Methods Vignettes: Photovoice

Group of people in Borana looking at photos on a laptop



Photovoice is a ground-breaking approach to participatory action research. The beauty of photovoice is its diversity; every photovoice project is different, and each project has a different focus. With photovoice, different stories are told, different photographs are captured and different outcomes are sought. Despite the many differences, common to each photovoice project is its effectiveness as a method to reveal real life experiences and empower marginalized individuals, particularly girls and women.

As a practice based in the production of knowledge, photovoice has three main goals: (1) to enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns, (2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues through large and small group discussion of photographs, and (3) to reach policymakers.

First introduced as Photo novella by Wang & Burris in 1994, Photovoice has since become an empowering methodology that allows individuals to reflect upon the strengths and concerns of their community. Photovoice is an overlap of three theoretical frameworks: empowerment education, feminist theory and documentary photography. All three theoretical frameworks emphasise community participation for the purpose of social action. Social researchers recognise photovoice as a vital tool for Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) because of its accuracy in gathering information (Garziano, 2004). It not only does establish a partnership among the key stakeholders but also equitably involve them into all aspects of the research process.

What’s Involved?

Photovoice does, in some ways, progress in a step-by-step fashion but, in some cases activities will overlap. Every photovoice project is different. How a group moves through the suggested steps will be influenced by differences in the projected timeline, budget, photovoice participant goals and objectives, community resources, and of course, community needs.

Building strong respectful relationships among all those involved should be a starting point for photo voice. The next step will be to recruit a leadership team for the project and choose a facilitator (can be more than one).The next step should be to define the goals/objectives of the project and subject matter for the photographs with the community leaders. This step leads to recruit groups of participants which ideally should not contain more than 8-10 members. The step of scheduling enough time for a minimum of two rounds of taking photos and discussion will be needed for capturing the depth of perception. Then the most important and exciting step comes in-taking pictures.

The project should allow at least a week for participants to get out and take pictures. After taking the pictures, photographs should be present in the community meetings by the participants for discussion. Key community stakeholders and the public will be the target audience to the events. The last step will be to take action which depends on what the project goals are and what the participants identified as areas to be addressed. The result is a rich body of information, represented both as diagrams and text, documenting the details of the different perspectives and changing the voices into action.

Broadening Out and Opening Up?

The project ‘Uncertainty from Below’ takes the opportunity of this photovoice mechanism for visualizing alternative pathways of indigenous adaptive strategies based on traditional knowledge and ground level perceptions. During the initial piloting among the people living precariously on the temporary embankments in Sundarbans, this method seems to supersede traditional methods of facilitated discussion to visually capture the needs assessments for a community. The Uncertainty project aims to employ the photovoice method to inform the dialogues with the ‘above’ and the ‘middle’ of the issues of climate change-related uncertainties and the its manifestations in life, livelihoods, health systems perceived by the ‘below’ in the remote and affected islands of the Sundarbans.

The visual depictions of uncertainty would be used as a pathway for need-based, locally acceptable solutions at the local policy level – panchayats, health care delivery system and general administration through the ground level stakeholder meets. The mutually agreed decisions of the ‘below’ and the ‘middle’ would be documented and examples showcased at the debates and dialogues at the state and the national level. It is a beauty of this qualitative technique where the participant is herself/himself the researcher and the creator of encapsulating the adaptive strategies towards climatic changes and their alternative pathways to be resilient. The photovoice would communicate implicit visual narratives (with an increased emphasis on the triggers and barriers in the adaptation process) of the islanders of Sundarbans with the explicit narrative of the Above.

Roles, Fit and Limits?

The STEPS Uncertainty project is using the photovoice method to emphasize the importance for community members to have a say and to take action to inform decision-makers about the reality of their lives which are ravaged by the uncertainty of nature on a daily basis. The intent of the method is to influence public policy on issues like erosion, breaching of embankments, loss of productivity due to salinity ingress, depleting natural resources erosion and the resulting migration. In this way photovoice is an empowering practice as it offers an alternative pathway for individuals to come together and reveal their concerns.

However, the time commitment may be taxing for the participants. Though the costs related to photography have come down in recent years, cost of equipment can be a concern. The loss of, or damage to, cameras is a possible risk. A wide range of skills is necessary to complete the photovoice research and project activities. Participants continuously make choices about what they select as subject matter for their photographs. They also make choices about what is not included in their photographs. These choices obviously influence the research findings. However, the project Uncertainty would try to provide a supportive monitoring to the whole process to minimize the research bias.

Key relevant references and weblinks