Developing capitals through a Photographic e-Narrative (PeN) project at a prisoner/ex-offender resettlement scheme (RS)
MID-CAREER FELLOW: September 2016 – August 2017
Julie Parsons

Julie has a first in Sociology from the University of the West of England (1994), an MSc in Sociology from the University of Bristol (1996) and a PhD (Sociology) from Plymouth University (2014). She has worked as a sociologist at Plymouth University since 1996, in a range of roles including Programme Manager for the MSc in Social Research (2010-14), Deputy Director for the Centre for Methodological Innovations (2013-16), Associate Head of School for Teaching and Learning (2014-15) and as a Sociology of Health and Illness Foundation Mildred Blaxter research fellow (2015-16).

Her research interests centre on social divisions and participatory approaches to research that give ‘voice’ to participants. To date this has been articulated through research that explores the intersectionalities of gender with class in the field of everyday foodways, narratives of weight loss surgery, photo-elicitation amongst users of a homeless centre and commensality (eating together around a table) as a tool for health, well-being, social inclusion and community resilience at a rural land-based prisoner resettlement scheme (RS).

Julie’s ISRF research fellowship will enable her to conduct a Photographic e-Narrative (PeN) pilot project with current and former prisoners (referred to as trainees) at a local RS. In order to foster a sense of social inclusion, the trainees will take photographs and develop narratives around these in order to engage with the wider community of supporters via a closed blog. The project aims are twofold, to work as a personal development tool for trainees, whilst fostering dialogue between trainees and supporters in order to challenge social exclusion.


In the interests of developing an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to the theory and practice of desistance, I aim to pilot a Photographic electronic Narrative (PeN) project with prisoners and ex-offenders (referred to as trainees) currently working at a rural land-based resettlement scheme (RS). The focus is on the interrelationship between forms of human, social and cultural capital in furthering pro-social aspirations and expectations. PeN is an innovative ‘photo-dialogue’ approach that draws on participatory action research (PAR) and a modified ‘photovoice’ technique. There are two inter-related aims of the PeN project, firstly to enable trainees to create a visual, self-reflexive narrative of their desistance (or resistance) journey and secondly to engage the wider community with this journey. The RS has 1000+ registered supporters, including a variety of volunteers and visitors who engage on a regular basis. The PeN will therefore work on two levels, firstly as a creative personal development tool, with trainees instructed in the use of digital cameras and basic photographic editing software. Secondly, photographs chosen by the trainees and discussed with the researcher will be uploaded onto a blog site for supporters, staff, volunteers and stakeholders. It is hoped that a meaningful dialogue will evolve across the blog and create references for supporters when they visit. There will be an exhibition of photographs at the annual supporters’ event in September 2017 and a PeN album produced for trainees on graduation, with the potential for contributions to continue beyond graduation from the RS. The PeN project incorporates, human, social and cultural capital models of desistance amongst a group with low literacy skills and encourages dialogue with the wider community. The project will be evaluated through focus groups and exit interviews with trainees and online questionnaires to supporters. A detailed ethnographic field journal will be kept throughout the study.

The Research Idea

The aim of the Photographic electronic Narrative (PeN) project is to empower prisoners/ex-offenders whose desistance journeys are rarely captured and to develop a dialogue with the wider community, in the interests of social sustainability and community resilience. PeN will engage trainees at a rural land based resettlement scheme (RS), in the use of digital cameras, alongside a supporter’s blog, as a means of capturing individual, reflexive, personal and creative developments. PeN draws on the Arts, Sociology, Desistance theories and Auto/ Biographical approaches (that stress the interconnectedness of self and other) to real-life problems. The RS is in its 3rd year, and provides a route for prisoners and those on licence back into the community. Trainees are recruited to the scheme for 6-9 months, preferably prior to release for ‘through the gate’ support and work with volunteers/staff skilled in green woodworking, carpentry, construction, landscaping, individual and collective art, cooking and horticulture. There are 1000+ registered supporters of the RS who invest time and/or money and who may engage with the RS through the daily community lunch, sales of produce at the gate and/or the annual ‘supporters’ day. PeN’s unique approach incorporates aspects of participatory action research (PAR) and ‘photovoice’. It is innovative in that trainees will construct narratives around their photographs and it is these that will give valuable insight into past/future aspirations in a safe and supportive environment. They will not be constrained by time or space but enabled to take ownership of their narratives through a creative and artistic endeavour.


