Presenter(s): Dr. Nicole Brown

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Photovoice is a methodological framework in qualitative research that uses participant-supplied photographs. The aim of photovoice research is to enable the research participants, who are members of the public, to bring about social change in their communities. To this end, the researcher takes on the role as a facilitator of research and merely supports participants in their endeavour. It is the participants' responsibility to organise and take photographs that express and capture their experiences with a view to highlight issues, challenges, barriers, or shortcomings. In what would conventionally be the analysis phase of the research, the researcher facilitates workshops and group meetings, during which the research participants develop concrete, actionable recommendations for change. These recommendations are then shared and implemented through dissemination events and collaborations with stakeholders, government officials, policymakers, and other relevant partners. This makes photovoice an emancipatory and activist research approach. 

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How is photovoice different from photo elicitation?

As is often the case with research frameworks and approaches, terminologies become misunderstood, misinterpreted, and conflated. Therefore, many publications that use the term "photovoice" in the title are not the result of photovoice research but are photo elicitation projects. Photo elicitation is a powerful addition to any researcher's toolkit. It is just important to recognise the difference between photovoice and photo elicitation.

Here is a brief table that will help distinguish between photovoice and photo elicitation:

 PhotovoicePhoto elicitation 
What is it?Photovoice is not truly a data collection method. It is actually a research framework that uses photographs for the purpose of social transformation.Photo elicitation is an approach to data collection that uses photographs to enhance conventional interviews. 
What is its philosophical underpinning?Photovoice is a feminist, activist and egalitarian research approach aiming at empowering individuals as well as entire communities, and thereby bringing about change. The photographs are therefore meaningful representations of experiences and data in and of themselves. This means that the photographs are not to aid conversation or stimulate thoughts but are artefacts that are analysed together. Researchers recognise that interviews may be experienced as uncomfortable, difficult, or even confrontational, and that participants may not fully engage with the research process. The philosophical underpinning for photo elicitation therefore lies with the fact that the photographs may offer "a way in" to the interview, home in on participants' thoughts or experiences and thereby stimulate conversation. 
Why would you do it?Photovoice researchers are often activists who are embedded in, or at least serving, particular communities.  Most researchers recognise the benefits of photo elicitation during interviews and are even keen to use photographs in their research reports, as "a picture is worth a thousand words". 
Why would you not do it?Photovoice projects are time-consuming and require the participants to be fully engaged in the research process. For many researchers who work to deadlines or grant funding requirements, a true photovoice project is therefore often pragmatically impossible. Researchers shying away from photo elicitation projects often worry about how to deal with data sets that may be incomplete because some participants have not submitted photographs, or about how to interpret and analyse the visual materials. 
How do you do it?

Photovoice in its original delineation follows a specific process that begins with the recruitment of participants and ends with dissemination. 

Some key steps include:

  • Selection and recruitment of a target audience of policymakers or community leaders 
  • Recruitment of a group of photovoice participants 
  • Arranging for the photovoice research to be carried out
  • Planning events and opportunities to connect participants with policymakers or community leaders to act on the proposed recommendations

 (adapted from Wang, 1999, pp. 187-189).

There are different approaches to data collection within photo elicitation studies. In some studies, the researchers provide photographs they think appropriate and conducive for the interviews. In others, which is probably the more common approach, the researchers will ask their participants to supply photographs for the interview. Photographs may either be specifically taken and created for the study, or they may be selected from newspapers, fliers, magazines, and the internet. 


Some ethical and practical considerations of photovoice

Before embarking on photovoice research, it is important to consider practical implications, ethics, advantages, and drawbacks of this methodological framework:


What are the practical implications of photovoice research?

Because of the activist nature of the research, photovoice research is generally very time-consuming, elaborate and requires good connections with relevant stakeholders and policymakers from the start. Also, participants need to have access to cameras and be trained in what to take photographs of and how, so that the photographs are meaningful and useful. 


What are the ethical implications of photovoice research?

The use of photographs is always at the forefront of one's mind, when we are considering the ethics of photovoice research. Who has taken the photograph? What can we see in that photograph? How was that photograph taken? How was consent obtained? Who will the photograph be shared with and shown to? Who owns the photograph and who can use it? What kind of metadata is embedded in the photograph? These are only some of the questions we must answer. However, with photovoice research a more important ethical consideration relates to the involvement of participants. Firstly, their commitment to the cause is much more demanding than their commitment to other research frameworks would be. Secondly, because of the egalitarian nature of photovoice research, there is the danger that participants are not fully aware of what they are letting themselves in for, when they commit to photovoice research, for example, they may have to enter a space that is uncomfortable, or have to deal with difficult emotions. Thirdly, and related to the first two points, participants in photovoice research almost always continue their involvement and activist work on the topic. It is the researchers' responsibility to consider if it is ethical and fair on the participants to engage them in photovoice research. 


What are the benefits of photovoice research?

The benefit of photovoice research is that this is a framework that allows communities to be involved and take control over issues that truly matter to them and to bring about the change that is needed for those communities, even though the real impact of photovoice on the communities, its transformative nature, is hardly ever assessed formally.


What are the drawbacks of photovoice research?

Whilst community engagement is the biggest benefit of photovoice research, it is at the same time its most significant drawback. Community engagement, decolonisation, inclusion of Indigenous populations and links with the Global South may be high on the agenda of current research. However, most research requires funding from higher education institutions or grant providers. These, in turn, require proposals written by researchers that are then evaluated for their originality, contribution, rigour, as well as value for money. Proposals are therefore most often developed and written independently of local communities.


> Download a step-by-step process guide. 

About the author

Dr. Nicole Brown is a social researcher and author, whose expertise lies with social research practice on the cusp of practice/teaching/research. She has been a research methods teacher in Higher Education for over 15 years.

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