June 2, 2020 Jaskiran Gakhal, Participedia Team
February 20, 2019 richards1000
October 12, 2018 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
July 5, 2018 Lucy J Parry, Participedia Team
July 2, 2018 Lucy J Parry, Participedia Team
September 30, 2017 tmahoney
August 22, 2017 tmahoney

Photovoice is an engagement and research process by which people – usually those with limited power - use video and/or photo images to capture aspects of their environment and experiences and share them with others.

Problems and Purpose

Photovoice is an engagement and research process by which people – usually those with limited power due to poverty, language barriers, race, class, ethnicity, gender, culture, or other circumstances – use video and/or photo images to capture aspects of their environment and experiences and share them with others. The pictures can then be used, usually with captions composed by the photographers, to bring the realities of the photographers’ lives home to the public and policy makers and to spur change.[1]

The purpose of photovoice is produce and share knowledge in service of 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.[2]

Photovoice is commonly used as a tool for Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) in the fields of community development, international development, public health, and education as a way of empowering research subjects to produce unbiased accounts of their experience, to help gather data for a specific research problem, and as tool evaluate programs and processes.[3] Common research themes include community concerns, community assets, social issues, and public health barriers.[2]

Origins and Development

In 1992, photovoice was developed 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 the needs problems, and desires of individuals and communities.[3]

Photovoice was first used to empower the silenced rural women in Yunnan Province, China to influence the policies and programs affecting them.[4] Since then, the number of Photovoice studies has multiplied drastically.[5]

Photovoice emerged out of three overlapping theoretical frameworks:

  1. Empowerment education theory[6] - specializes in facilitating critical consciousness by encouraging individuals to become vocal about the needs of the community [7]
  2. Feminist theory - acknowledges the experiences of women as a catalyst for social change and in turn, encourages women to share the knowledge and “know-how” regarding their understanding of how communities and dominant institutions affect their lives. Furthermore, feminist theory believes women should be the ones leading and carrying out policies changes rather than having the changes made on their behalf [4]
  3. Documentary photography - places image capture the control into the hands of the oppressed, allowing them to become the decision makers and elect the themes that are represented among the photos[4]

Since photovoice was developed as an action research method, it has been widely taken up among researchers, artists and social advocates as a way to make research methodologies more equitable and influence decision-making by highlighting perspectives of marginalized or under-represented groups. It has similarities with participatory reflection and action, community service-learning, and community-based participatory research.

How it Works

Photovoice has been predominantly been used to engage people who are discriminated against due to language, gender, race, class, disability, and age as a way to communicate their concerns to policymakers and service providers. [1][8]

Recruitment and selection is often done before hand. For example, tools from the community tool box are employed by researchers during participant recruitment to better capture the experiences of the community under study – often this means engaging with a few community leaders and depending on word-of-mouth to encourage participation by harder-to-reach demographics. 

Participant groups in photovoice projects are relatively small, usually ranging between 10-35 people at a time. 

While there are some standards components to photovoice, it is often adapted to different formats in order to fit specific contexts. Participant groups in photovoice projects are relatively small, usually ranging between 10-35 people at a time. Depending on the context and scale of the project, the researcher(s) may hold multiple training sessions and/or conduct several photovoice initiatives within one project. 

Depending on the nature of the project, photovoice can often be followed by larger community deliberations, decision-making, and implementation. 

The basic components generally included in a photovoice projects are:

  1. Introduction to the project: The researcher builds familiarity within the group and describes the social action plan and/or policy component;
  2. Photography training: The researcher(s) facilitates a process (often in collaboration with a third party practitioner) for participants become familiar with the fundamentals of photography, ethics and safety; [9]
  3. Individuals go into their communities and take pictures that represent their concerns.
  4. Facilitated discussion(s): once the photos are completed, the individuals share with one another and the researcher(s) what the photographs mean to them. The group dialogue allows the individuals to build upon each other’s concerns and help shape the identified needs of the community. [4] Discussion often centers on five questions, designated by "the acronym SHOWeD: What do you see here? What is really happening here? How does this relate to our lives? Why does this problem, concern, or strength exist? What can we do about it?" [10]
  5. Exhibition: the photographs are made public through a community exhibit where policy makers are invited as a way to promote dialogue around address the community needs and issues.[9]
  6. Final debrief: after the exhibition, there is a final debrief with the researcher(s) to help prepare for the next steps of the project whether it be implementing the social action plan or continue with the photography and discussion process. [5]

Note: The above is an idealized version of a photovoice project; many photovoice project do not complete all six steps due to underfunded studies or the complex nature of some government/policy processes. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

As a tool, photovoice can play an important role in forming bonds between participants and surface problems participants will be working on and/or solving together. 

Many researchers have claimed that photovoice has led to significant impacts including significantly diversifying the type of groups being surveyed (providing insights into communities that would have otherwise been inaccessible); enhancing the depth of information being collected and enabling groups to overcome social barriers and better communicate their experiences, perspectives and feelings to other community members and policy makers. [5] Researchers also noted how photovoice allowed for bonds to form between the participants that prepared them to solve problems and work together. [10]

Since its introduction, several researchers have critiqued the photovoice method. These criticisms have focused on ethical dilemmas. [11][12][13][14]; on methodological and technical challenges [12][15][16]; and on the extent of social justice impacts. [17]

Also, other analyses of photovoice have suggested that researchers have yet to embrace the full potential of the method:

