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Photovoice is a qualitative method used in community-based participatory research to document and reflect reality. It is an empowering and flexible process that combines photography with grassroots social action and is commonly used in the fields of community development, international development, public health, and education. Participants include community members of all ages and status including those who are discriminated against due to language, gender, race, class, disability, etc. Through their art, they bring new insights and perspectives which raise awareness of hidden or overlooked issues and aspects of the community.
Participants are asked to express their points of view or represent their communities by photographing scenes that highlight research themes. Common research themes include community concerns, community assets, social issues, and public health barriers. These photographs are collaboratively interpreted through discussions in both small and large groups, and narratives can be developed that explain how the photos highlight a particular research theme. These narratives are then used to promote dialogue to mobilize and help change-makers (i.e. policymakers) better understand and change the community. Thereby developing effective solutions and programs that address the issues and needs.
Photovoice was developed in 1992 by Caroline C. Wang of the University of Michigan, and Mary Ann Burris, Program Officer for Women's Health at the Ford Foundation headquartered in Beijing, China. The idea was built on the foundation that images and words together can effectively express communities and individual's needs, problems, and desires. In addition, the concept was strongly influenced by documentary photography, the concept empowerment, feminist theory, Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed to promote health education and his idea of critical consciousness.
Photovoice was first used to empower the silenced rural women in Yunnan Province, China to influence the policies and programs affecting them. Since then, the method has been used in different settings and populations, such as by refugees in San Diego seeking in–person medical interpretation options, by homeless adults in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by Dr. Claudia Mitchell to support community health workers and teachers in rural South Africa, and by Dr. Laura S. Lorenz of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in her work with brain injury survivors.
In the 21st century, some university professors have used the photovoice model to teach social work students. In addition, it has been used as a tool to engage children and youth, giving them a safe environment and opportunity to communicate their concerns and coping strategies to policymakers and service providers. In other words, photovoice is used at all levels as a tool for self-development, sharing awareness, advocacy, research, needs assessment, monitoring, etc. So the use of photovoice allows one to capture and widen their perspective on all levels of various issues.
Also known as "participatory photography" or "photo novella", photovoice is considered a sub–type of "participatory visual methods" or picturevoice which includes techniques such as photo-elicitation and digital storytelling. These techniques allow research participants to create visuals that capture their individual perspectives as part of the research process. An example of this is found in Project Lives, a participatory photography project used to create a new image of project housing dwellers, published in April 2015. Two other forms of picturevoice include paintvoice, stemming from the work of Michael Yonas, and comicvoice, which has been pioneered by John Baird's Create a Comic Project since 2008, and to a lesser extent by Michael Bitz's Comic Book Project.
In international research, photovoice has been seen to allow participants from the developing world to define how they want to be represented to the international community. The individuals are facilitated and given control to tell their stories and perspectives which empower them to be engaged and maintain a firm sense of authorship over their representations. This helps to convey a stereotype-free picture of what it means to live in a developing country to those supporting (i.e. funders and voters of the developed country) and doing international development (i.e. NGO and government agencies). In addition, photovoice allows the community to monitor the impact of the change created by development programs. This can help inform the outside agency about the process, true impacts (what is/isn't working and why), and complex reality, thus accompany wider and deeper research and analysis to improve the development progress.
- Darrah L Goo Kuratani & Elaine Lai (2011). "TEAM Lab - Photovoice Literature Review"
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- Maclean K, Woodward E. 2013. Photovoice Evaluated: An Appropriate Visual Methodology for Aboriginal Water Resource Research. Geographical Research. 51(1):94-105
- Rosemberg, M. A. S., & Evans-Agnew, R. 2020. Ethics in Photovoice: A Response to Teti. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 19, 1609406920922734
- PhotoVoice - The UK based charity that uses ethical photography to promote positive social change
- PhotovoiceWorldwide.com – information about photovoice projects and workshops coordinated by Brandeis faculty member Laura Lorenz
- PhotoVoice Hamilton