When Collaboration Stops and Vulnerability Takes Power: Intentions and Unexpected Outcomes in a Participatory Project of Visual Methods with Sex Workers in Ethiopia
Ida Sabelis, Lorraine Nencel, Bisrate Markos
We will sue you if you dare publish our pictures! – we will not agree to have you, and the organization, and the project profit, and not us.
This sentence summarizes the feelings of a group of sex workers, members of a self-led sex workers organization in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, some time after we finalized a participatory visual methods workshop. It expresses the feelings of this group with whom we were aiming to produce a photo exhibition about their daily lives. Until then, we assumed the project had gone relatively well. We present this case to reach fuller understanding of what went wrong. We review the steps we took, dig out our blinds spots, and ultimately connect and confront our findings to question the assumptions of ‘participatory visual methods’ concerning their potential to empower and produce reflexive spaces. It will become clear that, while the methods were appreciated and enjoyed, the difficulties experienced were partly due to the high degree of (self) stigmatization and vulnerability the sex workers experienced in their lives. These daily lived experienced are entangled in the context and contingencies of sex work in Ethiopia, sex workers’ position within the NGO world, and the objectives of our “participatory” project. Hence, in analysing what went wrong, we critically question, on the one hand the relationship between participatory visual methods, “empowerment” and stigmatization/marginalization; and on the other hand ethically consider which dimensions favour, and which impede visual methods in current day fieldwork studies.
 fieldnotes IS – 09-2016.