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MoVE Projects and the public/private distinction

In this post I make some initial notes of a mechanism employed in various MoVE projects: namely, the interfacing of the social constructs of the public and the private.

How the public/private distinction was used in past projects

The first MoVE project I was involved in was titled Volume 44 and a key issue in many of the meetings between the Africa Center for Migration and Society and the Market Photo Workshop in the months leading up to the project workshops was around which images and stories produced in the project could be shared with an audience outside the project. These conversations, for the most part, were around ideas related to a distinction between what would be made public, and what should remain private. These conversations around the public and the private were generally held in relation to ideas around the anonymity and safety of participants, and their intellectual property in photographs and stories.

Since Volume 44, Elsa Oliveira and I have worked in collaboration on a few other projects, and we have continued to use this distinction, in part, as an organising principle in those projects. These projects were titled the Sex Worker Zine Project, the Sex Worker Poster Project, and Stitching our [HIV] Stories. The mechanism created through the interfacing of public/private has influenced the way the projects were designed, and allowed for productive conversations between participants-facilitators-researchers in the workshop environments. The notions of the public and the private have been useful, for instance, to help set the parameters of workshop environments in an instinctual, colloquial and metaphoric way. We speak to the participants about the workshop as a learning and reflecting encounter somewhat removed from the outside world, but one that eventually, through the workshop encounter, would produce something which would be for the eyes of the world outside of the workshop space. The ensured anonymity of the participants is the tool we use to be able to create this interface between public/private while we conduct the workshops, but also when we continue the project after the workshops. As facilitators of this public/private relationship, we strategise with participants on how to tell stories and share information with the outside world without compromising their own safety.

Freedom, KG Loo & Zazazi (2017) A selection of posters from the first workshop, The Sex Worker Poster Project, Nelspruit. | The participants who were involved in this workshop are Doe Doe, Duladula, Freedom, Kagee, KG Loo, Less31, My Baby, and Zazazi.

There are obvious differences in researchers coming into an area, and facilitating arts-based participatory workshops, and participants reflecting on aspects of their lives in a friendly space, yet remaining part of a highly stigmatised or brutalised community in their daily lives. As facilitator-researchers we may have a sensitivity to the participants’ lived realities, but we also have a largely peripheral relationship to the issues participants deal with in their lives: one mediated through the project. The projects, however, can create images and information which could place participants in potentially hazardous or precarious situations, situations which facilitator-researchers may not be able to support participants in. The MoVE projects I have been involved in, however, have always been partnered with Sisonke, a grassroots organisation which works with people who sell sex as a means of income. This organisation has a much different relationship to participants than facilitator-researchers can have. Sisonke has the capacity to be involved with participants’ everyday lives, and be involved in the specific challenges its members may face with police, healthcare, clients, and so forth. Since the MoVE projects are engineered in a large part by research interests, the productions that are created through these projects should be mediated through a layer of anonymity, even when those productions could support advocacy. This is important because even though the workshop can create learning opportunities, and moments for solidarity between participants, facilitator-researchers cannot support participants in the challenges they face in their daily lives in the same way Sisonke can.

This is not to say that the interfacing of public/private is a principle we introduce to the participants. Within Sisonke, for instance, it is used in marches when people cover their faces, or in interviews, when people request to remain anonymous. The advocacy training that many of the participants we work with have received through Sisonke, and the advocacy activities they are involved in through that organisation, means that many of our project participants already have a developed sense of speaking outwards towards a cause they believe in, if perhaps, highly influenced by Sisonke’s discourse. In projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project, the Sex Worker Poster Project, and Stitching our [HIV] Stories, in fact, we were aiming for more personalisation of public facing messages through the proliferation of contextualised stories and issues.

The ambiguity entailed in evoking “the public” and “the private”

While the distinction between the public and the private has been useful to guide our projects, these terms have slippery meanings and convoluted conceptual lineages, and they should be used with caution.

MoVE projects are certainly not the only projects in the world employing this distinction. According to Jeff Weintraub (1997), the distinction of the public and the private has a long history within Western thought, and has consistently been used to consider and order interaction in the world. In his essay titled The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction Weintraub takes stock of various approaches in recent decades to public/private in different fields. He introduces this essay with the following note:

In Norberto Bobbio’s useful phrase, the public/private distinction stands out as one of the “grand dichotomies” of Western thought, in the sense of a binary opposition that is used to subsume a wide range of other important distinctions and that attempts (more or less successfully) to dichotomize the social universe in a comprehensive and sharply demarcated way.

