Reflect participatory tools

A wide range of participatory methodologies is used within a Reflect process to help create an open, democratic environment in which everyone is able to contribute.

Visualisation tools developed by the practitioners of PRA (participatory rural appraisal) are of particular importance and can provide a structure for the process. These include maps, calendars, matrices, rivers, trees and other diagrams. However, many other participatory methods and processes are also used, including theatre, role-play, song, dance, video and photography. New techniques are constantly being innovated.

How are the participatory methodologies used?

The group or facilitator will decide which tool is appropriate at any given time – and will adapt it accordingly. The tools provide initial structure to a Reflect process, to encourage discussion and so that people can develop their own learning materials, basing their analysis on the systematisation of their own knowledge. This respect for people’s own knowledge and experience is a powerful foundation for the Reflect approach to learning – one which builds on what people know rather than focusing on what they do not know. The idea of using participatory methodologies to ensure that people’s voices are heard equally, within a structured learning process and to analyse power dynamics, is integral to Reflect.

Risks in using participatory methodologies:

The big challenge is in how we use participatory methodologies – not in the fact that we use them. They must be seen as a catalyst rather than a substitute for debate and the tools should never become an end in themselves. If power relations are ignored there is the danger that they will be used in manipulative, extractive, inequitable and damaging ways. Reflect practitioners recognise that unless we are sensitive to power we will never be able to use such methods for a truly empowering, rights based approach, “Only with a deep awareness of power at all times and at all levels can we use participatory processes effectively.” Respecting people knowledge and experience as a starting point is of fundamental importance – but it is important not to romanticise this and restrict people to a local level analysis. Participatory methodologies should be used as a means to link micro to macro analysis.

Body Maps

“Using this tool really helps to discuss oneself. We build confidence together by talking about what we like and the things we like about ourselves.” – Reflect practitioner, Canada 

Why?  Body maps can be used to learn about and discuss the parts of the body and internal organs, as well as related issues such as health, nutrition and pregnancy. The body map can also be used to discuss abstract qualities; likes, dislikes, skills, emotions and characteristics.

When? Any time.

How?  Draw the outline of a person on a large sheet of paper. A quick way to do this is to ask one of the participants to volunteer to lie down on the floor and draw around them. Depending on the focus of the exercise, participants may then be asked fill in the names of parts of the body or internal organs. This is best done by writing or drawing on bits of card that can be moved around if necessary. Additional cards may then be introduced to to look at issues such as health, nutrition, pregnancy, etc.

If the body map is being used to discuss abstract notions such as qualities, skills or emotions, the participants will need to discuss how to place the cards – there will not necessarily be a correct position. For example, some may feel that a card representing fear would be best placed on the head while others might chose to place it on the stomach.

Examples from Practice:

“We were just starting a unit on health, and I wanted to use the body map to practise body parts . . . The students are all Muslim, so did not want to draw a body, so I just drew an outline. Fortunately they did not mind drawing body parts. Once we got underway it was hard to stop them. I had to keep cutting up more bits of card. We spent maybe half an hour either drawing the body parts or writing out the words and placing them on the outlines. I told them not to worry about spelling & we would work on that later. I was amazed and impressed at how many body parts they knew. At that level students often know far fewer body parts.

 After we finished putting the cards down we went through to compare the two different bodies we had produced, agree placement and drill pronunciation. We also checked spelling, putting accurate spellings on the board for any words misspelled or not written out (but put on the outline as a picture). This was done in a friendly supportive way (‘Who knows the spelling?’) not a ‘Look how many words are WRONG’ way, and it went quite well. The students then spent ages practising their spelling, and we ended with a spelling test.

It was a very productive and enjoyable activity. Students who tend to be very quiet and hard to draw out got just as involved as the others. The class is the next level up from absolute beginners, with quite a range of abilities.”

ESOL Tutor, Tower Hamlets College, London

Calendars and timelines

Time visualisation tools such as calendars and timelines can be used to track changes, document histories and processes or analyse routines. 

Why?  Time is an important dimension of most issues: looking at how something came about, learning from experience, or anticipating what might happen.  Many problems are experienced in a very immediate way – but responding to them effectively requires a long-term perspective, recognising the factors that led to the situation in order to ensure sustainable solutions.  Visualising these in the form of a calendar or timeline can be very effective. 

Examination of routine uses of time can clearly show differences in individuals’ patterns of work or behaviour, encouraging shared analysis, debate and in many cases assisting planning for change.

When?  A time dimension is useful in analysis of nearly any issue or situation, and can be introduced at any point.

How?  Three main graphics can be used to add a time dimension to analysis.  Calendars can be used to map and analyse seasonal patterns and variations, for example looking at workload during different times of year or price fluctuations, while timelines are an effective way of tracking changes in relation to a particular issue over time and predicting future events on the basis of past experience.  Both bring out powerfully associations between cause and effect, and can be used to improve planning and preparedness, looking ahead and determining, for example, small steps that, over a period of time, might add up to a large change. 

In contrast to the longer view of timelines, daily charts can help participants to focus on the micro use of time, allowing for shared analysis of patterns in work-load or behaviour.  Through highlighting differences, or convergences, in routine activities and duties, the charts are useful for encouraging debate of division of labour or opportunities for collaboration.  This type of individual graphic is particularly powerful when examining gender issues and power relations. 

As with any visualisation exercise, calendars and timelines should be used to deepen analysis of an issue arising from group discussion.  Common themes include agriculture, health, food security, income and gender relations, although a long-term perspective of any situation can be useful.  Depending on the issue or situation to be analysed, different units of time will be appropriate, whether hours, days, months, years or decades.  In some cases, this will relate to a specific period, and in others it will be general: months of the year or hours of the day.    