Over the last decade, ‘alternative’ desistance theories have developed as a challenge to rehabilitation paradigms that focus on public risk and highly individualised psychological interventions (McNeill 2006, McNeill 2012, Owers 2011). They argue that the ‘problem’ of desistance is social as well as individual; it is not just a ‘private’ business (McNeil 2012). Also, that ‘softer emotions’, such as hope, aspiration and cultural belonging (Farrell et al 2010:555) are significant for change. The rehabilitation literature tends to centre on the need to improve human capital (capacities, training) (Sennett 2003) whilst for desistance theorists the focus is social capital (social networks) (McNeill, 2012). However, these positions neglect the interdependence of these forms of capital with economic (investments, savings) and cultural (personal tastes) capital (Bourdieu 1984). Indeed for an individual ‘habitus’ to change it needs to be exposed to a range of new experiences and environments in order to develop alternative dispositions, expectations and aspirations (Bourdieu 1984, Reay 2004). In this context the voices and experiences of prisoners/ex-offenders are vital in developing and building ‘plans for desistance at a personal and local level’ (McNeill 2012:13). Yet, there is a relative neglect of prisoner/ex-offender narratives in the desistance literature (Weaver and Weaver 2013:260) and they continue to be excluded from the co-production of knowledge on desistance work. The PeN project therefore makes a unique contribution to the field by empowering prisoners/ex-offenders, whilst capturing elements of human, social and cultural capital as trainees work towards gaining a ‘stake in conformity’ (McNeill and Weaver 2010:54).

The Focus

‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ is on the UK government’s political agenda, as reoffending as a whole costs the economy an estimated £13 billion (MoJ 2013). In light of these reforms the RS provides bespoke, continuity of ‘through the gate’ support, pre and post prison release, and has high voluntary sector involvement providing flexible and holistic approaches to working with prisoners/ex-offenders. Engagement is through activities that encourage the development of human, social and cultural capital expressed through for example woodwork training, social networks over lunch and/or exposure to cultural values through Art. Although, each desistance narrative is unique, it is often also ‘faltering, uncertain and punctuated by relapse’ (McNeill and Weaver 2010); it is not linear or predictable. It is argued that desistance is ‘perhaps best understood as part of the individual’s journey towards successful integration into the community’ (McNeill 2012:13). It is how prisoners/ ex-offenders understand and reflect on this journey that is pertinent, alongside the social recognition and acceptance of the reformed ex-offender by the community (McNeil 2012:18). Indeed, in moving from ‘offender’ to ‘non-offender’ identities, social reaction is important, the change in behaviour needs to be recognised by others and reflected back (McNeill and Weaver 2010). This is done on a daily basis at the RS between staff, volunteers and trainees and the PeN project will broaden this positive reinforcement and enable supporters to feel more involved. Further it will give voice to ‘a vilified, marginalised and excluded group’ (McNeil and Weaver 2010:28), whose personal journeys are rarely captured.

Theoretical Novelty

The PeN project is innovative in its aims and approach. It is novel in its aim to develop a ‘photo-dialogue’ technique that focuses on the trainees’ photographs as a means of eliciting reflexive narratives, which will then be used to engage and develop a dialogue with supporters. The supporters become co-contributors in the trainee’s desistance journeys, as they post comments on the blog, gain insight into what trainees ‘do’ at the resettlement scheme (RS) and develop dialogues directly with trainees when they visit. PeN will use a simplified version of PAR to involve trainees as active subjects and participants, who will work with the researcher and be involved in all decision-making processes (Minkler and Wallestein 2003). PeN draws on ‘photovoice’, which been used to give vulnerable groups access to artistic and creative methods of expression and build skills in disadvantaged communities (Wang et al 2000). However, PeN differs in that it is the ‘narratives’ trainees develop around the photographs that are important. Again, this is original as it stresses how narratives are always co-constructed and this contributes to the development of pro-social identities. Trainees at RS are coming from an environment of intense regulation and control as they are constantly under scrutiny and on guard in prison (Crewe and Bennett 2012). PeN will empower trainees to challenge the notion of ‘prisoners/ex-offenders’ as an homogenous group. Most significantly PeN enables trainees to take ownership of their desistance journey and this has the potential to continue after graduation from the RS.


