Photographing the ASEAN: Photovoice as a research method, Southeast Asia as visual culture

Former PhotoVoice Projects and Programme Assistant, Kristian Jeff Agustin shares with us his experience of running his own project in Manila during his time at the Vargas Museum (University of the Philipines) as a visiting research fellow from Hong Kong Baptist University.

When I visited London in September 2016 to participate in PhotoVoice’s acclaimed 3-day course, it was actually my second time on the course and both were facilitated by Liz Orton. However, this time I was more interested in photovoice as a research methodology (https://photovoice.org/academic-training/). Actually, many of us who attended that session were interested in using the photovoice method in academic research.

My research project is about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). As I am interested in how Southeast Asians perceive their ‘identity’ as members of the ASEAN, I conducted a four-month photovoice project with twelve participants from Manila. I invited them to ‘picture’ their identity as ASEAN citizens and take photographs that express how they feel about their so-called ‘regional community’. Perhapps, this approach could also be useful for EU citizens!

Since the ASEAN integration involves ten countries, the whole process involves a lot of negotiations. I'm afraid that some of these might only favour the majority; hence, instead of being a two-way process of giving and receiving, it can end up as a one-way process—especially for the minority. While the ‘majority rule’ is a standard practice, it doesn't change the fact that it proves unfair for the minority who could probably lose by only giving. © Beverly Lumbera / Photographing the ASEAN

Since the ASEAN integration involves ten countries, the whole process involves a lot of negotiations. I’m afraid that some of these might only favour the majority; hence, instead of being a two-way process of giving and receiving, it can end up as a one-way process—especially for the minority. While the ‘majority rule’ is a standard practice, it doesn’t change the fact that it proves unfair for the minority who could probably lose by only giving.
© Beverly Lumbera / Photographing the ASEAN

The results were very interesting. Most of the participants’ photographs showed not only their understanding of their identities as ASEAN citizens but also, their concerns regarding the challenges the ASEAN is now facing—50 years since its founding. Migration, politics, and poverty are some of the biggest issues that came out of the project.

ASEAN member countries face the same challenges, though in varying degrees. In this picture, the big truck did not even dare cross the road, which was flooded when the Agusan River swelled to alarming levels because of the heavy rains in January, yet the two kids braved the waters just to get to the other side.  © Detsy Uy / ACCORD / Photographing the ASEAN

ASEAN member countries face the same challenges, though in varying degrees. In this picture, the big truck did not even dare cross the road, which was flooded when the Agusan River swelled to alarming levels because of the heavy rains in January, yet the two kids braved the waters just to get to the other side.
© Detsy Uy / ACCORD / Photographing the ASEAN

Drawing from my experience of facilitating and managing previous PhotoVoice projects, I organised an open forum and a small ‘para-site’ exhibition at the Vargas Museum (http://vargasmuseum.upd.edu.ph) to give the participants a venue to interact with the public as well as showcase their photographs. Coinciding with the exhibition ‘Almost There’ (sponsored by the Japan Foundation Asia Centre), our public forum and exhibition attracted an international audience.

This is how I get home every day. I line up, hop onto a trike that I share with 3 other people (strangers), and get dropped off at an intersection near my home. There are no signs that mark this ‘trike terminal’. The only reason I found out about this ‘unofficial’ terminal is because a friend of mine who lives nearby showed it to me. This whole scene is how I see the ASEAN as a community: it is unofficial; others will probably only know about the community if they're nearby; and if there are any ‘ASEAN traditions or systems’ in place, it's most likely being done just so they can share the cost of the ride of heading towards the same direction. © Ginelle Petterson / Photographing the ASEAN

This is how I get home every day. I line up, hop onto a trike that I share with 3 other people (strangers), and get dropped off at an intersection near my home. There are no signs that mark this ‘trike terminal’. The only reason I found out about this ‘unofficial’ terminal is because a friend of mine who lives nearby showed it to me. This whole scene is how I see the ASEAN as a community: it is unofficial; others will probably only know about the community if they’re nearby; and if there are any ‘ASEAN traditions or systems’ in place, it’s most likely being done just so they can share the cost of the ride of heading towards the same direction.
© Ginelle Petterson / Photographing the ASEAN

After exhibiting the photographs culled from this project (which are still viewable at the Vargas Museum), my next step is to devise an approach to analyse the participants’ photographs and captions as part of my PhD research.

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