Once the time units have been determined, a basic calendar or timeline can be drawn up, with locally appropriate symbols used for the different units of time.  This can either be done individually or as a group.  Participants then place symbols or words representing relevant events in the appropriate place on the graphic.  If done as a group, the decisions of which events are relevant, and when they occur, may in itself be cause for revealing debate.  Group analysis and discussion of the resulting calendar can form the basis for drawing up strategies for coping with, or preventing, regularly occurring problems.

As a group builds up a series of calendars and timelines these can be compared to enable participants to observe interrelationships between apparently distinct events, such as changes in the local economy and patterns of disease.

Examples from practice:

Health Calendar

Health calendars were used in Nepal to provoke discussion of the causes of common illnesses on a seasonal basis.  Through completion of the calendar, considerable discussion was generated on why the illnesses were common, whether they changed from year to year, the causes which were or weren’t seasonal, how the illnesses were spread, how they could be prevented or reduced and how medicines or funerals could be better afforded or planned for. 

In Uganda hunger and abundance calendars were used to plot the availability of food and income through the year, to determine the times of year when there were serious shortages and the times of abundance.  The reasons for shortage were explored and discussion focused on survival strategies and ideas for improving them.  Ideas for action included introducing new crops, improving storage, bulk purchasing, cooperative selling, irrigation, income-generation projects etc.

Calendars and timelines have also been used in the following ways:

  • Gender workload calendars in Uganda
  • Cooperative history timelines in Honduras
  • Village history timelines in Bangladesh
  • Daily routines of boys and girls of different castes in India.

Chapati diagrams

This tool can be useful for exploring relationships between things – particularly the relative importance, influence or power of people, organisations or groups.

Why?  The analysis of power is central to Reflect. Chapati (or Venn) diagrams can be very helpful in structuring the analysis of complex dynamics or relationships between people, groups or organisations. They can also be used to explore the relative importance of different influences on a person or process.

When? At any time.

How?  Chapati diagrams are made up of a variety of circles, each representing a different actor or influence in a situation and sized and placed accordingly. Similar processes need to be followed as with the construction of other graphics: using movable objects for an initial, large scale version developed by the whole group; negotiating actors, sizes of circles and relationships between the group; and facilitating full discussion of the resulting graphic.

The following examples show how this type of graphic can be used to analyse power relations at family, community and national levels.

Personal power:  One powerful use of the chapati diagram (used for example in the Basque Country) involves individual participants drawing diagrams of power relations within their family when they were children. Each person in the family is represented by a circle, including the participant, and the relative power of each person is represented by the size of their circle.

The circles are then placed at different distances from each other to show the nature of relations between them, and lines or symbols added accordingly. Alternatively, the figures can be placed only in relation to the person making the diagram. When this is complete, each participant goes on to construct a second diagram illustrating power relations in their present home environment.  Discussion and sharing of stories might focus on why certain people were attributed significant power, how it felt to be powerless or powerful, whether patterns change across generations, and whether similarities can be drawn between families.

This same process can be used to analyse relationships between people in many other contexts, including the Reflect group itself, or the community in which it operates. In some Reflect training workshops a chapati diagram is constructed as part of the evaluation process to show the inter-personal power relations among participants and facilitators. These can be constructed individually and then shared/ analysed or a single diagram may seek to capture the consensus of the whole group (though conflict should not be avoided in the process).

Influences within the community:  Chapati diagrams can also be used to look at different power dynamics within and between groups and organisations. This type is constructed collectively by a group, starting with a large circle that represents the whole community. Circles of different sizes are then added: inside the main one to represent the relative importance of different organisations or groups within the community; and outside the main circle to represent external organisations with a presence or influence on the community.

This mapping of organisations can yield a rich analysis, helping participants to share information and opinions in a structured way and enabling them to see gaps or identify opportunities for change. The visualisation can be extended, for example to add different “values” to each organisation – indicating which are allies, which neutral and which are enemies – or by developing ‘ideal’ versions and exploring how to get there. As always there will be systematic discussion and analysis in the process of constructing such a graphic, and a further layer of discussion and analysis once it is complete and the whole picture can be seen.

Examples from practice: Reflect workshops have often included the construction of diagrams to analyse institutional power relations or the practice of power at national or international levels. The process of constructing these diagrams is often a useful way for participants with different perspectives to exchange views and achieve some form of understanding. The act of visualisation can help to crystallise key points of difference and encourage people towards common ground. 

Chapatis have also been used:

  • to analyse power relations between different castes in Indian villages;
  • to analyse changing power dynamics in Ireland at national level, looking at the roles of important players such as the church, the media, the government and the European Union.
  • to develop a campaign strategy for ActionAid’s education campaign, where different influences on education at international level, or at the level of participating countries, were mapped out to inform choice of advocacy targets and allies.

Flow diagrams

There are countless ways to use diagrams to help make sense of different processes or complex systems – to explore cause, effect and inter-connections.

Why? To help capture complex processes or systems in an image that can be analysed in its parts and as a whole – exploring, for example, how change in one element may have effects on others.

When? A basic level of literacy is helpful in using these tools as it is often difficult to represent all the information in a purely visual form.

How? Flow diagrams are a means to explore causal relationships between events – following the process as each event causes another event to occur and so on.  They are particularly helpful to identify negative cycles and actions which can break them.  Flow diagrams have been used in Reflect processes to analyse the impact of many issues, including conflict, deforestation, drought, girls’ education and road building.

To begin constructing a flow diagram, place a card representing the central theme in the middle of a large, empty area.  Participants can then start to identify the causes and effects of this phenomenon, making a card for each suggestion using words or symbols and placing it in relation to the central theme.  These might be of different colours to capture different categories or types of event.  It is essential to use moveable cards, as flow diagrams can get very complex with new connections identified during the process, leading to radical restructuring.  Threads of different colours can be used to make links with different meanings between cards.

