Blog Post

Transcript – Co-created Research: A Conversation with Kaira Zoe Cañete

by | 4 Nov, 2022 | Collaboratory Podcast, Resources, Transcripts

To ensure accessibility we are committed to providing transcripts of all our podcast episodes, including our short trailer for Season 1 – you can listen to the audio version here.

Episode 7: Co-created Research: A Conversation with Kaira Zoe Cañete

[00:00] Kaira Zoe Cañete: To co-create is to really foster an understanding of the necessity to open up processes to those most affected by an intervention or initiative and make them the subjects rather than the objects of that creativity.  I think the term creation directs us to the notion of something being created right, the outcome.  When I think of co-creation, I dwell on the process.  To co-create something entails a process of engagement, sense making, problem solving or even making mistakes together.  That’s part of co-creation towards the achievement of a possibility, because to co-create something there’s no fixed outcome that you can foresee.

In my own research, I coined this term viewing disasters, disaster reconstruction or even development through epistemologies of the vulnerable.  The vulnerable are often those who are targeted and intervened upon but aren’t really given that space to actually influence decisions that affect their lives.

[01:07] Nicole Deen: Hello and welcome to Collaboratory.  My name is Nicole Deen and you have just heard the voice of Kaira Zoe Cañete, our guest for this episode of the Collaboratory Conversation Series where we talk to co-creative practitioners about their learning journeys, histories and experiences of co-creativity in action.  Kaira is a researcher and development practitioner with a deep commitment to finding ways to support those who typically have less voice and power in society but who are often most affected by the processes and outcomes of research.  Her work focuses on the intersections of gender, development and disasters.  She’s currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and previously co-founded an NGO called A2D Research Group for Alternatives to Development in the Philippines.

When we take on the position of researcher, whether this is through conducting consultations for a specific project, running participatory sessions in a co-design process, or doing academic research, we take on significant power to shape the experiences of those with whom we work and the knowledge that is generated about them.  This power is seen through the questions we ask, who we choose to interview, what is done with the information we gather and how we make and present meaning about it.  In our conversation, Kaira shares reflections from her recent PhD work in the Philippines and we explore what research processes can look like when they are co-created with participants.

She offers some personal and practical approaches to sharing power and to designing and implementing research that gives back to participants rather than just extracting knowledge from them.  I met Kaira in a playground where we connected over ideas of co-creation, the role of gender in development and our mutual love of the Philippines. 

[03:11] Kaira Zoe Cañete: I often like to introduce myself in terms of what I do for work and what I do for what I call my soul work.  So, for me, work is about my career in a specific field, honing whatever skills I have and transmitting knowledge.  But on the other hand what I call my soul work is what I find meaningful, something that allows me to enact my own political and ethical standpoint as a global south feminist scholar and practitioner.  But of course as a Filipino feminist scholar, my soul work, really entails using my skills and channelling my passions to contribute towards building solidarities with grass roots communities, especially women, and finding ways to develop spaces where we can engage with each other and map out possibilities for creating better, more caring and just futures.

I was born and raised in the Philippines, so it’s considered one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and I’ve lived for many years in less affluent neighbourhoods in my home city of Cebu.  Now although calamities such as those brought about by typhoons, floods, earthquakes and so on form a part of the backdrop of life in the Philippines, it was actually not initially central to my own work.  I was for a good number of years a community organiser in urban poor communities in Cebu, fresh out of university, so quite young, in my early 20s and  I was heavily involved in local women’s movement for gender rights and social justice. 

[04:45] Nicole Deen: These lived experiences of disaster, women’s rights and community activism combined to influence Kaira’s PhD research, which aimed to examine disaster reconstruction processes from the perspectives of women in Tacloban City in the Philippines.

[05:00] Kaira Zoe Cañete: I was asking myself, what are the possibilities for reimagining a resilient recovery drawn from women’s experiences, so what can women’s experiences reveal?  So, I investigated competing views of resilience and disaster recovery and highlighted the political as well as the ethical dimensions of housing reconstruction and relocation of disaster affected urban poor communities.

[05:26] Nicole Deen: The disaster recovery process that Kaira’s research focused on was caused by Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, which struck the Philippines in November 2013.  It was considered the most powerful storm that ever made landfall in human history.

