Photojournalist Julio Etchart describes a participatory photography project with foreign domestic workers in Singapore.
How it started
Shortly after my arrival in Singapore – to accompany my partner to her post-doctoral academic fellowship at the NTU university over here, I was offered a position as a visual journalist and research assistant at the National University of Singapore (NUS). I was tasked to facilitate participatory image-making workshops with foreign domestic workers (FDWs) and other migrant groups that come to this prosperous nation state in the hope of a better life and to send remittances to support their families back home.
This photovoice project was designed to compliment an ethnographic study lead by Prof. Mohan Dutta, director of the faculty of Communications and New Media at the NUS. The victim-centered approach relied on a series of advisory boards with the workers, and a small group of faculty researchers helped to facilitate the venture.
Who we are working with
We have been working with two different groups of FDWs:
– The first one is vulnerable women who had been abused and/or engaged in various types of disputes with their former employers. They were staying in sheltered accommodation provided by the Humanitarian Organization of Migration Economics (HOME), pending the resolution of their cases with the Ministry of Manpower.
-The second group is part of an ongoing project, and comprises ladies currently in employment and the meetings take place during their weekly day-off.
The main project goals have been:
a) To encourage confidence and self-development and to empower the participants to find their own voices through improved visual literacy and image-gathering skills.
b) To start changing perceptions and raising public awareness of the plight of foreign domestic workers in Singapore
The timeline of the project with the former group, 4-6 weeks, was kept deliberately short, since the participants had to be prepared to leave the country at very short notice due to their special status.
We had a total of 7 sessions, which included 3 advisory board meetings, 1 outshoot and a group visit to the NUS to make a video of a role-playing performance by the participants. They received an introduction to different genres of photography and to the basics of documentary image making. They were all loaned NUS point-and-shoot cameras and were given a variety of assignments to be completed during the course of each week. The sessions lasted around 2 hours each and run twice a week.
We had joint revision meetings, where they learned the principles of picture editing and were also asked to write short captions to support their choices. The outshoot was a walk around the local area, visiting Hindu, Chinese and Christian places of worship, during which the co-facilitators explained to the group the background to those religions and then shared lunch together.
After the third session, it was agreed that it would be useful to compliment the visual aspect with another form of participatory practice, namely reportage theatre and role-playing. We then got to work on a basic plot and script based on their own unfair and frustrating experiences of the recruitment in their home countries, the journey to Singapore and the attitudes of the agencies, employers and officials over here. We focused on the thorny issue of contracts, which was a theme that came across as a major topic of dissatisfaction during the advisory board discussions. After a rehearsal the group came to record the performance at the CNM studio at NUS, and discussed the results of the session.
We had one more advisory board meeting with them after that, and on the final day, we played them back the rough cuts of the video shot at NUS; they also filled a self-evaluation questionnaire, and were all presented with a certificate of completion of the course.
Judging by the quality and the range of the material produced by the participants in such a short period of time, and by the feedback provided by them in evaluation questionnaires, it was clear that various aspects of self-development goals were amply met during the course of the project. Those ranged from improved confidence in their abilities to communicate more effectively to a whole set of learning and social skills. They also helped to design the main message for a mass media campaign about their plight.
One of the main lessons from this experience is that it is important to keep other aspects of participatory practice in mind when designing a similar project. The role-playing / theatre session was an effective accompaniment to the visual skills learnt earlier and helped some members of the group to express their anxieties, frustrations and aspirations more comprehensibly.It was also evident that the practical and emotional support provided by the co-facilitators was essential to the success of the enterprise.
We have recently launched the mass media campaign, in conjunction with HOME and a consortium of like-minded NGOs to lobby parliament and public opinion in the wake of the anti-trafficking Bill recently presented to the state legislature.
The ladies informed all the visual materials, including TVC, bus-shelter ads, printed and social media, during the various advisory boards held during the duration of the project.
We have also produced a 20 min documentary, which can be viewed, along with their work, in the recently launched website: respectfdwrights.com
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[gdlr_heading tag=”h2″ size=”28px” color=”#ffffff”]To see more of Julio’s work, please visit http://www.julioetchart.com/. [/gdlr_heading]
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