“What makes you happy?” – Participatory Photography with an indigenous group in Namibia

The original article was published on the photovoice.org website, on the 8th of February 2018: https://photovoice.org/what-makes-you-happy-participatory-photography-with-an-indigenous-group-in-namibia/

As I used participatory photography with the Khwe San in Namibia quite successfully, I wrote the short blog post below to the PhotoVoice, a UK based charity that uses ethical photography to promote positive social change.

The Article:

Happiness, or in broader term well-being, can be defined as “the experience of joy and contentment combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile” (Sonja Lyubomirsky). This is one definition among many as well-being is not something universal: it is a deeply personal and culturally diverse phenomenon. In a research setting, when you are interested in someone’s perception and experience of their own well-being, a simple semi-structured interview will not be able to capture the depth and complexity of it. However, a picture is worth a thousand words…

I am conducting my PhD studies in Namibia, working with the Khwe San people who live under unique circumstances. The traditional land of the Khwe hunter-gatherer tribe was proclaimed as a game reserve in the 1960s. The level of protection increased over the years and the reserve was declared a National Park in 2006. The Khwe people are still allowed to reside inside the Park; however, they are now settled into villages and face restrictions on hunting and gathering. Many of them still possess a vast amount of knowledge about the bush – knowing the edible plants, identifying and tracking wild animals, curing with bush medicine. Meanwhile, external interventions arrived in rapid fashion – in the form of nature conservation, formal education and various development programmes. Through my research, I wanted to shed some light on how these interventions are impacting the well-being and the traditional knowledge of the local people. As you can imagine, this is not a straightforward mission: first, we need to understand what ‘well-being’ means for the Khwe. Based on the extended scientific literature on participatory photography and using the PhotoVoice Training Manual, we came up with a slightly modified version of the PhotoVoice method to try and answer the question posed above.

With my research partner, we conducted photovoice sessions in three villages involving 24 participants so far. Each photovoice session lasted just seven days, much shorter than usual photovoice sessions so as to adjust the method to the local setting – in this case: (1) Even though the people are settled in villages, they still have itchy feet for traveling and are constantly on the move between villages; (2) Twice a month – on payday and pension day – people get together and enjoy the money while it lasts; (3) abuse of alcohol and fighting also occurs regularly; (4) electricity is unavailable, so it is difficult to charge camera batteries. Hence timing and duration of the sessions was crucial.

One photovoice session consists of a full day’s training and discussion about communication, camera-usage and well-being, followed by three day’s of capturing photos answering the question: “What makes you happy?”. Afterwards, we record the stories behind the photos through individual interviews. We finish off the last day with a group discussion and poster activity.

Although the research and the analysis of the photos is still ongoing, some overall trends can already be observed. The vast majority of photos were taken of food, especially food from the bush. This suggests a strong attachment to foraging activities, even though, hunting and gathering are restricted in the Park. Another common theme was related to traditional practices like basket and tool making, using thatching grass, hunting and gathering tools. Khwe people seem to be proud of their culture and regard traditional knowledge and practices as an important source of their happiness. The social aspect of well-being was also prominent among the photos. Kinship, family ties and common group activities playing a vital role in both survival and entertainment.

Apart from acquiring valuable research data, my personal highlight was seeing the smiles and pride of the Khwe participants. In the smallest village with only 60 inhabitants, people told us: “I never knew you will come and teach me how to take photos. Nobody ever came to our village and sit down with us providing training”. Another participant reflected on the final output: “Now that the poster is ready, I will take it to the school, so that our children can learn the important plants from the bush even at the school”. Further photovoice sessions with the Khwe are already underway, with detailed analysis and research reports coming later this year. The photovoice method proved to be a great tool for the research as well as a truly empowering experience for the Khwe.