[5:41] Kaira Zoe Cañete: So, at that moment I was in Cebu when the typhoon struck and was very much involved in disaster response as well as conducting studies and evaluations for different organisations in the post-disaster context.  So, Tacloban which is a highly urbanised city in the eastern region of the country, really bore the brunt of the typhoon and suffered immense losses and damage.  So I found it to be an interesting place to study, given that urban disasters have only relatively recently figured as one of the pressing issues of our times.  So, the fact that the city had undertaken an ambitious relocation program that is resettling about 90,000 people from coastal danger zones to the northern peripheries of the city, it really intrigued me, and I wanted to understand the gender dimensions of this particular initiative.

So, with my background in feminist advocacy I became interested in how women experienced and practiced disaster recovery, and I asked from these experiences, what can we learn or need to unlearn about the ways communities are being built?  I guess the best way to do that would be actually to approach the matter from the perspective of those who are most affected. 

[07:01] Nicole Deen: These questions led Kaira to investigate different approaches to conducting research that aligned with her values and made sense for her PhD. 

{07:09] Kaira Zoe Cañete: At first I started to think about the conventional techniques in doing research, primarily because it was comfortable, you didn’t really have to think about how you’re going to decide, so you’re just going to include them in your methodology and there’s not a lot of question as to how you’re going to do it, because it has been proven to be used in a wide range of research studies.  But for me, I’ve always been interested in how to make research more participatory and beyond this PhD project for example in how I’ve always done my consultancy work, consultancy research, as well as some of the research grants I’ve had in the past, I was really interested in finding ways to make research less extractive and to have more of the voice of study participants come out in that research process.

So, one of the things that I wanted to address with the method were two main points.  First is that especially in disaster settings, power imbalances between the researcher and the research is really very stark, very pronounced and these relationships are really prone to abuse and  I wanted to de-centre myself as a researcher because the moment that you do research, your voice as an author already dominates, right, from developing your questions, your instruments, interpreting your data.  So, your voice as an author already dominates, so I wanted to not completely, I don’t think it can be completely de-centred, there is still that power dynamics, but as much as possible to be able to share that kind of space with your study participants and to address these power imbalances.

Second, I problematise the kinds of instruments that are mediums of inquiry that are often applied in these contexts, reviews, questionnaires.  And most of these are actually very much focused on word-based and highly technical instruments and  I was trying to explore what tools might be able to capture the complexity of disaster experiences, the techniques that can effectively draw out and generate narratives and stories as well as the embodied experiences and emotions that are often taken for granted in many disaster research.

I opted for using a photo-based method, which I eventually called PhotoKwento.  I characterise PhotoKwento as a feminist photo-based research method and it utilises techniques of photo elicitation which basically just means using photographs in an interview setting.  The term Kwento is Filipino, which means story, so in a literal sense, PhotoKwento is a method that allows study participants to tell their stories with photographs.  Therefore in the context of research, help co-construct their narratives of disaster recovery.

[10:02] Nicole Deen: PhotoKwento was inspired by other photo-based methods, including the work of Ximena Bunster and Elsa Chaney in the 1980s, who used a similar method called Talking Pictures Interviews, in a study of everyday experiences of working women in Lima, Peru.  You can find links to articles about these and other photo elicitation methods in the show notes for this episode. 

[10:25] Kaira Zoe Cañete: PhotoKwento comprises three main stages, it’s image generation, so the process of producing photographs.  The interview tool development, which is the creation of a photo album which would serve us the interview tool, and administering interviews using photographs.  So, throughout this process, women participants were actually placed at the centre.  Unlike Bunster and Chaney’s work however, or their method, the images were participant generated rather than researcher generated.  So, meaning the women who participated in my study decided what images to take, how to take them and when.

So, women deliberated and decided on which photos to use for the photo album and identified the thematic areas upon which the interviews would be structured.  I may have described it in a very linear manner, but this was really far from being linear.  There were many times that I have had to reflect, and re-think the appropriateness of the approach and strategies and at one point even the women were criticising the kind of questions that I had initially posed, and they eventually suggested a better way of approaching the study which actually really helped enrich it overall.