The reason this distinction has been so persistent, according to Weintraub, is that the base terms evoke imagery which are fundamental, yet analytically distinct organising principles. These two terms, as Weintraub shows, have taken various conceptual formulations within different contexts, and have consistently offered entry points to think about and formulate various social, political, moral, and everyday orderings.

The first fundamental image which the public/private distinction creates, according to Weintraub, makes a distinction between something seen and something unseen. It deals with what could be termed visibility:

What is hidden or withdrawn versus what is open, revealed, or accessible.

The second fundamental image, according to Weintraub, creates a distinction between the individual and groups of individuals, and deals with what could be termed collective:

What is individual, or pertains only to an individual, versus what is collective, or affects the interests of a collectively of individuals. This individual/collective distinction can, by extension, take the form of a distinction between part and whole (of some social collectively).

As Weintraub explains, these underlying criteria take different forms, configurations or combinations in specific cases: there is seldom a clear-cut separation between either principle.

This conception of the evocation of the public and the private is very much in tune with how we have been using the public/private distinction within the MoVE projects workshop environments in instinctual, colloquial, and metaphoric ways. However, as Weintraub suggests, an informal invocation of public and private as organising categories can create confusion, particularly in more formal and academic interactions. Weintraub writes:

Unfortunately, the widespread invocation of “public” and “private” as organizing categories is not usually informed by a careful consideration of the meaning and implications of the concepts themselves. And, even where there is sensitivity to these issues, those who draw on one or another version of the public/private distinction are rarely attentive to, or even clearly aware of, the wider range of alternative frameworks within which it is employed.

This confusion can occur precisely because there are so many possible frameworks through which to understand the underlying principles that constitute the public/private distinction. This is clear in the following extract from Weintraub’s essay:

The public/private distinction, in short, is not unitary, but protean. It comprises, not a single paired opposition, but a complex family of them, neither mutually reducible nor wholly unrelated. These different usages do not simply point to different phenomena; often they rest on different underlying images of the social world, are driven by different concerns, generate different problematics, and raise very different issues. It is all too common for these different fields of discourse to operate in mutual isolation, or to generate confusion (or absurdity) when their categories are casually or unreflectively blended. If the phenomena evoked by these different usages, and the issues they raise, were entirely disconnected, then it might not be terribly difficult to sort them out; but matters are not as simple as that, either. Rather, these discourses of public and private cover a variety of subjects that are analytically distinct and, at the same time, subtly-often confusingly-overlapping and intertwined.

Given the range of sometimes intertwining associations and discourses which can be evoked through the employment of the public and private distinction, these terms link to multiple concepts, exist in a complex field, and their usage should be well considered.

Identifying the need for sustained analysis of the public/private within MoVE projects

Although employing a public/private distinction could create confusion in the multiplicity of usages that these terms can relate to, or may reduce the complexity of aspects of lived experience which are much more malleable than the dichotomy entails, this mechanism works well enough to help produce the parameters of a workshop encounter for the participants-facilitators-researchers. For instance, there is a clear sense of a public audience in the artifacts that the participants made during the Sex Worker Zine Project, the Sex Worker Poster Project, and Stitching our [HIV] Stories projects, but one spoken through personalised, and contextualised messaging. Taking heed from Weintraub, however, these concepts are slippery, and they need careful consideration, and a cautious handling when they are employed conceptually.

An idea of interfacing public/private has been present in discussions regarding various MoVE projects for a long time, but to my knowledge there has not been an analysis of these terms’ meaning within MoVE projects. That such an analysis has not happened, however, should not be seen as a failure of the previous projects. Given the arts-based methodology that we follow, it is reasonable to not have all the answers when setting out on projects, or when completing workshops. Workshops and projects, as materially based, and contextually located thinking processes, always lead participants-facilitators-researchers to multiple questions and situations, the significance of which only becomes apparent over time. It is important to undertake an analysis of the meaning of the public and the private in the MoVE projects, however, because we have consistently been employing the mechanism created by the interfacing of public/private.

While such a sustained interrogation is outside the scope of my blog posts, in a future post, I will offer a conceptual formulation of the interfacing of public/private which moves beyond a dichotomy, and I believe, is useful and sensitive to the complexity of the contexts we work in.


Weintraub, J. (1997). The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction. In: J. Weintraub and K. Kumar, ed., Public and Private in Thought and Practice. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, pp.1-6.

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