Love and Truth in Arts-based Research


“Photography is not the truth, it poses itself as the truth, but its not.  It creates a fiction that we associate with the truth; therefore we believe in the photograph,” provoked John Fleetwood, the director of Photo, “how do we debunk that very simple understanding when we start participatory work?”

Fleetwood spoke of a contemporary condition in which the individual artist has faded, and that “artists are part of the community.” Even while photographs have both  “fragmentary and fictive qualities” there remain layers of ethical difficulties to deconstruct in their creation and use in research.

The #artsmethods 3 Symposium held on the 10th to 11th November at the Worker’s Museum, Newtown mined the unstable territory of images and ‘collaborative arts’, and the conditions of their creation.  Co-hosted by the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) of Wits University, and with support from the City of Johannesburg, the symposium brought together a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, civil society representatives and postgraduate students working in – and with – arts-based research projects.

Fleetwood’s gentle post-modern invective against the image recalled to me Susan Sontag’s musings on photography, that “to photograph people is to violate them”, but also that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”

In reflecting on the role of documentary art, one of the participant’s, a foreign national gay-identified young man, recalled his own sense of violation. An NGO had recorded documentary footage of him, promising it was only for internal use; he later found it shared on the internet.

Even if images lie, or tell partial truths, the lives they impact upon are real enough. What is it then to consent, to give one’s body, one’s story, over to the gaze – the film, the pen – of another?

The workshop inquired into these ambivalent zones of ethics, both inter-personal and institutional.

Deyana Thomas, Director of the Curriculum Development project, raised the importance of consent, particularly in workshop spaces, along with the fraught issue of ownership and copyright in collective contexts.

The issue of skewed power relations in collaborative engagements between researchers and social movements recurred throughout the discussion.

Haley McEwan of the Wits Institute for Diversity Studies raised the question of the history of “ethics.” Ethics in its bureaucratic form, she explained, had arisen out of a history of exploitative experimentation: the holocaust and the Tuskegee experiments in the USA where black subjects were denied syphilis treatment, even after its efficacy was apparent.

However, she argued, the history of ethics has been shaped by the health paradigm, but that this was also limited.

“In a context like this where we’re wanting to think about how to bring together activist practice and research practice in order to accomplish shared objectives around social justice, we need to expand the way we think about ethics.” McEwan stated.

“Within so-called vulnerable spaces you also have power, because of intersectionality,” she said, “because of gender differences, because of race difference, nationality, language, class, disability, ability, there is also an ethics around negotiating different kinds of vulnerabilities within spaces that research ethics don’t think there’s any power”

Following this intervention, Gabriel Khan, of the Sexual Diversity Rights Office, Hivos asked “what is an alternative ethical framework?” He questioned the assumption of vulnerability, marginality and the transparency of what social justice is.

Goitse Manthatha  – a doctoral fellow at the ACMS – argued that there is need for equal recognition in research partnerships.  She argued for the importance of having a clear idea of what the partnerships are based on, requiring, honesty, transparency, trust.

One of the international participants, Sara Kindon from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, citing the feminist scholar bell hooks, asked what the role of love is in research.

For hooks, love is central to social justice: As she writes in her book all about love: “When we love, we no longer allow our hearts to be held captive by fear. The desire to be powerful is rooted in the intensity of fear. Power gives us the illusion of having triumphed over fear, over our need for love.”

In a time of globalised fear, and the re-emergence of right wing and nationalist movements, the comment raised the importance of inter-personal care and fragility in the research process, about moving away from the detached, and sometimes violent, academic viewpoint.

The workshop found only tentative answers to the questions posed: Are researchers sufficiently engaging with social justice movements? Should consent be required of those with power and who operate publicly? Can the bureaucracy of ethics limit the political and transformative potential of research and art, and how can ethics committees address these concerns? How can more egalitarian relations be established in collaborative research?

Nonetheless the encounter between representatives of civil society-led social movements and university-based researchers revealed that there is a pressing need for reflection on the relationship between collaborative, or “participatory” arts research methodologies and movements for social justice.  These are issues explored within the MoVE:method:visual:explore project of the ACMS.

About Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is an Associate Researcher on the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, based at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).

Matthew holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, which was ethnographic study of HIV/AIDS treatment programmes to displaced communities in northern Uganda. Over the past five years he has conducting research in inner-city Johannesburg on themes of migration, religion, health and housing. He is beginning new research looking at African migration to Brazil.

Matthew has published widely in different books and journals including Medical Anthropology, Critical African Studies and the African Cities Reader, and a number of newspapers and journalistic publications including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Chimurenga Chronic and the ConMag. He is the lead editor of the book 'Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg' to published by Palgrave-MacMilllan.