  •  Hergenrather et al. (2009) reviewed 31 articles to determine how photovoice promoted individual and community change and reported inconsistencies in the photovoice process amongst the studies. They recommended the need for researchers to identify both researchers' and participants' role in all aspects of the project. [18]
  •  Catalani and Minkler (2010) used Wang’s photovoice approach to explicate the positive relationship among community involvement, individual empowerment, community asset recognition, and action towards policy change. The critique focused on how the photovoice process was undertaken (e.g. recruitment, sample size, sample characteristics, and training), including a particular focus on the elements of participant engagement (e.g. “participant involvement”, and “empowerment”). Inconsistencies in rigor and fit between the method and the particular health concern of interest were noted. [9]
  •  Sanon, M. A., Evans‐Agnew, R. A., & Boutain, D. M. (2014) extend Catalani and Minkler’s (2010) analysis to review and describe the social justice impact of photovoice research. They extended the discussion on methodology and ‘method fit’ for 30 articles published since 2008 and found that research designs involving photovoice continue to under-deliver their action and social justice potential. [17]

Lessons Learned

Lack of Social Action Plan

It has been noted that neglecting to include a social action plan into photovoice methodology may negatively impact marginalized communities by leaving members of the community to feel objectified because of the lack of follow-through. In a situation such as this, the researchers may receive beneficial rewards from the photovoice project in the form of a published paper or the rich data collected, which can be shared and disseminated. However, the community has not gained from the project. Individuals within the community may feel their efforts were made in vain since no advancement has been made to improve the well-being of the community.[5]

Lack of group process and dialogue

Another deviation from the theoretical framework of photovoice is the absence of group process and dialogue. Facilitated discussions are a central component of photovoice as it allows participants to engage with people with similar backgrounds and experiences. Group dialogue allows participants to build upon each others’ ideas. The exchange of thoughts connects people, creating a support network to encourage one another. Borrowed from Freire,[6] group dialogue allows critical thinking to occur in such a way that the participants must work together to uncover the source of dissatisfaction. [7] Group dialogue inspires people to believe in their ability to influence and control their environment. Without the group component, participates are less likely to fully invest themselves in the photovoice process.[5]

See Also

Visual participatory methods to develop local knowledge on HIV in rural South Africa

Participatory Action Research in Agincourt Socio-demographic Surveillance Site

Apathy is Boring

Gen Why Media

Social Innovation Labs 


[1] Community Toolbox. Chapter 3. Assessing Community Needs and Resources | Section 20. Implementing Photovoice in Your Community | Main Section | Community Tool Box.

[2] Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24(3), 369-387.

[3] Nykiforuk, C. I., Vallianatos, H., & Nieuwendyk, L. M. (2011). Photovoice as a method for revealing community perceptions of the built and social environment. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 10(2), 103-124.

[4] Wang CC & Burris MA. (1994). Empowerment through Photo novella: Portraits of participation. Health Education Quarterly, 21(2), 171-186.

[5] Kuratani, D.L.G. & Lai, E. (2011). Photovoice Literature Review.

[6] Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Herder & Herder, New York.

[7] Wallerstein, N., & Bernstein, E. (1988). Empowerment education: Freire's ideas adapted to health education. Health Education Quarterly, 15(4), 379-394.

[8] Skovdal, M. (2011). Picturing the coping strategies of caregiving children in Western Kenya: from images to action. American Journal of Public Health, 101(3), 452.

[9] Catalani, C., & Minkler, M. (2010). Photovoice: A review of the literature in health and public health. Health Education & Behavior, 37(3), 424-451.

[10] Wang, C. C., Cash, J. L., & Powers, L. S. (2000). Who knows the streets as well as the homeless? Promoting personal and community action through Photovoice. Health Promotion Practice, 1(1), 81-89. doi:10.1177/152483990000100113 

[11] Allen, Q. (2012). Photographs and stories: ethics, benefits and dilemmas of using participant photography with Black middle-class male youth. Qualitative Research, 12(4), 443-458.

[12] Evans-Agnew, R. A., Sanon, M. A., & Boutain, D. M. (2014). Critical research methodologies and social justice issues. In Philosophies and practices of emancipatory nursing: Social justice as praxis. Taylor and Francis.

[13] Prins, E. (2010). Participatory photography: A tool for empowerment or surveillance?. Action Research, 8(4), 426-443.

[14] Wang, C. C., & Redwood-Jones, Y. A. (2001). Photovoice ethics: Perspectives from Flint photovoice. Health education & behavior, 28(5), 560-572.

[15] Novek, S., Morris-Oswald, T., & Menec, V. (2012). Using photovoice with older adults: some methodological strengths and issues. Ageing & Society, 32(3), 451-470.

[16] Royce, S. W., Parra-Medina, D., & Messias, D. H. (2006). Using photovoice to examine and initiate youth empowerment in community-based programs: A picture of process and lessons learned. Californian Journal of Health Promotion, 4(3), 80-91.

[17] Sanon, M. A., Evans‐Agnew, R. A., & Boutain, D. M. (2014). An exploration of social justice intent in photovoice research studies from 2008 to 2013. Nursing inquiry, 21(3), 212-226.

[18] Hergenrather, K. C., Rhodes, S. D., Cowan, C. A., Bardhoshi, G., & Pula, S. (2009). Photovoice as community-based participatory research: A qualitative review. American journal of health behavior, 33(6), 686-698.

Fawcett, S. B., Francisco, V. T., Schultz, J. A., Berkowitz, B., Wolff, T. J., & Nagy, G. (2000). The Community Tool Box: a Web-based resource for building healthier communities. Public health reports, 115(2-3), 274.

Graziano, K. J. (2004). Oppression and resiliency in a post-apartheid South Africa: unheard voices of Black gay men and lesbians. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 10(3), 302.

External Links

Implementing Photovoice in Your Community: