Performing color: Participatory photo and community based research in a modern U.S. Circus

by Radiance Campbell, B.S. Sociology, ‘20


This study asks, “What is the experience of people of color in a modern U.S. circus?” It is primarily concerned with granting performers of color control over telling their own story. Given that the circus is a visual art, this study produces visual research that centers participants’ perspectives through photovoice, or participatory photo, which is a visual research methodology that uses participant-generated photos as data. Participants were given disposable cameras and encouraged to photograph their own worlds, identifying the assets and challenges of their circus community. Through qualitative photo-elicitation interviews and a focus group, together we created a space for deep discussion and collaboration as we developed a collective message to share.

Radiance Campbell, BS Sociology, ’20

Because of the impact of spectatorship on performers of color, the research results were displayed in a research exhibit as opposed to a traditional research report. The culminating exhibit along with participants’ increased consciousness is part of the empowerment process at the core of this project. The goal of the exhibit was to create space for the wider community to engage with research results while simultaneously asserting the performers’ right to a self-determined public narrative. Visual research methodologies and the culminating exhibit were chosen for this project because they constitute an empowering form of research while producing results that are more accessible to the non-academic audiences that often directly influence the lives of performers of color.

The final exhibit features select participant-generated photos, artistic statements made up of quotes from participant interviews, historical images courtesy of Milner Library Special Collections, video footage courtesy of Gamma Phi Circus, studio photography courtesy of Nathan Masciola, and audio tracks set to music courtesy of Brandon Campbell of The Clinic. The exhibit was displayed in Illinois State University’s Rachel Cooper Gallery from February 25, 2020, through summer 2020 and Schroeder Hall Gallery for the academic year 2020-2021. An optional “exit survey” was available at the gallery’s original opening reception on February 25 and was analyzed to help gauge the audience’s interaction, understanding, and learning from the exhibition. The research publication consists of a digitized version of the research exhibit as well as a discussion of research methods, results, and implications.

Situated in the second floor lounge of Schroeder, the Schroeder Hall Gallery is easily accessible and rotates annually. This exhibit will be available for physical viewing until the end of the 2021 spring semester. The original spring 2020 WGSS exhibit, complete with narratives and soundtracks, is available online at Please check it out for a more complete, interactive experience of Cambell’s work.