[11:41] Nicole Deen: This method of creative iteration, enabled research participants to actively co-create the research with her.  But how did Kaira set up her research to build the trust and relationships necessary for a process like PhotoKwento to work?

[11:55] Kaira Zoe Cañete: In terms of the process of entering the communities and starting these engagements, I was really very conscious of my approach to entering the communities for the first time.  I knew that there were so many studies actually being conducted after Yolanda.  People in the communities were already starting to feel weary and wary of researchers swooping in and extracting data and then leaving and then months later become experts in their field.  There’s actually a common saying there that Typhoon Yolanda was a disaster that launched a thousand PhDs. 

So, it was like oh my goodness, was I going to be a part of those that claim expert knowledge after I’ve done my PhD, and I really felt a great discomfort in that thought.  In many ways limitations of time and resources to do a PhD don’t leave you much choice either, so I’m not judging other researchers who are also doing their own thing in these communities.  But for me, I needed to make sure that my intentions were clearly communicated and that I could facilitate that room for engaged relationships, as I said previously, as best as I can, given the limitations.

So, my research was actually divided into different stages, the first stage involved getting to know the context.  I just didn’t want to swoop in and say hey I know everything about this. So even if I am Filipino, I am not from Tacloban, I speak a different language, I needed to acquaint myself with the different political and social dynamics, so I started talking to frontline workers, government officials, community organisers and so on.  When I first went to the communities, I did not immediately dive into my interviews.  First I just attended observed activities, gatherings, not even formal activities, fiestas or how do we call that in English?  Feast of patron saints, that’s a very big thing in the Philippines.

So, just attending these informal activities and gatherings and then have them get used to my presence, and I also allowed them to ask me questions about why I was there, I was suddenly popping up into their karaoke sessions or whatever.  Then in fact I did not start recruiting participants until I returned for my second field research, months after.  By then some of them had already interacted with me and were in fact very helpful in seeking out other participants.  So, that initial engagement I had with them was really valuable. I also need to acknowledge that I got through that process through the help of individuals I met there who facilitated my entry into community. 

So, for those who journeyed with me in the process, my research assistant, Janella Balboa and Pearl Madeloso, who were fresh graduates from the University of the Philippines in Tacloban, were really very helpful in that regard.  So, it wasn’t like we just swoop in, and I’d like to interview you.  I was quite conscious of slowly easing myself in, getting them used to me and building that trust as well, which I think is really very important in developing these relationships.  When I was ready to start with the actual data collection or data construction process, I went back to the communities and had a discussion with the women I had already interacted with and also friends, like community organisers also helped to invite others to come together.

Then I discussed what my research was about, what I planned to do and whether or not they would be interested taking part of the research.  It was very crucial to state there was no obligation on their part to actually participate, it was purely voluntary.  I think that’s an important thing to stress, because especially in the Filipino culture that I grew up in, we are expected to always be accommodating and hospitable, so there’s that cultural expectation.  So, I wanted to make sure that there was no such expectation on my part and that they were very much free to say no to take part in the activities.

After that I was able to have enough volunteers to participate in the first stage of the research which was image generation, and so that’s when I started to hold a workshop on what we were actually going to do, setting up what the expectations were and so on. 

[16:14] Nicole Deen: Kaira’s description of building relationships and taking a slow approach to entering communities provides a clear example of a co-creative mindset of moving at the speed of trust.  That’s something that I often need to remind myself of when faced with time constraints in a co-creative process.  So, how did she practically co-create her research with the women who participated in the project?  In particular, how did she manage the tensions of maintaining a level of control over the process whilst also allowing it to be shaped by others?

[16:46] Kaira Zoe Cañete: I began that research with the knowledge that the questions I initially set out were always going to be arbitrary, so I wasn’t fixed on that these should be the questions that we should be asking.  So, it’s basically just a jump starter to guide that process of inquiry, because I did a participant briefing before the actual image generation or taking of photographs, and there I talked about again the purpose of the research and what are the ethical considerations that we must take account of when we are taking photographs, as well as techniques in taking photographs.