The facilitator then urges participants to consider the effects of each effect (and if relevant the causes of each cause) and the flow diagram starts to expand. Each time a new card is laid attempts are made to link it to any others that are already there and gradually concentrations of cards are likely to occur around certain key cards.  At some point the group will have to decide to end the exercise, stepping back to review the overall picture and discuss where action or intervention might be most effective.

Process diagrams: Similar to a flow diagram, a process diagram shows different stages involved in a process. It can be elaborated to include many details such as roles, time or costs involved at each stage.  A process diagram might be constructed to analyse the steps involved in accessing a certain government scheme or entitlement, making a legal claim or producing something.

Process diagrams can be started at the beginning or at the end of a process:  for example it may start with a goal and work backwards to determine the steps necessary to achieve it; or it may start with the current situation and work forwards. Each stage is set out on a separate card, and the more detail that can be included the better, including the precise actions, those responsible for making them happen, times and dates, materials needed and so on.  The result is often an effective action plan.

Systems diagrams: Another similar diagram explores the interdependence of different elements within a system. It may be used to demystify how a specific government system such as social security works; how a household economy functions or how a small business or organisation works.

The aim is to map out roles, activities and outcomes within a given system, using the same technique of movable cards and links as described above.  Once the diagram is complete, questions can be asked about how to improve the system, where it is failing and what actions would most effectively change it and key points of leverage often become clearer.

Examples from practice: In Pakistan flow diagrams were developed to analyse the causes and effects of different traditional cultural practices. By laying these out clearly in a collective process participants could agree effective ways of changing certain deeply embedded but harmful cultural practices

In Ireland flow diagrams have been used to analyse the causes and effects of alienation and disillusion amongst young people.

In India a form of systems diagram has helped communities to map out their access and entitlements to different government schemes. In the process they demystified government bureaucracy and were able to expose examples of corruption or mismanagement.

Gestures and posture

Ways of exploring and analysing the largely unconscious world of communication through gestures and postures.

Why? Perhaps the most fundamental form of visual communication – indeed of all communication – is body language. This is a language which we have all learnt to speak and understand and yet it is so fundamental that we are often not conscious of it. The way we carry ourselves, the gestures we use and our facial expressions all communicate much more than we realise. No analysis of communication practices and power can be complete without giving some space for reflection on this.

When? Facilitators should be aware of the basic signals from participants gestures and postures from the start – as this will help them to identify ways of making people more comfortable or involved when their body language shows detachment. It is something that might be explored with all participants at any stage.

How? There are many dangers in exploring gestures and postures in a Reflect process. The last thing we need is for people to be taught how to comport themselves properly as if this was some kind of social finishing school which teaches people how to behave.  However, at the same time it is clear that this should be a legitimate area for analysis and reflection – and that it can give people new insights into both themselves and others that might be helpful for addressing power relationships.

Mapping postures: An easy place to start with this discussion is to ask the group to identify different postures that communicate clear meanings to them. People can be asked to exaggerate at first to make their point clear. Participants could take it in turns to adopt a posture with others guessing the intention or describing how they interpret it. This can be done with different basic positions -for example getting people to show different ways of sitting that send different messages to others -and then later different ways of standing. This can be extended by ask participants to adopt different postures in a simulated situation – such as at a community assembly or at a party. It is particularly interesting to overlay a power analysis on each posture identified – what does this posture say about this person’s status and power in this situation.

Mapping gestures: A similar process can be used to map out gestures – identifying as many different ways of using hands to communicate meaning – and again exploring the power dimensions of different gestures. As people practice doing this, more subtle gestures will be identified.

Mapping facial expressions: a similar process again can be done with facial expressions – trying to identify smaller and smaller changes. This process can involve a struggle to find the right language to distinguish differences.

Power pairing of gestures or postures: The power (or lack of power) of some postures or gestures is difficult to read alone. So, asking people in pairs to create a power tableau, conscious of gesture, posture and facial expression can add a new dimension to this analysis. Pair work can also explore how gesture and posture affect others eg in pairs asking one person to talk and the other to gaze around the room avoiding eye contact? How does that affect the talker?

Body sculptures: These can be done in various ways. One option is to have one or two scuptors who shape everyone else to build a composite image. This was done by ODEC in Oxford to explore racism within its own organisation. One person was asked to silently (or as silently as possible) sculpt the bodies of each person – including their facial expressions – to capture a specific dimension of racism.  An alternative is for everyone to participate in constructing a composite image of something. For example in a Reflect workshop in Pakistan groups were asked to build sculptures of different social issues – capturing, for example, the feudal order in rural areas.

Silence is in many respects the ultimate in communication. It can be used actively and subversively. It can scream louder than the loudest voice. It can be a complete inversion of the “culture of silence” as in the case of Susan, a Reflect participant in Uganda:

Susan would fall silent when she wanted to hint at something without saying  it. If, when asked about corruption or abuse of power by officials, she had actually spoken she would have been left open to counter-attack or revenge from officials. Silence in such contexts can actually add to the credibility of her unspoken accusation. In other situations Susan’s silences were openly disrespectful, aggressive silences which often succeeded in stopping a shouting adversary in his tracks.”

Marc Fiedrich 2001

Role-playing internalised oppression: Freire wrote much about people internalising their oppression. This is not just an abstract intellectual process but often a fundamentally physical process. Our social status and the oppressions we have internalised are embedded in our bodies – in the way we walk and move and sit – the way we assert ourselves physically or cower and submit. It is expressed not just individually but also socially – with women’s social status so often evident by their sheer physical presence (or, in a sense, relative absence), sitting behind men, walking behind men – their silence physicalised sometimes over many generations. Once an awareness of (or sensitivity to) gesture and posture has been generated, participants can be asked to identify examples of “internalised oppression” and to dramatise these in role plays were they also speak  but where the body language speaks louder than the words. After initially running a role play participants can be encouraged to re-enact the same situation with the aim of inverting the physical dynamics – asserting themselves and trying to challenge the physical dominance of the authority figure (eg finding ways of getting a  bureaucrat to move from behind their big desk). This is likely to generate humour – and may also generate some powerful insights. The power of silence!


