"Survivors’ Voices, Stories, and Images”: A Case Study
“Survivors’ Voices, Stories and Images: Survivor-Led Empowerment through Ethical Story-Telling and Participatory Photography” was a collaboration between the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, HAART Kenya, Azadi, and Worldreader. It was funded by a grant from the AHRC-funded GCRF Network+ Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network.
The project was co-designed with survivor-leaders, and developed to empower survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery to express their experiences through ethical storytelling and participatory photography. A core aim was to create new ways of creating, recording and disseminating ethically-produced narratives and imagery from survivors.
Through a series of supported workshops, experts from HAART and Azadi taught and encouraged survivors to share their experiences through writing, with a core output being the production of stories (fictional and non-fictional) which would be freely accessible throughout the world on the WorldReader platform. Alongside the story-telling workshops was a visual component in which survivors were taught participatory photography techniques in order to be able to produce images that could accompany their stories, and be used for other purposes.
These workshops were originally to be carried out in person by experts from HAART and Azadi in Kenya. However, once the Covid-19 pandemic hit and countries around the world entered lockdown from early 2020, conducting face-to-face workshops was no longer a possibility. The project was amended and workshops, one-to-one mental health assessment, and individual feedback sessions were run online. These took place via smartphones, on Zoom, and were supported by WhatsApp groups.
How the project worked
The planned methods for delivering workshops in a safe and ethical manner, and realising the project’s aims were adapted to suit participants’, and researchers’, lived realities during the pandemic, and ensure we abided by relevant government guidance and law.
Notable adaptations included:
Using technology to facilitate remote working
Initially, we planned just to suspend the whole project. However, survivors reached out to researchers in Kenya asking for the project to go ahead for a variety of reasons. Thus, we co-developed a plan for running the planned activities remotely, through various kinds of software and technology to which the participants would have access.
We elected to use smartphones for three reasons. Firstly, they were much more accessible than laptops or desktop computers, and could be used in a variety of situations, as well as only need mobile data (rather than WiFi or a hard-line connection) to connect to the internet. Secondly, because participants were more likely to be familiar with smartphones than with other internet-connected technology (like laptops or desktop computers). Thirdly, because – through HAART and Azadi’s partnership with a separate project, funded by Walk Free, in collaboration with Survivor Alliance – we could ensure that all participants would have a smartphone that had a camera. We re-purposed some funds already earmarked for the workshops to pay for data bundles for the smartphones.
Once we had elected to use smartphones, we ensured that our participatory photography lead expert and the participants had enough time to learn about the phone’s camera. The phones were then pre-installed with apps and software that would be needed throughout the project, including Google Meet, Zoom, WPS Reader, Google Drive, email (gmail), and WhatsApp.
An email address for the project was created for each participant to have their own email address which was pseudonymised, meaning there would be no inadvertent revelation of participants’ real identities.
Zoom was chosen as the principal video-calling software. Participants preferred its easy interface, and crucially, its function to allow participants to change their own name (and to do this before they logged onto a call). This allowed the survivors to play an active role in the protection of their identities and privacy while they were involved in the project. To further project identities, we adopted the practice of everyone using initials of their own choosing during workshops and video calls.
One-to-one sessions with a trained therapist and local experts supported survivors throughout the workshops to ensure wellbeing. These were conducted over Googlemeet using the gmail addresses set up for participants as part of the project. This software made document sharing (e.g. of consent forms and information sheets) possible, unlike Zoom (at the time).
Group size and increased one-to-one sessions
The 16 survivor-participants were split into three groups based on geographic proximity to each other. This was done because there was a chance that pandemic-related restrictions in Kenya would allow for some safe informal meeting of participants (and possibly, some in-person workshops before the end of the project), which would be easier if they were located near to each other. It was also done because participants living in the same region might be more likely to have similar experiences during the pandemic, for which the group might provide some useful community support.
WhatsApp groups were set up on this basis, which participants reported as generating a sense of friendship and community, a support network where they could informally ask questions related to the research outside of the more formal workshops. Using Whatsapp was better than using “chat” function on Zoom because this is not available post- or pre-call. It was also better than using gmail because it is designed as a “chat” software, and is less formal, and more user-friendly, than using the “reply-all” function in email.
As the project progressed, as well as lively chat in the Whatsapp group chats, there were more one-to-one conversations via WhatsApp between participants and experts than anticipated. This exposed the need to adjust work-plans (and funding) for researchers. In in-person large-group events, there is space and opportunity for facilitators to have one-to-one conversations with participants while the group as a whole is engaged on a particular task. This proved almost impossible to recreate in an online environment, and had to be replaced with conversations outside the workshops.
Obtaining consent remotely
Many participants did not have access to technology (eg a laptop or desktop attached to a printer) that would allow them to physically sign the paperwork for obtaining informed consent in a traditional manner – ie having a manually-signed “hard” paper copy.
Procedures were adapted for securing informed consent online through one-to-one phone, Google Meet, and Whatsapp conversations with a trained counsellor, and WhatsApp group discussions among participants and researchers. Consent forms and information sheets were shared digitally.
Multiple approaches to securing consent were taken, depending on the technology available to the researcher and to the participants. One way was that participants typed ‘I consent’ into chat boxes in Goodlemeet after being informed about the project, after which a screenshot was taken and saved securely. Another was that participants were also recorded in phones calls stating their name and that they consented. (Where this necessarily included their real name, steps were taken to ensure only relevant researchers in Kenya had access to this information, and it could not be inadvertently shared with anyone else, to preserve the participants anonymity.)
Photographs taken on phones were backed up by the participatory photography lead onto a Google Drive that only she had access to, to minimise access by others. We were keen that participants retained control over the photographs, and should only share with other researchers on the team, and other participants in the project, images they had decided they wanted to share. (We continue to secure informed consent for each instance of sharing images, eg in online or physical exhibitions.)
The final copies of images and stories were shared with the Rights Lab team via Microsoft Teams, Google Drive, and the Microsoft One Drive. All files were anonymised or pseudonymised, with some participants choosing different pseudonyms for different tasks.
Adapting to running our project remotely took time, thought, and planning. However, it had many positive outcomes (not least that the project could go ahead, even in a pandemic, as desired by project participants). Bearing in mind the core principles underlying ethical research (around ensuring participants have given their properly informed consent, doing no harm, and securing anonymity where necessary – as it was for our participants), we were able to adapt traditional procedures and conduct the research remotely in a robustly ethical fashion.