Collaborating with & exhibiting youth: reflections on process

Paula Meth

(Above: Image of Pretty, photographed by Mark Lewis, South Africa)

Meaningful collaboration with youth was a key methodological principle for our wider research project focused on youth and the work/housing nexus in Ethiopia and South Africa. The project also presented various opportunities to exhibit images of the youth and their homes, and their voices and experiences, using visual and oral technologies. How these events played out, their collaborative capacity & their significance is however up for debate.

This blog reflects on the multidimensional processes of collaboration, as they unfolded across different geographic contexts throughout the project. It then considers the art and practice of ‘exhibiting youth’, reflecting on sharing or using youths’ voices, imagery and experiences to underpin different exhibition platforms where audience, timing, and budget varied significantly. Questions of 'curatorial authority' are used to critically reflect on what is exhibited, and how much of a 'political voice' this can generate. 

(Above: Hawassa Industrial Park, Ethiopia, photographed by Paula Meth)


Our project focused on youths' lives within urban Ethiopia and South Africa. Both contexts have relatively powerful and interventionist governments operating within a ‘developmentalist’ framework. Two urban centres, Hawassa (Ethiopia) and greater Ekangala (South Africa) formed the cases. Hawassa has benefitted from recent investment in urban employment through the Hawassa Industrial Park (see the image above). However an historic absence of investment in housing in the city has produced an accommodation crisis for many, particularly youth who struggle with low wages and high unemployment levels. Many resort to renting small or shared rooms.   

(Above: Thabo in Ekangala, South Africa, photographed by Mark Lewis)

In contrast, South Africa’s expansive programme of state housing has benefitted many residents within greater Ekangala. Numerous youth have indirectly secured access to housing through a family beneficiary, or have been able to construct backyard shacks on the fairly substantial plots or adjacent informal settlements (see image of Thabo above). However, greater Ekangala has a declining industrial labour market, evidenced by the struggling Ekandustria industrial park. The area has significant mobility challenges and has limited employment opportunities. We sought to understand how youth, as young adults, navigated the work/housing nexus in each context.

The project drew on a range of planned methods which prioritised multiple and longitudinal engagements and training. Life history interviews with a small sample of 28 youth participants were conducted with youth sharing their experiences about accessing education and work, their housing situations, and plans for their lives. The youth participants also collaborated with our teams to develop surveys, debating appropriate questions and focus. They advanced their survey skills (including receiving training in research ethics and data collection techniques). Working as ‘peer researchers’, the 28 youth each surveyed a further 20 youth in their neighbourhoods, to broaden our sample of insights.  Stakeholder interviews in both urban contexts were also conducted. Plans for youth to travel between Ethiopia and South Africa were thwarted by the global pandemic, but most of the project's proposed methods were achieved despite the challenging circumstances.

Visual & oral sites of collaboration as a project highlight

All 28 youth were then provided with media training, technical support and invitations to collaborate on the production of media outputs of their choice. Through these outputs youth were able to advance their life history interview content and develop individual and creative responses to how they wanted their stories to be articulated and shared. 

The Hawassan team collaborated with colleagues from their university’s Journalism Department and the 15 youth participants to produce podcasts. These were ultimately broadcast on local radio, as shown in the image below on the left.  In Ekangala, 13 youth participants worked with the Them Again Collective who provided diverse training. They were encouraged to produce various outputs including poetry, song, video, and story-books (see the image on the right of Innocent's beautifully illustrated story-book produced by Them Again Collective). 

(Most of the youths' media outputs are available on the online exhibition - discussed below). 

(Above: Local radio station with broadcaster and project team member Dr Eshetayehu Kinfu (white shirt), Hawassa)

(Above: Them Again Collective staff training South African youth participants)

Youth in both Ekangala and Hawassa were also encouraged to submit images of themselves (e.g. selfies or images taken by professionals or friends), and images from their workplaces or homes to enhance our understanding of their work / housing nexus. 

In South Africa, the Them Again Collective used collaboratively produced portraiture of the youth to advance positive representations of the youth – a process which they enjoyed enormously.

(Images above left to right: Thabo, Frank and Bheki from Ekangala, photographed by Them Again Collective; Eden from Hawassa, photographed by a private photographer; and Henock from Hawassa's selfie of himself, showing his small room.)

In March 2022, the Ethiopian youth were invited to attend a local stakeholder’s workshop in Hawassa, including senior government officials, NGO representatives and academics. Youth worked collaboratively to identify their own key priorities (relating to their life challenges and aspirations for the future, and what they wanted from government in order to support their achievement of these).  Rekik, one of the female youth participants, presented these priorities to the audience. Various media outputs, including a video produced by Gedeon, one of the Hawassan youth participants was screened. The local research team noted how emotional the experience was for many involved. 

The force of youth’s stories at this event led to a request for a further stakeholder event (held in September 2022) with an even more senior set of attendees, including national government ministers, the city mayor, local politicians and academics. We argue here that this direct ‘exhibitioning’ of youths’ priorities produced a form of ‘political listening’ (Fairey, 2018 after Bickford, 1996) where youth were able to “claim narrative authority” and to “frame [their voices in a way] that [found]  listeners” (Fairey, 2018: 113). This more political outcome was aspired to in our project, but we hadn’t assumed it could be achieved.

(Left: Rekik, a youth participant from Hawassa presenting the Ethiopian youths' collaboratively identified shared priorities).