Maps are an effective way of presenting local information, problems and opportunities in a clear, visual way.

Why? Maps can be used to present basic local information in a revealing new light and are a useful tool to structure analysis. A basic map of a local area can be overlaid with information on any pertinent local issue, such as social relations, public services, sources of livelihoods, or land use. Maps can be developed to show changes over the years or generations, and to anticipate changes or expectations for the future.

When? At any time. Maps can be particularly useful at the beginning of a process, helping the participants to look in more detail at their community, perhaps focusing on a particular aspect such as health, education or information services.

How? Maps and models are flexible tools and there are no definitive steps to the process. However, some key observations are useful.

Reflect participants construct a displacement map

Reflect participants construct a displacement map

Initially, a map should be created on a large scale on the floor or any large surface, so that all participants can actively contribute and clearly see what is going on. The first things to be put down should create a basic framework for the space. The community centre or college where the group meets could be used as a starting point, for example. Important features such as main roads and public buildings help people to orient themselves and therefore participate more actively. The group may wish to begin the exercise by taking a walk around the area to note key features they wish to represent and analyse.

Many different materials can be used to represent the various elements on the map. These could be anything that is easily available and easy to move, such as coloured card, pictures or photos, drawing pins, thread, sticky tape etc. The meanings of the symbols should be selected and agreed upon by the whole group – for example, a particular colour of card could represent residential housing and another might be used for public buildings such as libraries and schools. Movable objects are crucial, as everyone needs to be able to go back, change and add elements as the map develops. Less assertive participants find this particularly helpful.

Once all the physical things relevant to the purpose of the map are in place, more qualitative judgements can be considered, for example to indicate positive or negative perceptions of what is represented. Participants may chose to highlight their favourite places on a map or indicate problem areas, such as perceived ‘no-go’ areas, for example.

Then the group can reflect on the map as a whole, drawing out insights or conclusions to stimulate discussion. The completed map often enables people to see issues or phenomena in a new light – as they are removed from daily reality whilst simultaneously gaining new perspectives of it. In some cases the “real” map may then be used as a starting point for developing an “ideal” or “visioning” map, showing future changes, whether practical and achievable, or idealistic and visionary. In some cases such maps can become practical planning tools.

For the map to be recorded on paper or card, participants need to identify pictures, symbols or words with which to label key elements on the map. Once down on paper, participants may wish to make their own, smaller copies.

Examples from practice: Maps played a crucial role in the context of Reflect work in a national park in Peru with families who had colonised the park and were perceived to have a negative impact on the environment. Through participatory mapping, areas were specified where people could hunt, fish, farm or collect produce without causing any damage.

In Bolangir, India, maps were used to identify land which was supposed to be commonly owned, but had been encroached upon by wealthy people. In one case these encroachers were successfully expelled and the land given to homeless families, but in many other contexts the struggle for land continues. Physical structures are only one part of the map and the analysis of values is essential.  For example, one group in El Salvador were discussing the local football pitch, and while the men thought it was a positive asset, one woman said that it also represented danger, as one of her sons had been beaten up there and the games sometimes ended in violence.  

Mapping can be used in many ways as seen from the following which have been developed in different Reflect circles:

  • map of land tenancy / ownership and land reform in El Salvador
  • map of land mines in Mozambique
  • map of displacement and migration in Burundi
  • map of shifting land use over generations in India
  • map of government agencies and NGOs in Nicaragua
  • map of languages and literacies in Peru
  • map of office space in ActionAid UK
  • map of women’s mobility in Bangladesh.


A matrix can help to structure discussions on complex issue: usefully consolidating information and comparing items in a systematic, visual way.

Why? Most issues are complex and it is difficult for a facilitator to structure a serious discussion on them without getting sidetracked. As discussions get more detailed, the big picture can be lost. Matrices can help to ensure a systematic approach, in which all details are covered and the big picture becomes progressively clearer.

When? On any occasion when a complex, multi-dimensional issue arises, or there is a danger that discussions lose coherence. In some cultural contexts, such a logical approach may never be appropriate or useful.

How? A matrix is a table or graph which shows a set of elements across the top and another set of criteria or classifications down the side. Matrices can be constructed on almost any topic. They can be used to represent systematically the wealth of information or knowledge held in the group around a particular issue or topic. Alternatively, they can be given a stronger analytical role, where different elements or items are evaluated as they are entered onto the matrix. 

Matrices can be constructed to compare the value of different items or elements in a preference ranking, by placing the same list of items across the top and side axes of the table and comparing each pair of items. This exercise can then be deepened with analysis of the reasons given for preference of particular items, or simplified with a ranked list of preferences.

Examples from practice: In Bhola Island, Bangladesh, participants in all-women circles developed very detailed matrices about medicinal plants. Small pictures of all the plants identified locally were drawn and laid in a row across the top of the matrix, while all the common local illnesses were represented down the side.  Then a score out of 10 was given for the use of each herb in relation to each illness.  Each time a score was given there would be a debate about the value of the herb concerned, some women giving evidence or testimonies, others challenging them. By the end of the exercise, every woman had learned something new and key issues arose concerning medicinal plants and herbs.  The matrix was further developed by adding new criteria, such as availability, risks and dangers, and ease of preparation.  This type of matrix has also been used in India to analyse the qualities of different varieties of rice and other crops.

