1: Community versus External Voices?

Much of my professional consultancy work for international development agencies has focused on development of a pictorial participatory methodologies for community-led change. For more details of the GAMEchange participatory visual methodologies and implementation in different parts of the world see:

Focusing on visual communication potentially enables:

  • clarification of complex ideas and concepts
  • immediate and memorable communication
  • more information conveyed in a much smaller space and  time
  • resources accessible to all and more equal communication across inequalities of literacy and power
  • reduced need for 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 and between participants from communities and development agencies and governments.

Moreover, the potential of visual communication is likely to increase:

  • Rapidly growing numbers of men and women in rural as well as urban communities worldwide, particularly youth, now have smart phones and are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other national social networks.
  • The rapid spread of technology and cheap on-line software and apps potentially enable people in communities as well as staff in development organisations to produce visual information for learning and advocacy.

Women from Jamghoria Sevabrata tribal areas of India draw how they can solve problems with livestock.

Women from ANANDI, India draw their visions for women’s empowerment

Women coffee farmers in Bukonzo Joint, Uganda draw changes in decision-making

A man coffee farmer from GreenHome, Uganda explains challenges and actions on adultery and alcoholism.

A man coffee farmer from Uganda explains challenges and actions on adultery and alcoholism.

However communicating these community voices to people and a global audience who were not present or do not understand the language on video presents a number of challenges:

‘ the medium may not be the message’

Many of the drawings and role plays are very immediate and expressive – including drawings by people who never held a pen before. But the drawing style and content may be 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 – mean they often miss the deeper meanings and sophisticated analysis behind the drawings.

At the same time most graphic design and animation produced by and for development agencies is disconnected from the community level, often reliant on writing or verbal messages in international languages. This makes these messages ‘top down’ and externally imposed – even where people in the community might agree. It also means that the large numbers of people, particularly women, who have no formal education and do not speak majority languages are marginalised.

VisCom4Dev presents visual research and sources of inspiration in evolution of my own graphic and animation style as ‘creative translator’ of voices from specific participatory community workshops into animations for a wider audience beyond the immediate participants. Focusing on concepts of empowerment and gender justice from participatory workshops in Asia and Africa, I compare and discuss visual communication techniques employed in:

  • drawings and role plays by women and men from poor and marginalised communities – including people who cannot read and write.
  • inspiration from animators and film-makers producing powerful textless visual narratives with simple line, shape and image editing.
  • evolution of my own ‘creative translation’ and animation workflow to simplify and focus the visual communication process.

For analysis of Community Voices expressed in drawings and role plays about gender relations and women’s empowerment from participatory workshops See:

For analysis of ‘external voices’ from development agencies see:


  • What practical and ethical issues are involved in ‘creative visual translation’ of community voices by external actors?
  • What visual communication strategies do women and men in different communities use to represent empowerment and gender inequality? How far do the drawings speak for themselves? What needs translating, why and for whom?
  • What different visual, animation and narrative approaches used by graphic artists, animators and film-makers from different cultures could be used to help address these limitations?
  • What software workflows (physical sketching, tablet and pc software) are most manageable and effective for an independent creative translator?
  • What are the limitations of visual communication where text is needed? For whom?
  • What are the implications for a participatory protocol for creatively translating community voices for a wider global audiences?