PeN draws on the Arts, Sociology, Desistance theory, PAR and an Auto/Biographical approach to research. The photographs taken by trainees will form the basis of an on-going self-reflexive, ‘photo-dialogue’, with themselves, the researcher and wider community. For example, Frank, a 52-year old prisoner takes a photograph of a wooden tea caddy, ‘this is the first thing I’ve ever made’ he says and talks about his childhood. Another photograph 4 weeks in, a picture of an oak coffee table, ‘I’m going to make a long, low side table next for me Telly, for when I get out’. When reflecting on this photograph, he shows signs of developing positive aspirations for his life after prison. Many trainees have literacy issues, so keeping any sort of written Auto/Biographical account is problematic. Using a digital camera to document their time at the RS is an apt solution, as well as a useful social and practical skill. In taking part it may also increase their interest in improving literacy. The regular ‘photo-dialogue’ sessions between researcher and trainee will inform a regular fortnightly supporters blog of photographs and comments from the trainees. These photographic contributions from trainees will be encouraged beyond their graduation. There will be a photographic exhibition at the RS’s annual ‘Supporters’ day in September (2017) and a PeN album produced for each trainee on graduation from the scheme. Evaluation of PeN will be conducted through focus groups and exit interviews with the trainees and through an online questionnaire to supporters in July.

Work Plan

The PeN project aims:

  1. To enable trainees to create a visual, self-reflective narrative of their desistance journey at the Resettlement Scheme (RS).
  2. To engage the wider community with this journey through an online blog of photographs taken by the trainees.

October 2016

  • University Ethical approval.
  • Digital cameras purchased/distributed/kept on site.
  • Training, guidelines and rules drawn up in consultation with the trainees, staff and volunteers.
  • Blog site developed for launch in November.

November 2016 – July 2017

  • Trainee/researcher discuss photographs and agree which ones (if any) will be uploaded onto the blog and why.
  • Blog launched and updated every 2 weeks. Researcher writes comments and acts as gatekeeper under direction from trainees.
  • Regular one-to-one ‘photo dialogue’ sessions between trainees and researcher.
  • Researcher keeps an ethnographic field journal.
  • Analysis runs concurrently with data collection.
  • Photograph album produced for trainees on graduation.
  • Advice given on how to continue contributions to the photographic blog as ‘alumni’ (via the RS project co-coordinator).

July – September 2017

  • Evaluation through:
    • Focus groups and exit interviews with trainees as and when they leave the RS.
    • Questionnaires sent to staff, volunteers and visitors distributed online in July to ask if/how the blog was used/is useful, and if/how it could be improved.
    • September Supporters Day, Photographic exhibition of ‘key’ photographs from the trainees’ portfolios of work to date.
  • Dissemination:
    • BSA Annual conference (April 2017) and ESA 13th Annual Conference (August 2017)
    • Academic papers developed for Cultural Sociology, European Journal of Criminology and/or Probation Journal or similar.


In terms of the transforming resettlement agenda the PeN project aligns with a call for a more integrated and interdisciplinary approach to desistance. It is argued that resettlement needs to work across four areas; personal, social, judicial and moral (McNeill 2012, Owers 2011), the PeN project and its evaluation enables reflection on all of these aspects, including the moral philosophy and legal frameworks that currently maintain a ‘criminal’ status.

PeN as a tool for personal development has the potential to be adopted permanently by the RS if considered beneficial to the trainees and/or supporters. It will also be possible to roll the method out across other schemes. Desistance and resettlement are topical and any tools that are considered beneficial in aiding the desistance journey will be of interest.

The possibilities afforded by the use of PeN for social resettlement is also particularly pertinent and could contribute to social sustainability and community resilience debates.

The PeN project crosses interdisciplinary boundaries within and beyond the social sciences. It is a creative endeavour that reaches out to a social inclusion agenda for the Arts and builds human, social and cultural capital.

PeN can run longitudinally as ‘alumni’ continue to contribute photographs to the blog. Hence, it will be possible to follow some of the trainees beyond the end of their licences, when they usually disappear from the books of statutory agencies. The blog will be developed for this purpose, affording further insight into how trainees manage or otherwise beyond graduation from the RS.