In El Salvador, a Reflect group used a matrix to analyse the effectiveness of different government agencies and NGOs working in their community. The names or logos of the different agencies were placed along the top, while criteria by which to judge them, chosen by participants, were placed down the side. The criteria included: level of efficiency; transparency; corruption; responsiveness to complaints; and attitudes to minorities. Each organisation was then judged against each criteria with examples offered in each case. The results and recommendations were shared with the agencies involved.

In Nicaragua, Reflect circles have used preference ranking to analyse local development priorities. Having listed all the different problems faced locally, each was compared to each other problem to determine which was most critical to resolve. One of the great advantages of this approach is that it made explicit the multiple criteria that people use, allowing discussion of the value of different criteria. The result was not a simple preference for one thing but rather a detailed assessment of each. This served as the basis for a second matrix which became a form of feasibility study of possible actions to address the key problems, itemising which were cheap or expensive, urgent or not, dependent on outsiders or not and so on. 

In Bolangir, India, participants track every action they identify as a result of discussions on a matrix, always including details of who will do what, when and at what cost, and tracking not just intended but also unintended outcomes.

Notes:  As with many visual tools, once the group has grasped the basic idea of a matrix, they can structure the discussion for themselves and the facilitator can take a back seat.  It is important to do all matrices on a large scale so that everyone can join in -and to use movable objects, symbols or cards so that new items, categories or criteria can be added and scores adjusted in relation to one another.  The matrix is only transferred to paper once complete.

Other uses of matrices / tables have included:

  • charts to record trends in the violation of different human rights in various communities of El Salvador;
  • a matrix to analyse trends in farming and the interests of different consumers in the UK;
  • a matrix on the diverse powers/responsibilities of different stakeholders in primary schools in Mozambique;
  • the viability of different livelihoods and coping strategies in Malawi.


There are various ways of using cameras to bring the
power of the photograph in to the Reflect process.

Why? Photographs have the ability to really grab our attention and get messages across quicker or with more impact than other means. Newspapers rely heavily on photographs to attract and keep their readers engaged. It is logical then that as part of their analysis of communication and power, Reflect participants should explore the power of photography and, where possible, experiment with using the medium.

When? At any stage

How? Effective work on photographs will include both taking pictures, and analysing their use by others. A set of pictures compiled by the group, or the facilitator, from newspapers, magazines, posters etc, can be used to stimulate critical discussion, in particular questioning the apparent neutrality of photographic images. Looking through the pictures, the group might think about why particular images are used, why they are effective, how the framing might be used to emphasise particular points, and what might be hidden, or out of shot.  Is this what our world really looks like?  

Provoking analysis through photographs:  Powerful work can be done with photos that capture local problems or contradictions.  A well-chosen photograph can enable people to see something everyday from a fresh perspective, with fresh eyes. Seeing something from a “distance” can actually be a means to see something more closely than ever before. This holds true even where the photograph has been taken by someone within the group. At first participants describe what they see and they are progressively asked to analyse the picture until they truly confront the issue and its role in their own lives. 

Introducing cameras: Cameras can be used in many ways within a Reflect process – and with the availability of cheap, disposable cameras it is now easier than ever. The main costs will probably be in the developing and printing of films, although sharing this information with the group can help people to focus their minds on the careful selection and use of images. As digital cameras become cheaper this process can be much easier to manage.

When first introducing cameras to the Reflect group it can be good to let participants take a range of photos without much direction or guidance. These images can then be subjected to the same critical questions used above, encouraging discussion of subject matter, framing and the qualities of a good photo.  Ground rules might be drawn up for future reference about what types of photo work best, the reasons for taking photos and when not to take a photo.

Using cameras for documentary purposes: Enabling participants to photograph their reality can be very powerful. This could be for the purposes of a local exhibition, which may aim to capture the everyday life of the community or a particular slice of life, for example parts of traditional culture that are being lost, or the world from a particular group’s perspective. The group then need to agree the range of photos to be taken and selected for exhibition. Captions may also be added to the photographs, requiring more negotiation. 

Using cameras for advoacy: Photography can also be a useful tool for advocacy work, taking evidence of people’s priorities or problems to those in power, to complement oral or written arguments. Posters showing key images, or mobile photography exhibitions can help to reach larger audiences and build mass support or awareness for a campaign.  A good photo can also increase the chances of getting an article published in a newspaper (and read!).

Examples from Practice:

The NGO Photo Voice have done remarkable work with Vietnamese street children, giving them cameras and basic guidance in how to use them – and then mounting exhibitions of their work to challenge attitudes and prejudices of others. At first kids took photos of themselves in fantasy settings – posing on parked motorbikes etc. However, they soon moved on. taking images of  personal significance which offered a real insight into their world. Each photo is analysed to explore – why was it taken? What do you think other people will see in it and what is its different significance for you? [see PLA Notes 39]

In Lesotho, Reflect facilitators are given cameras in order to record what is happening in their circle. They claim to have found this very empowering – as it enables them to document what is happening without having to write long reports.  It also helps them to reflect on a different media of communication and related issues:  what it means to have the power of framing a picture (what do you include and what not?) and the power of editing (which photos do you show and why?). 

Discussion of the photos can give great insight into the perceptions the facilitators have of their own circles and wider environments.

In Malawi Reflect trainers were given cameras to take photos of different literacy events or practices – to help them develop a sensitivity to the diverse ways in which literacy was used locally and the resources in the local environment  that could help reinforce the Reflect process.

Posters and logos

Images are an important part of the Reflect process, including  drawing by participants, picture books, posters, logos and symbols.

Why? Children almost invariably love to draw – but through years of schooling this activity is progressively devalued and marginalised until the only space they get to draw is with scribbles and doodles in the margins – something that becomes almost a subversive act. However, visual communication can be immensely powerful – transcending language, with an immediate and long-lasting impact. Most issues and stories, indeed almost any information or idea, can be captured in a drawing or series of drawings.