There was an initial set of questions that I provided to them just to help them think about what kind of photographs that they will be taking.  But I told them you don’t have to be limited or constrained by these questions, if you feel that there are images that you want to take but don’t really resonate with any of the questions, that is absolutely fine.  Because that’s also part of the process of them being able to feed into that overall design.  That was actually why when as the process was rolling out, women were saying we feel that these questions don’t really capture our experiences and we felt that you needed to ask this question first. 

Because I was so focused on recovery and practices and what was helping their recovery, and they said we cannot talk about recovery if we don’t talk about our experience of the disaster.  So, we want to capture these places that reminded them of their experience as disaster survivors and then talk about recovery, because they said their story won’t be complete.  For me that was such very rich feedback that I got from them to actually tell me that I was limited in my imagination in determining these questions.  I think among the biggest contributions that they had in that research was really to develop the research tool, because after they took the photographs, we had another workshop wherein they would present the photographs which they felt really represented their experiences.

Then they had an exhibit and then as they were viewing everyone else’s work, they were interacting with each other and seeing the differences and similarities in their stories.  Then they were the ones who came up with the themes for the research tool, and the research tool was not a word-based instrument, it was just mainly photographs, which we collated into a photo album.  At first I was really quite wary or let’s say anxious, because I wasn’t really sure if it was going to work.  There’s this funny thing that I did since there were some missing pieces in the photo album, so that to make them more symmetrical I inserted some photographs that I took myself.

So, here I am again trying to control that process and it’s really a continuous struggle.  I inserted some photographs which I took, and I think people would respond to this quite well.  It was so interesting when I was doing the actual interviews, I just gave them the photo album and then they would discuss what these photographs meant to them.  The photographs that I took were largely ignored, which is really contrary to my expectations because I think a lot of people will really like want to talk about this particular photo because I felt that was relevant. 

But no, the women who I interviewed were actually more engaged with the photographs that the other women had taken, compared to the photographs that I had inserted in that photo album.  So, that was also a site of critical reflection as well, and that was one of my main realisations after data collection activity, was that I don’t have to control everything.  Then if you just trust in the process, because the process really helps shape and influence how that research is going to turn out.  It actually produced something more than I expected.

[20:37] Nicole Deen: Kaira’s candid reflections on this process of sharing power show that it doesn’t always come easily and that the benefits of doing so can be profound.  It also reminded me that it can feel quite uncomfortable to give up some of our control and be in a space of uncertainty, ready to let things emerge.

[20:56] Kaira Zoe Cañete: I had mixed feelings about it, of course I was excited because I wanted to see what it will eventually produce, but most of it as I was in the thick of things, I was so anxious that it translated to physical pain, especially during that period when I just left them alone to take the photographs and I don’t know what was happening.  I couldn’t ask them okay what photos are you taking now, and all these things, you can’t control it.  So, there was really a point when I was vomiting through the night, because I couldn’t sleep.  It occurred to me that letting go of power is painful and I can understand why many practitioners or researchers don’t really want to let go of that power, because there’s always this tendency to want to control things.

But I think eventually it really paid off, I just sat there with my anxiety, and I was just telling myself just to trust that process and to always practice reflexivity all throughout.

[21:56] Nicole Deen: Reflexivity, it’s a word that Kaira uses a lot when she’s talking about the process of reflecting on her practice, including what she was thinking and feeling at the time and how it influenced what happened in the research.  Kaira has some useful insights about how she integrated and applied her learnings in the research process so that her participants ultimately had a positive experience.

[22:19] Kaira Zoe Cañete: It was also a trial and error on my part.  I found that the first few interviews that I had were a bit distant and I was concerned like okay, maybe I’m doing something wrong.  What I realised was that when I was doing the interviews, I was holding the photo album and I was the one flipping through them and asking them okay, what do you think about this?  What do you think about that?  That created a barrier because I was still the one who was in control of the conversation.  So, after the first few interviews, I realised maybe I should give them the album and let them talk about it and what they felt about it.

When I started to do that, and I think it was also symbolic in a way that you’re actually handing over the power to direct the conversation however they wanted to direct the conversation.  True enough, the stories they were telling were actually much richer and more open, they were the ones who were flipping through the pages and then they could skip, can they look at all the other photos here, and so that was quite open.  So, taking away the need again to be in control and to just let them freely choose what they want to talk about as prompted by the photographs, and I think that really helped.

