work.

‘Translation Bricolage’

Empowerment itself is a highly contested concept and effective development processes require participation and negotiating diverse interests of different stakeholders with different skills and perspectives, and different power positions. I propose a ‘bricolage’ approach to theory and methodology that enables ‘translation’ of the conceptual complexities and differences between stakeholders at a practical level. See: Assignment 2: Theoretical and Methodological Frameworks.

Visualising empowerment

(forthcoming October 2019)

My exploration starts with visual review and analysis of drawings and role play photographs of empowerment and disempowerment from women and men in communities I have worked with. I consider how different visual styles and media affect how ‘meaning’ has been, or might be, interpreted in different contexts. Drawing on work of artists and illustrators like Tracy Emin, Michel Basquiat, David Shrigley, Eva Pienkovska, Marjan Satrapi and STIK, I develop a number of libraries of digital symbols in a range of graphic and cultural styles in Adobe Draw and Illustrator that communicate what participants said was the meaning of the original drawings and/or could visually communicate new meanings related to empowerment (eg vulnerability/confidence, tradition/change) See: Assignment 3: Gathering Data (forthcoming October 2019)

Telling empowerment stories

(forthcoming December 2019)

The second stage of my exploration looks at different ways of using the drawings and role play photos to create sequential and/or animated empowerment narratives of two different stories:

  • ‘Women’s empowerment’ = ‘Happy Families’? interactive game from line drawings by women and men at workshops in Baluchistan, NorthWest Frontier province and Lahore in Pakistan.
  • ‘Tupa tupa’ or where does the coffee money go? sequential narrative animation from photographs of a role play by men from a coffee cooperative in Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Empowering my neighbours video animation from video of role plays and drawings by women in Uganda

Drawing on wordless storytelling techniques used by comic and animation illustrators, particularly Matt Maden’s ’99 ways to tell a story’, I produce a series of contrasting narrative ‘translations’ in different graphic and narrative styles. I explore in detail the relative strengths and challenges of working and integrating Adobe Illustrator and/or Animate and/or After Effects in terms of their ability to reproduce and enhance the original community styles and meanings. See: Assignment 4: A Working Draft (forthcoming February 2020)

Participatory Visual Communication

(forthcoming September 2020)

The final part I bring together the conclusions, together with the visual work, theoretical questions and technical notes as an animated interactive on-line info-graphic as the new front page of this blog. It will be based on extensive dissemination and discussion of the different visual translations with people in communities and development agencies to see how they interprete the different visual and narrative styles and which they find most interesting/effective in communicating the original messages.

See: Assignment 5: Finalising your submission (forthcoming September 2020)