Therefore, even in situations where literacy is central to a Reflect process, we should promote the value and status of drawing as a parallel form of communication. We should celebrate the joy of drawing and encourage Reflect participants to develop and cultivate these skills for wider communication work.

When?  Any time.

How? There are many different ways of structuring and using visual communication. Here are a few examples of types and uses, but facilitators can be led by the skills and creativity in the group, which will often be stimulated or revealed by the pictures participants draw to illustrate or label different visualisations.

Logos and identity:  Almost every organisation now seeks to harness the power of branding  to construct an identity using some form of visual image or logo.  In fact, part of the strength and speed of the spread of the Reflect approach can be attributed to its powerful logo.  Logos can be developed or appropriated to express or explore identity and belonging. 

In the Basque Country, a Reflect group consciously used the power of the logo to reassert cultural identity. Using an existing symbol of Basque identity, participants branded a wide range of materials such as bags and badges.  The objects were used by people who strongly identified themselves as Basque.  This helped fellow Basque speakers to easily identify each other and speak to each other in the minority Basque language, rather than the usual Spanish. 

Posters:  There are many ways in which posters can be used: to announce or publicise events; to communicate core messages; to educate and inform; or to sell things. Most posters involve a mixture of pictures and text but they always contain a strong visual component. It is unsurprising then to find that some Reflect circles have decided to produce posters of their own – to take advantage of this powerful medium and spread their messages more widely.

In Cuzco, Peru, Reflect participants produced posters on the issue of domestic violence.  After discussion of the issue, they divided into small groups to each produce a poster : with photographs or drawings depicting the issues and slogans in both Quechua and Spanish calling for an end to the practice.  These were then combined to make a glossy printed poster with the slogan “Don’t let other women suffer how I have suffered” and calling for “Wasinchismanta qallarisun … peace in the home”.

In Burundi, reconciliation posters and calendars have been produced with peace messages for display in schools, homes and offices. In the first year the posters were designed by NGO staff, but it became clear that people often had difficulty interpreting the messages so now they are designed through close consultation with Reflect circles.  The posters link images to slogans derived from local proverbs, such as “shared roots – common destiny” or “without peace nothing will grow”. They are published in three languages – the local mother tongue Kirundi, French and English.

Picture Books: Booklets using pictures and diagrams to get key messages across can be a very important medium for disseminating information. For example, in Balangir, India, booklets have been produced about the rights of migrant workers – with everything communicated in pictures. In Sri Lanka, cards showing simple drawings of insects: colour-coding those who benefit farmers and those which are pests, have been developed and used to great effect. No amount of words could substitute for pictures in this context! In Uganda, participants have produced their own children’s books with strong visual images and words in their mother tongue, reproducing these on silk-screen printers.

Cultural designs and patterns: Cultural identity is often richly expressed through the diverse patterns and designs used in fabrics and cultural artefacts. Enabling participants to copy, adapt and transpose these patterns into new materials can help to reclaim identity or assert it in new ways through new media.


A river, constantly flowing and changing, is an image which people can use to map their own life experiences, or other ongoing processes.

Why? A river is a powerful symbol for many people and visualising any process in the form of a river can produce creative insights.  The most common use is for people to draw rivers representing the course of their own life – but many other uses are now emerging.   

When? Any time. Personal rivers can generate trust within a group, enabling participants to see each other as full and complex human beings.

How? The characteristics of a river: its changing width, current and direction as well as features such as whirlpools, islands, rapids, waterfalls and forks, can represent changes and events in our own histories. In richly illustrated rivers the surrounding landscape can represent the environment that forms us. If being used to map an individual’s personal journey, it will be constructed individually.  However, it might be used to represent the history of a community or organisation, in which case the process would be communal. 

Personal rivers: It is important to clarify that each person need only include in their river those events or situations which they feel comfortable to share with the group.  A useful way for people to focus is to sit quietly together with eyes closed while the facilitator prompts them to think silently about different moments in the course of their lives, from birth to the present moment, with suggestions or open questions.  Then each person draws the journey of his or her life in the form of a river, sometimes on larger sheets of paper and sometimes on the ground with locally available materials. 

When everyone has completed their river, they can discuss them in small groups with a facilitator.  Each person chooses the level of detail they wish to relate: they may wish to focus on a particular time or current, or take people briefly through the whole journey.  At the end of each person’s story, other participants can ask questions if they wish, always respecting the privacy of the person. 

The aim is not just to hear stories, but to find a link between our personal experiences and attitudes and the ways in which we are influenced by the environment in which we have grown up and live.  The facilitator may wish to direct discussion and analysis to consider issues of power and control, cause and effect, to draw out patterns or major influences.  Comparisons might be drawn between people of different social classes, cultural contexts, sexes or ages in order to uncover influences and analyse the environmental forces that shape us all.

Emotional support:  Since the experience of constructing and sharing our own rivers of life can be an emotional one, it is important to balance feelings of vulnerability with positive feedback.  Many trainers in Latin America use the ‘teddy bear’ technique to replenish participants with feelings of optimism and solidarity.   In this process, one person at a time faces away from the group while people mention the most positive qualities and values of that individual.  At the end of each round, the group hugs and/ or congratulates the person in question.  This process helps to bring the group closer together and encourages a feeling of identity within the group. 

Group Rivers: Where a river is used to map the turning points and key events in the history of an organisation or community, participants will work together, negotiating the points to be represented and the symbols to be used.  In this case, the process of constructing the image will in itself be the cause of much discussion and debate, as different perceptions of the significance of situations and events become apparent.  Where the exercise is done in small groups, feedback and discussion of the process should be facilitated. 

