Abstract: Spaces in between: Representing Complex Narratives with Collage Portraiture (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Spaces in between: Representing Complex Narratives with Collage Portraiture

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Paula Gerstenblatt, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME
Diane McDaniel Rhodes, PhD, Lecturer, University of Texas at Austin

Empirical data and methods do the heavy lifting of informing and measuring. Post-modern, post-colonial, and feminist epistemologies concerned with dislodging authority and elevating oppressed voices have long challenged traditional methods. Arts-based methods, recognized for use in clinical intervention, are powerful tools in analysis, theory building, and representing complex narratives. Visual arts practice, drama, music, and creative writing have the ability to liberate one from sometimes stifling etiquette and give access to meanings and feelings important to gain deeper understanding not available in written transcripts. The combination of images with text, maps, and archival data in collaboration between researcher and participant serve to strike at a different emotional and intellectual level.

Collage and portraiture are two distinct methods of inquiry and analysis; however, combining collage with portraiture is not a new approach in the fine arts. While qualitative researchers assuming either of these positions are deeply involved in the process, the researcher who creates an art piece to represent informants’ narratives must deftly strike a balance between their personal creative expressions, discretion, and attending to the voices they are representing. A solid philosophical framework is necessary to ensure arts-based methods are part of research as opposed to art for art’s sake. Collage portraiture has the potential to support and enliven the analysis of otherwise dry and detached interview data, thus producing new knowledge and interpretation.

Combining the roles of artist and researcher in a formal process, examples of collage portraiture from several studies will be presented.


The examples include a narrative study of African American women who participated in an art installation, an auto-ethnography about the consequence of community practice, a narrative about the slave trade centered on slave castles in Ghana, and a series of collage portraits about gentrification using photographs, text from interviews, archival documents, and painted images. The methodological framework:

  1. Listening to the interview
  2. Typing the notes and printing them out in large font
  3. Cutting portions of the text to place on the collage
  4. Selecting images
  5. Arranging text, photographic images and archival documents
  6. Identifying the themes as they emerge
  7. Applying color, texture, hand drawn imagery, and words
  8. Continually refer back to notes and transcripts, making additions of text and as needed


As part of the larger continuum of arts-based research, collage portraits hold promise to inform qualitative research by expanding the breadth and depth of voices contributing to the knowledge base. By including participants in a method that results in a piece of art they can later view, perhaps even own or have copies of, an invitation is extended to be an active part of the process. Participants may be more willing to engage and dialog about sensitive and important issues that researchers need a more authentic and diverse understanding of. The more versatile and innovative qualitative research becomes in capturing the experiences of those we seek to understand, the stronger our position to facilitate dialog and interventions that further a more just, inclusive, and responsive society.