Of course to be genuinely interested in what they’re saying, to have that focus and to look at them as they are talking, acknowledging their emotions and their experiences are actually also very important.  I think one of the things that was also important was that at the end of the interview, I really asked for their feedback about what is it that you particularly liked or didn’t like?  Was there a question that I wasn’t able to ask?  So, it’s still keeping it open-ended and to allow that space for them to contribute to all that.

[23:59] Nicole Deen: While it’s critical for the success of any co-creative process, sharing power and control is often easier said than done, in my experience.  So, what advice does Kaira have for those of us who are likely to encounter these uncomfortable moments in our work?

[24:14] Kaira Zoe Cañete: You just need a lot of self-awareness as well, it’s something that I had to develop as I was going through it.  But I think being able to share that power with your research participants is in itself an objective or an aim of the research, a goal, it’s not just what you want to produce out of the research, but it should in itself also be a goal of a research if you adhere to these ethical points of view about how research should be conducted.  I think in a more practical sense, because I often hear a lot of talk about oh we need to be reflexive when we’re doing research and I fully support that notion of reflexivity, but I think we also need to be able to operationalise that reflexivity.

So, how do we operationalise that reflexivity so that it also facilitates a critical self-examination of how the research is turning out and what your role is in influencing that whole process?  For me, of course I don’t prescribe any particular method, but in my own practice, how I operationalise reflexivity was that I kept a separate reflexivity diary which was separate from my field notes.  So, field notes were there for observations and observations for analysis, but my reflexivity note was basically more on methodological issues that I encountered in the field.

These were actually very helpful for example in prompting me to reflect okay why was I feeling this way?  Why was I feeling uncomfortable?  Why was I vomiting through the night?  Why wasn’t I able to sleep?  That was really helpful in engaging with the data as well and my role in that.  So, I would really encourage researchers and practitioners to find ways in which you could put into practice these methods of enabling you to do critical self-examination as you’re going through the research process.

[26:11] Nicole Deen: Despite the benefits, conducting research in this way can be challenging.  What enabled her to pursue this co-creative approach?

[26:19] Kaira Zoe Cañete: I think first is as a researcher or practitioner is to be committed to that kind of ethical standpoint, like what your general approach is to the research.  Because if that is not clear to me, I wouldn’t have taken the time to really think through what I was doing and sorting out the bad practices that I was doing as well.  So, it’s important not just to highlight the good things but also the bad practices that I was doing, and to be able to address these issues that were apparently affecting the research process in a negative way.

So, for example I’m always trying to maintain that control and trying to direct the conversation and I think that was one of the things that I struggled with throughout, but it was because I was committed to that process, so I think that’s one important point that is an enabler, being trustworthy as a researcher is of primary importance to be able to demonstrate that you are worthy of the trust of your study participants.  I did this as well by opening up myself to questions, it’s just not me asking questions about their lives, I also asked them to ask me questions, what did they want to know about me?

So, I also talked about my children, I also talked about my experiences and even talked about other issues that a lot of women were interested in, such as contraception and all these things, to connect with them in that manner and not just simply keep it very distant.  So, you open up yourself to be questioned as well and to be critiqued and to consider also the circumstances of participants in a more practical manner.  For example when I’m planning workshops, what time of the day should I do it? 

Because most of these are mothers or have care responsibilities and care work and these are things that you really need to consider when you’re planning your research activities.  Would this time or this place be conducive for them?  Are there constraints?  So, for example a lot of them usually had to bring in children, because in the Philippines, women are primarily assigned the work of carer, and so for every activity they always bring their children with them.  How do I accommodate this?  I also made sure that there was a safe space for children and with lots of activities for them to do while I was doing the workshop with the women or their mother. So, that was actually to be attuned to the needs of your participants and not just what you need to accomplish with that activity.

[28:38] Nicole Deen: Another question that comes up when I think about co-creation of research, is that of ownership.  In a typical PhD, the scholar relies on owning their thesis to graduate, so how did Kaira navigate the idea of ownership in this co-created research process?

