Picturing consent: Using photographs in a visual consent form. By Jennifer Thompson
The Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Sierra Leone is a community-based conservation and eco-tourism initiative managed by the environmental NGO, the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA). I conducted my Master’s research in the Tiwai communities in 2008-2009 in collaboration with EFA. The study facilitated an intergenerational dialogue about conservation and development using photovoice, a participatory visual method, whereby research participants take photographs to represent their lives, experiences and priorities.
The ethical challenge:
As part of preparing my university ethics application, I needed to develop a consent form with an accessible format. Rural Sierra Leone is characterized by relatively low rates of literacy, so a written consent form was inappropriate. Oral consent was considered, however because there was no electricity in the research communities at the time and audio devices were not readily available, sharing an audio recording of the oral consent with participants would be difficult. I needed a consent tool that was low-tech, tangible, and accessible across a range of literacy levels.
It was important that participants received a copy of our agreement to work together that they could understand and refer back to throughout the project. The consent form was an important communication tool between myself, the NGO staff, and the research participants. The form could initiate a conversation about the implications of consenting to participate in the study, document roles and expectations across the research process, and ensure my accountability as a researcher.
As I was planning to use photovoice, using photographs in the consent form seemed like an appropriate way to approach the consent process. It also served to begin a dialogue about images. I was probably also influenced by my experiences working in primary schools in Canada with children with special needs. In this work, images were often used throughout the school day, as teaching instruments, as tools to engage learners, as visual cues for school activities, and as expressive tools for emotions.
I began by drafting an oral consent script for the project. I broke the main concepts, ideas and information into segments for which I could imagine a photograph. It was an iterative and creative process – the structure of the consent script shifted as ideas for possible photographs emerged.
In a previous internship in agricultural communities in Sierra Leone, I had noticed that paper resources were scarce. I therefore wanted to limit the visual consent form to one page. Part of breaking the consent script down into segments was balancing how many photographs could fit onto one page while maintaining clarity and readability.
I also decided to include some written words on the form. This decision was partly to help structure my thinking when making the form. Importantly, including written words helped to avoid making broad assumptions about participants’ literacy levels and provided an extra method of communication for participants. It had additional benefits of making the purpose of the form clear for the ethics review committee and provided a more concrete guide for my collaborators. The sections included in the form are found in Table 1 below. So that the images on the form reflected the local context, I worked with the EFA staff in Freetown and on Tiwai Island to take photographs for the form. Due to a tight budget, I photocopied the form in black and white. I did not have the opportunity to ask the research participants about the effectiveness of the consent form towards aiding understanding about the research process. I think the form provided a space for the research participants to visualize their potential participation in the project and ask questions about it. Many participants brought the form to each research workshop, and many kept the form – along with the photographs they took – as evidence of their participation in the project.
Contributed by: Jennifer Thompson, PhD candidate, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University, Canada.