A youth worker with a camera

This post is part of a series of personal reflections where I look back on past experiences to examine  my perception of good design.

1996: Chester Hill Neighbourhood Centre – Youth Worker

What I was doing: I was a social worker for a number of years before studying and practicing design. Even without the professional training, I had an interest in various forms of visual communication and could see the benefits of using these as a support tool for the social work that I was engaged in.

In my new role at the Chester Hill Neighbourhood Centre, I was responsible for establishing a youth program. A generalist service was required which included a drop-in centre and specific programs that dealt with relevant issues impacting local youth.

Visual communication was used to facilitate a connection with the young people attending the centre. Projects that we ran included:

  • A video project on youth violence where a group of young people from our centred collaborated with a group of young offenders from the local juvenile detention centre;
  • A photography project exploring the impact of alcohol;
  • A graffiti project where local youth ran a graffiti training workshop for the local police in an attempt to bridge the divide between the two groups.

What I was experiencing: My main focus was the social work and the visual communication tools seemed secondary to me. The initial use of photography and video, for instance, were as a result of access to equipment and my own personal interests in these media. The centre owned two video cameras and I had just purchased a Canon SLR. But the more I used these visual forms, the more I came to realise that they opened up communication on a level that differed to the traditional methods of program delivery.

I can best describe the significance of visual communication in this context through an example. We received funding from the Arts Council to run a project around the issue of Youth Violence. In collaboration with the local Juvenile Detention Centre we brought together a small group of young people, half from the detention centre and half from our youth centre, with the aim of instigating a dialogue on the issue. Under normal circumstances the three days we had to run the project would not have been long enough to build relationships and bridge the gap between these two groups of youth. To overcome this, we turned the focus onto the documentary making process.

The shift in focus delivered a number of benefits. It lifted all participants onto a level playing field – on the surface the project became about making a documentary rather than about who had committed an offence and why. The process of making a visual outcome, the documentary, created a framework through which the young people could explore the issue together and decide how it was to be represented. The interview process helped generate a dialogue between the participants. It only took half a day and a couple of boxes of pizza to get everyone to connect and talk through the issues. The process was the significant factor here. The planned final outcome, the documentary, was never made due to the fact that we had no experience in this area and had not obtained the appropriate releases. This did not matter so much though. The documentary as an outcome was secondary and the project was still deemed a success. It was the process that enabled the interaction between the stakeholders and led to the generation of a meaningful dialogue. The process of developing a visual language enabled us to talk about issues in a different way.

How I defined good design: At this stage of my career, I defined good design as a process that dissolved barriers and enabled new ways of seeing. Good design enabled connections within the community and facilitated social innovation and change.

Main influencers: My personal interest in photography was the initial driver for my use of visual communication as a support tool for my social work. I was interested in photojournalism and collected various magazines on the topic. I was attracted to its capacity to tell a story and believed it to be a powerful communication device. Despite the shallow level of knowledge I had in this area, my readings around photojournalism made me think about how the camera could support rendering the practitioner as invisible, challenging some of the power dynamics that exists in traditional workshop facilitation.

The process by which visual communication was used within my practice was informed by my experience as a social worker and by my studies in the behavioural sciences. My approach was human centred and, where possible, the practice moved forward in an iterative manner in response the participants’ contributions.

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