[28:54] Kaira Zoe Cañete: That’s also a site of discomfort for me actually, because that’s why I’m always saying please don’t call this research as like the ideal or something like that, because I’m still uncomfortable with the fact that at the end of the day, I get the credit because it’s my thesis.  I cannot say that there is someone else who is authoring this thesis with me, because a thesis is supposed to be an individual achievement, right?  So, how do I reconcile that if the research is co-created, if these narratives are co-constructed but then who gets the credit?  That’s still something that I am really struggling with at the moment and that’s what also sparked me to think about like there must be something else that must be done after the formal research is completed in terms of like okay I’ve written this up and it’s done, and all the objectives are met.

But in terms of how do these go back to the communities and then they also take ownership of what is done with that research, is for me the more important goal.  Unfortunately we had some plans with the communities there, some women were saying that they wanted to hold exhibit outside of the community because they felt that it would be able to amplify the issues that they were facing and actually have those in power pay attention to their difficulties and challenges.  We had something planned but then COVID happened, and I wasn’t able to return, I haven’t been able to go back to the Philippines in two years now.

I think that’s one of the regrets that I have, so maybe in the future doing this kind of methodology is to also think about what comes after that research, after you produce your publication or after whatever output that is generated, how do you take it back to the community so that they can actually make more use of what you’ve done?

[30:38] Nicole Deen: Relational, time intensive, unpredictable and requiring that we give up some of our power and control.  For me, Kaira’s story highlights that co-creating research is not necessarily the easiest path we could choose.  So why then might we go to this extra effort and engage wholeheartedly with community members to shape the research process?

[31:02] Kaira Zoe Cañete: Of course I couldn’t claim to be able to have improved their lives or gave them some material assistance in any way, however just from my engagement with women, as I was going through the data collection process, they actually appreciated being able to participate in that research.  First because they saw themselves not as sources of information again, but as actual researchers who were also trying to rediscover facets of their life after disaster.  There was this one woman during the workshops who said okay, because we are researchers now and these are the things that we also learned from our participation.

I think that’s one benefit that they also saw that they were also learning new things about their situation. Second, for those who participated in the interviews, the third stage, the PhotoKwento interviews themselves, I always asked towards the end, what did you think about the interview and how I interviewed you?  Was there anything that you liked or disliked and so on?  Many of the participants actually said that they appreciated being interviewed because it allowed them to release a lot of their emotions and their views which they felt like four or five years after the disaster they already felt that they were being forgotten. 

So, they felt that it was a way for them to air out their opinions and their views about their current situation as well as to release still a lot of pent-up emotions that they weren’t able to really share with others.  I was actually quite concerned about the issue of re-traumatising them, and of course I had to make sure that processes were in place in case something adverse would pop up, like retraumatising a participant.  So, making sure that process is in place, but as I said a lot of them actually said that they appreciated it because how the women had structured the photo albums, of course it started with disaster and the experience of disaster, but it always ended up with hope for recovery and what is it that is helping them to recover?

So, it also helped them think about maybe things that are often taken for granted.  What is helping me right now and what are the possibilities?  What are my aspirations that I want to reach?  That was how the interviews usually ended, on a positive and hopeful note.  Thirdly, in a more practical sense, one of my participants also said that she learned from the PhotoKwento process and because she was active in their community organisation in their resettlement village and there was basically an issue there with their resettlement community being placed next to a dump site, garbage was always part of their everyday life.

So, what she did was she took photographs of that particular issue and helped craft a petition and attach those photographs.  I think it was inspired by the PhotoKwento process to inspire these forms of agency for them to advocate for their particular issues.  I think that was one of the benefits as well of participating in the research.

[33:58] Nicole Deen: With that, we bring this conversation to a close.  We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing Kaira’s story of co-creative research in action and would love to hear your thoughts and reflections on the episode or on your own related practice.  Drop us a line at 


Collaboratory is produced on the lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngambri, and Ngunawal people. We pay our respects and ongoing gratitude to the custodians past, present, and future of the lands on which we work and of the knowledges from which we learn. 

Collaboratory is a production of the Scaffolding Cultural Co-Creativity Project hosted by the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. Funding is generously provided by the Australian National University Translational Fellowship scheme.