Empowering, invasive or a little bit of both? A reflection on the use of visual and narrative methods in research with migrant sex workers in South Africa

Oliveira, E (2016) Empowering, Invasive, or a little bit of both: reflecting on the use of participatory visual and narrative research with marginalised groups in South Africa International Visual Studies Journal, 31(3) [DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1472586X.2016.1210992]

Although migration plays a critical role in the economic landscape of the world, government officials and researchers do not sufficiently include migration and/or migrants in research studies and development policies. In South Africa, many migrants – both internal and cross-border – engage in informal livelihood strategies, including sex work (see Richter et al. 2012). Currently, the bulk of research that is being conducted in South Africa in the areas of migration and sex work rely heavily on the use of traditional research approaches and focus mainly on concerns surrounding issues of public health, with increased attention to HIV (for example, see SANAC 2013; Scheibe, Drame and Shannon 2012; Scorgie et al. 2011). While this work is invaluable, there is a need for research that can counter the stigma that sex workers overwhelmingly face in light of HIV/AIDS.

Participatory visual and narrative research approaches – as part of mixed method study designs – that examine the lived experiences of migrant sex workers can provide important insights that ‘move beyond the polarized and simplistic arguments that have circulated in South African about migrant sex workers’ (Nyangairi and Palmary, 2014, 132). This methodological approach makes important and necessary contributions to national and international discourses on migration and sex work (see Oliveira and Vearey 2015). In addition, these methods provide a unique platform where the normative discourses that portray migrants as a homogenous vulnerable and apolitical group of people can be contested (Palmary 2006).

In this article, I present and discuss three participatory visual and narrative research projects that have been conducted with migrant men, women and transgender persons who sell sex in two provinces of South Africa and examine the suitability of these approaches.

About Elsa Oliveira

Elsa Oliveira is a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), Wits University, where she is also the co-coordinator of the MoVE (methods:visual:explore) project.

Since 2010, Elsa has been involved in a wide range of participatory arts-based projects with diverse migrant populations in rural and urban areas of South Africa. She has a PhD in Migration and Displacement and is interested in the areas of gender, migration, sexualities, wellbeing, and informal livelihood strategies.