(Above: South African youth discussing their priorities / Right: Frank, one of the South African youth participants, presenting their priorities)

In contrast, in June 2022 a stakeholder workshop in Tshwane South Africa struggled to secure the attendance of key government leadership, although a senior community leader, a business leader and senior community social worker did attend, alongside staff from Harambee, a national social enterprise working closely with government on Youth unemployment. Youth enthusiastically and collaboratively articulated their priorities for their lives (focusing on challenges, achievements and aspirations) through mutual workshopping. These were presented to a thinner audience, meaning negligible ‘political listening’ was secured. Despite this, the event was powerful for the youth and the project team, including the Ethiopian researchers who were also in attendance. Exhibiting some of the early media outputs (a song by Pretty and & Frank's video) was certainly emotional and exciting.

Capturing youths’ lives: crafting exhibits

In the final few months of the project, we had the opportunity to extend our visual & oral engagement with the youth as funding from the UK's ESRC Festival of Social Science for a public-facing Sheffield-based exhibition emerged as an appealing opportunity. But here collaboration as previously conceived shifted. We turned to capturing youths’ lives through the crafting of exhibition materials. We hired local professionals (Mark Lewis in Johannesburg and Liben Gollo in Hawassa) to photograph youth and their homes. The resultant images enhanced our existing data significantly, but represented more ‘gritty youth realities’. Ultimately they served our research framings which were focused more often on narratives of hardship, loss of privacy and poor housing options.

One planned exhibition turned into four events, and as we neared their opening dates, we rushed to meet production deadlines for images, videos, songs, QR codes, poetry & stories. Here rapid-fire decisions were made by one or more team members reflecting our ‘curatorial frameworks’, financial resources & time constraints. In Ethiopia, the videos being produced drew on still images alongside wording from youths’ podcasts. Youth were invited to comment on the productions. Much of the South African collaboration had occurred earlier. Final decisions on image selection were taken exclusively by the project team but images and captions were vetted by the youth. Mixed youth involvement in these processes is evident, with the team ultimately “shaping visual stories to attract targeted audiences” (Fairey, 2018: 116).

(Left: Bezawit's bedroom in Hawassa photographed by Liben Gollo)

Youth on display: ‘Curatorial authority’

As noted above, prior to the opening of the exhibitions, the second higher level stakeholder event was held in Hawassa in September 2022. Again, the same female youth participant, Rekik, fed back on 'Youth Priorities' to the audience. 

As the materials for the forthcoming exhibition in the UK were nearly ready, we also played Pretty’s song and displayed Thabo’s poem set to his own guitar music. This was a useful (but selective) mechanism to introduce the largely Ethiopian audience to some of the South African youths' lives. 

(Right: most of the Youth Futures project team at the workshop in Hawassa, September, 2022)

A few weeks later in Sheffield, UK we opened a substantial exhibition at the Sheffield Winter Garden in the city centre, funded by the ESRC Festival of Social Science and supported by the University's public engagement team. Targeting the general public (including young children), the overarching tone was meaningful (sharing experiences of young people living in very different parts of the world) but somewhat muted, relaying relatively “apolitical frames” (Fairey, 2018: 114). Skirting over very distressing details and avoiding substantive critique of either government achieved the required neutrality deemed necessary for the particular public location.  

We recreated Henock's bedroom (he was one of the Ethiopian youth participants) to illustrate space constraints in Hawassan housing. We used QR codes to direct audiences to much of the online oral material, including Thabo’s poem. We also produced a full online version of this exhibition, which has proven a powerful platform to share oral & visual outputs e.g. Pretty’s song. Here, professional production, curatorial and software frameworks dominated how the media outputs were exhibited. The online platform also has strong circulatory power via social media and good longevity, but youths' weak access to mobile data, reduces their engagement with this platform.

(Left: The Sheffield Exhibition illustrating display boards and the recreated bedroom, photographed by Paula Meth)

At the same time in Ekangala in South Africa a matching exhibition (filmed by Them Again Collective) took place showcasing the media outputs and photographic material to youth participants’ families and friends. Intended government engagement was only realised following a room double booking, where a government representative just happened to be at the venue at the right time. This outcome occurred despite significant efforts by the South African team to enthuse government representatives to attend! A few days later, a parallel exhibition opened at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg offering a more analytical take on the material, geared towards a largely academic audience. The South African youth participants were all set to attend this event, but localised flooding grounded their vehicle, preventing their travel to Johannesburg. They were however able to attend a few days later, and really enjoyed visiting the university and participating in a city bus tour.

Finally, in April 2023, the physical exhibits in Sheffield were given another in-person airing at a conference with a very global but more exclusively academic audience.

Concluding thoughts 

This blog has detailed varied forms of hearing & seeing directly & indirectly from youth, noting undulations in collaboration. It reflects on the realities of embedding meaningful collaboration more firmly at particular moments in the process, including important workshops and events where youth were able to jointly articulate their life priorities for themselves. However, this blog recognises how our curatorial authority, particularly in relation to our later project events, ultimately shaped the art of exhibiting and thus how youths’ voices were heard and who was able to listen. An important insight that we gained through this process was that in order to effectively capture the attention of stakeholders (to achieve impact), ‘who’ is presenting matters to how listening unfolds - hearing directly from youth proved critical. Finally, the project produced a significant amount of interaction and engagement across the youth within each country, and the project teams. We observed that youth listening to each other mattered too, as noted by Bheki (one of the South African youth participants): “It’s like I need more [of the project]... When we are all together, I can think better and learn from you guys and other young people” (Bheki, SA).

This blog was written by Paula Meth (the Principal Investigator), based on a presentation delivered at ECAS 2023 authored by Paula Meth, Sarah Charlton, Eshetayehu Kinfu and Margot Rubin.