Examples from practice: In Honduras CNTC used rivers to enable Reflect circles to explore the history of their own local cooperative. The impact was dramatic, with the younger generation hearing powerful stories about the origins of their cooperative and the history of the local struggle for land and justice. 

In Recife, Brazil rivers have been used by Centro Josue de Castro in a more literal way with Reflect groups amongst freshwater fishing communities. They map out fish stocks at different times of the year in different parts of the river and the best way to catch different fish at different times. They have used these to analyse sustainable options facing the diverse groups entitled to access fishing resources locally. The image of a river has such powerful resonance for this group that they also use it to express their personal lives and to analyse the evolution of different local organisations / political struggles.

In the global Reflect conference in India in 1998 over 100 people constructed huge rivers on the beach in Puri to explore the evolution of the Reflect approach in different parts of the world, with some of the rivers running over a hundred feet and illustrating the different trends and movements that have links to Reflect, dating back over a hundred years.


As one of the most powerful means of communication, the variety of output of television should be critically analysed as part of a Reflect process.

Why? It is scarcely possible to exaggerate when talking about the power of television and how much it has transformed lives around the globe in the past fifty years. Any process that is concerned with communication and power must therefore give some time and space for reflection on television: what messages it transmits, to whom, and in whose benefit.  Furthermore, television can be a useful tool for learning.

When? Where the community has access to television, this might be an important element of the Reflect process.

How? Most of the time we let television wash over us as passive recipients, not questioning what is given to us.  If we can develop and maintain a critical perspective then the whole output of television can become a rich resource in unexpected ways.

The news: Many people are already cynical about television news programmes, recognising either censorship or political manipulation. However, even the cynical are often seduced as it is common for people to feel that the events they see with their own eyes on television must be true.  Asking a few simple questions can prompt people to question the neutrality or truth of such news: Why is this story the headline? Why is this in the news when something else is not? What are we not told? Whose opinion have we not heard? With what objective has this story been “framed”.

Soap operas: Around the world soap operas or ‘telenovelas’ attract huge audiences. Yet even their biggest fans will confess that the characters are stereotypes and the stories vulgar or unrealistic. However, these popular programmes can often provide a useful way in to examination of serious social issues.  (See examples in practice, below).

Advertising: Adverts are key to understanding the power of television, and the medium’s alliance to large commercial interests.  Furthemore, the more conscious we are of the ways in which advertisers manipulate us the more we might be able to make sensible choices in what we buy.  Discussion on the role, intention and impact of adverts can be structured by questions such as: What stereotypes are used? What are the tricks used to sell things? Who is being targeted? How are people seduced into identifying with products? Is there really any difference between advertised brands and non-branded, or cheaper, versions of the product?

Active engagement: The more people can contribute to making television for themselves the more its power can be demystified.  Making and editing a video yourself is a very effective way to understand the power of editing on television (see Participatory Video). And with the proliferation of local stations and cable TV it is increasingly possible for Reflect groups to get stories of local importance on to their television screens.  Links can be made with television news journalists, documentary makers, writers, drama producers or actors.  Almost any strong local story can be “sold” to television if you find the right hook, whether a connection to current affairs, a powerful human story or an interesting twist. Television reporters are always looking out for ways to illustrate their stories and their high-pressured production environment and timetables mean they will often leap on something if it arrives at the right moment and is presented to them in the right way.

In some cases, where there is good access to television, it may be appropriate to run “media training” sessions for those people who may go on television to be interviewed. It is important to be well-prepared, knowing the key points you wish to communicate and understanding the importance of eye-lines and speaking clearly, without being distracted or fidgeting.

Examples from practice: CENECA, an NGO in Santiago, Chile were keen to explore the phenomenon that some of the poorest viewers were addicted to the most absurd telenovelas, and the assumption that this was about escapism, fantasy or aspiration. 

Their analysis suggested otherwise. Although the material world of the soaps was far removed from the lives of the viewers, they found that  “conflicts on which the dramatic structure of the soaps are based were not far removed from the women’s lives: abandoned children, incestuous fathers, barriers to love and so on“.   Taking this as a starting point they made links to adult education groups and started to use particular characters and story lines to provoke serious debates on issues such as gender roles and relations. Almost invariably women made strong connections to their own lives.

The next step was to discuss which issues were never addressed in the soaps and why.  It became clear that “Family conflicts are presented in soaps, whereas economic ones are not“.  Finally the groups discussed the kind of conflicts that they would highlight if writing a soap themselves – and started to sketch out storylines. Through this process, the women moved “from passive and credulous to being selective and demanding.”  (See Literacy and Power, Archer and Costello 1990).


Why?  A tree is a universally recognised symbol with clear metaphorical meanings, which people can use to explore issues or processes from a new angle.

When? Tree graphics can be used in many situations and at any time.

How? The various elements of a tree working together in a cycle are a basic metaphor for almost any situation to be analysed: 

  • – The trunk usually symbolises the situation to be studied;
  • – The roots represent inputs, whether that be causes of a situation, past events leading up to it, or things necessary for its existence, or income;
  • – The branches are the consequences or outputs of the situation, or expenditure;
  • – Fruits may be added to represent possible solutions or actions.

The first time that the technique is used, it might be useful for the group to study a real tree and discuss its various parts and how these could be used to discover, compare and analyse an aspect of community or family life.  The group then finds a place to ‘plant’ their tree, developing the image using locally available, symbolic and movable objects.

Once the basic idea has been established, participants can develop their analysis in rich directions, often with much artistic expression, representing complex connections and relationships in a relatively simple image.  As long as participants develop the image in consultation with each other, it will be linked to a serious structured discussion about the situation being addressed – of the causes and effects of what we are studying, of implications and comparisons. 

