Exploring one’s past experiences through collage making (by Emmanouela Tisizi)

When I was in the first year of my doctoral studies at McGill University, I took a research methods course that largely shaped my understanding of qualitative research. In this course, we examined a number of methodological approaches to qualitative research in dialogue with one another. That is, instead of presenting each approach in isolation, the instructor took the time to explain how each approach was created as a response to previous methodologies. The instructor’s conscious choice to structure the course in this way helped us understand the evolution of qualitative research and familiarized us with broader debates on qualitative and quantitative research. As a graduate student, I appreciated this, as I find that a common problem with research methods courses is that their focus tends to be either too broad (covering too many approaches, and not going in depth), or too narrow (focusing on merely one approach and losing the greater picture). 

Some of the approaches that we studied as part of this course were constant comparison, phenomenology, narrative inquiry, poetic inquiry, visual methodologies, and performative inquiry. While I was excited to enrich my understanding of all these approaches, I was particularly interested in visual methodologies, and more specifically, I was intrigued by the potential of collage making as a method of analysis. Collage making is substantially different from other forms of visual art, as it is fragmented and aims to “repurpose objects to contextualize multiple realities” (Gerstenblatt, 2013, p. 295). It was this possibility of using and reusing objects to create alternative realities and challenge the idea of a singular truth that resonated with me, and inspired me to delve into collage making. I felt empowered in that I could create a multilayered art piece that would ideally communicate the depth and complexity of my thoughts and feelings on a given issue, while at the same time allowing itself to be interpreted by others, who could share my thoughts, build on them, or refute them altogether.

Collage making is unique in that it can serve as a way of reflecting on past experiences, eliciting nuanced understandings about these experiences, and conceptualizing ideas (Butler-Kisber & Poldma, 2010). Of course, working, reworking, interpreting, and reinterpreting collage is not an easy task. It soon became clear that there is a distinct line between using collage for the sake of art and using it as a method of analysis (Barone & Eisner, 1997); for collage to be used as a method of analysis, it needs to be accompanied by a theoretical framework. Despite having read and heard about its strengths, I had to actually practice collage making to realize its effectiveness in providing nuanced insights into individuals’ identity negotiation, past experiences, and worldviews – insights that most likely would have been omitted by more conventional methods.

In the context of this course, our familiarization with each of the approaches was progressive. First, we were assigned readings, which introduced us to the new approach and how it can be used in qualitative inquiry. Then, we were encouraged to try out the approach in the classroom. In the case of collage making, we were encouraged to choose the materials that we would use (magazines, comic books, etc.) and most importantly, we were prompted to reflect on our experiences, and on issues related to power and representation that we would potentially want to address through our collage portraits. After that, we were given time to work on our collage portraits in the class, while keeping notes about our decision making and the ideas that we hoped to get across. 

While working on my first collage, I instinctively chose a topic that was closely related to my research interests; I focused on my perception of what it means to teach in a class where some students may feel marginalized or othered by both their peers and the society. My notes on the process were the following:“In this collage portrait, the sea creatures (similar to fish, but different) represent marginalized students. Whether because of their ethnic background, their language, their religion, their gender, or their sexuality, many students are marginalized and do not feel they belong in the school community. This is because the school is a microcosm of society, where many people feed on racism and are not tolerant towards diversity (sharks – racists, glass of blood/wine-racism). I believe that in such cases it is the teacher’s (the woman holding the door open) responsibility to act as a mediator and create safe environments for all students, while at the same time equipping them with the essential means to deal with racism and discrimination in all their forms.”

After presenting the collage portrait to the class and providing my interpretation of it, my peers and instructor offered their feedback. Some saw the work as being pessimistic, due to the use of the symbolic images of wine/blood and sharks. Others did not share this view, and saw the collage portrait as being optimistic, given the use of bright colours that, according to them, managed to overpower the negativity of racism. Some others interpreted the collage differently, and argued that its main focus was not the role of the teacher as a mediator, as I believed, but rather the idea that education is a privilege and that not everyone has equal access to it (some sea creatures never make it in class).

Experimenting with collage making in the context of this course was eye opening. The opportunity to receive feedback was very effective in proving that the same text (in this case, the same visual text) can be interpreted very differently. I was intrigued to have my peers challenge my interpretations and offer new, equally plausible, possibilities. Not only was my work a multilayered (both literally and metaphorically) visual text that could be interpreted in various ways, it was also a platform that allowed for a dialogue and could potentially reveal nuances about my own voice that had never occurred to me before. Ever since taking this class and actually exploring collage making in practice, I have been excited about the prospect of using it, and I believe that it can serve as an excellent means to communicate people’s lived experiences and prompt them to reflect on the complexity of their feelings.


Barone, T. & Eisner, E. W. (1997). Arts-based educational research. In R. M. Jaeger (Ed.), Complementary methods for research in education (pp. 73-98). Washington, DC: AERA.

Butler-Kisber, L. & Poldma, T. (2010). The Power of Visual Approaches in Qualitative Inquiry: The Use of Collage Making and Concept Mapping in Experiential Research. Journal of Research Practice, 6(2), article M18, 1-17.

Gerstenblatt, P. (2013). Collage portraits as a method of analysis in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 12, 294-308.

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