In practice, participants often continue the metaphor to add other elements to the tree, such as:

  • – threats or limitations to a situation represented by weeds, fungus or pests;
  • – fundamental damage or major risks shown for example as lightening;
  • – environmental factors, such as the quality of the soil, nutrients that can be added, or the climate;
  • – different living creatures in the tree whether positive or negative forces, within or outside of the participants’ control.

Analysis of the full tree highlights the fact that problems cannot be addressed by concentrating on the branches, or effects, alone – the roots are key.  Participants might consider whether the resulting tree is sustainable, or whether the weight of all the branches and fruit is too much for the roots to bear.   Finally, the image is copied onto flipchart paper so that a permanent record remains of the work and the collective conclusions.

Examples from Practice:  In Bolivia, the tree is used to explore family relations and identity, with all present members as branches and the different levels of roots representing the ancestors – layered in their depth in the soil according to how far back they go.  This image of personal continuity and change is then used to discuss, amongst other things, the languages spoken by different generations and local history.

In the Save the Children guide to education advocacy, they suggest using a tree to plan a campaign.  In this case, the roots represent the resources available to the campaign: the allies, opportunities, networks, money and capacity.  The branches are planned activities and the fruits are the desired outcomes.  The higher the fruits are placed on the tree, the longer term the projected achievement.  Participants are then encouraged to trace links from the roots to the fruits.

In India, Yakshi used the dual images of a healthy tree and an unhealthy tree to encourage analysis of health issues. The healthy tree illustrated the factors that promote good health (as roots) and the consequences of good health (as branches), whilst the unhealthy tree showed how poverty, poor diet and addiction fed into a negative cycle and led to social breakdown.

Other uses of trees have included:

  • – the analysis of household income and expenditure in Ghana
  • – the causes and effects of conflict in Liberia
  • – the causes and effects of HIV/AIDS in Uganda
  • – the roots and features of the traveller community’s cultural identity in Ireland.


This involves participants making a video themselves, focusing on
 an issue that is relevant to them at that time.

Why?  Video is a powerful means of communication, and can be a very effective way of presenting the voices of the marginalized directly to people with influence.  With good planning, video can present complex issues with dramatic effect.  However, close attention must be paid to the power dynamics involved in the planning, filming and editing processes.

When? Participatory video can be used to take a relevant local issue to wider audiences, including policy makers, or to explore power issues involved in putting together films. However, it requires considerable investment and time, not least in equipment and training.  If the group intend their video to be used as a campaigning tool it is also likely that they will need access to editing facilities.

How? There are many stages to the process of putting together a video, as highlighted below.  Where the necessary equipment and training is available, Reflect participants can do everything themselves, but where this is not possible strong editorial control should be negotiated and retained within the group.

… identify resources: In many countries there are organisations that support participatory video and a first step might be to invite them to link up with Reflect groups. In other cases organisations using Reflect may have basic equipment themselves.

… train:  Technical training of one or two weeks should be held either with  selected participants from across different Reflect circles or intensively within one circle, before they are given control over the equipment.

… decide a theme and audience:  The theme or objective of, and audience for, the video are likely to arise organically from wider discussions taking place in the circle.  However, they will need to be explicitly stated early on, to give clear focus and direction to the group.

… preparation: Before actually shooting, it is important to develop a basic structure using a simple visual storyboard showing the different parts of the story in sequence.  This can be a good collaborative activity and helps to ensure a strong, clear narrative structure. In some cases if may be inappropriate to pre-determine what will be said and instead the video-makers  should remain open-minded about the outcomes of interviews and explorations.

… filming:  Once the structure and tone have been decided, the scenes need to be put on film.  Since video is primarily a visual tool, things need to be shown, not only talked about, with plenty of practical examples shown.  Language should not be too abstract: short, direct messages work best on video.

… editing: Any video will need editing and it may not be possible for this process to be as collaborative as the design and filming. It is important to recognise and compensate for the power that lies with the editors.  Many decisions are made at the editing desk about the tone and substance of the message – so it is important that participants are represented in the editing team to ensure that the overall meaning of a video is not changed. 

Even such things as the choice of background music can have a big impact. 

… local screening: Before a wider public screening or targeted use of the video with decision makers, the video should be shown to the group or local community where it was made.  This local screening should be followed by critical discussion and suggestions for changes or improvements (whether for immediate changes, if this is viable, or as recommendations for the future).

Video can become an alternative media – as it did for MOMUPO, the urban women’s movement in Chile:

When official TV arrives in our communities we are simple adornments of the propaganda of the mayor. When foreign TV arrives it only shows the misery or the poverty. But we want to show the beauty as well – the beauty of our lives


Examples from practice: In Bangladesh, ActionAid and Worldview coordinated a participatory video project with excellent results.  28 people from four communities were trained on participatory video production, and returned to their communities to make a video on a subject of their own choosing, with a television and video unit set up in a rickshaw.  One group chose to document the crisis in local schools.  They secretly filmed the local teacher arriving late day after day while the children sat around waiting aimlessly. Finally they confronted the teacher on camera, forcing him to change his behaviour.  Word spread to neighbouring villages and soon all local teachers were arriving on time, worried that they would be caught on camera and lose their jobs.  Another group filmed the unhygienic practices of the butcher in the local market and showed the tape on their mobile television unit in the market square, prompting action to force the butcher to improve hygiene. Several of the videos produced in Bangladesh were also shown nationally, contributing to existing national campaigns.    

In Peru, Reflect groups have produced video slots for broadcast on local TV while in Tanzania a video was produced to campaign against illegal fishing: people rushed to give testimonies, keen for the opportunity to talk directly and unmediated to decision-makers.

… advocacy: The video might be used to relay messages and the voices of the poor and marginalised directly to decision makers.  In this case, it can be very powerful to video any follow-up discussion and screen it back to the community.