What is it?
Photovoice is a participatory action research method that uses participant-generated photographs to stimulate critical reflection and engage the public to advocate for actions and changes. In photovoice, participants use their photographs to facilitate reflective discussions, are involved in analyzing their narratives and influence the conclusions to report. In a forum, exhibition or on an online platform, the participants can engage with the public including policy-makers and decision-makers on issues captured in the photographs.

What is needed?
1) Camera(s). The number of camera required would depend on how many people will be photographing and the extent to which the camera(s) can be shared among all the photographers. Simple point-and-shoot digital or phone cameras will be sufficient. Digital and phone cameras have the advantage of letting photographers to review and delete photographs.
2) A way to share photographs during group discussions and forum. Photographs can be printed in-house with a photograph printer or at a print shop. If there are more photographs than there is time to discuss them, it may be necessary to ask the participants to select a subset of photographs. Researchers can also share photographs by projecting them on a screen or internet, including social media platforms.
3) Locations or a platform for group discussions and public forums. Depending on whether any of the discussions and public forums will be done face-to-face or through the World Wide Web, a physical meeting location or an online platform would be necessary to support discussions and to engage the public.
4) A voice-recording device. This would depend on whether the discussions need to be recorded.
5) Notebooks. Researchers may want to take notes in addition to voice recording during discussions. Narratives and discussions would need to be stored in a form that can be analyzed and shared to further stimulate critical reflection and shape a discourse.
6) Handout. It may help photographers to remember the photograph topics by giving them a hardcopy of the topics. For those who are unfamiliar with using digital or phone camera(s), it may also be helpful to give them a handout of the basic instructions for how to operate and maintain such camera.
7) Qualitative data analysis application. Analysis of the narratives and discussions can be either done manually or using a qualitative data analysis application such as NVivo and Atlas ti.

Time and actors
1) Time. It is important to budget in some buffer time in addition to the amount of time for logistics – e.g. time to get to the photographing locations and to experience the research topics – for the participants to take photographs. The buffer time will help to mitigate the risk of putting unnecessary burden on participants’ regular activities. This is even more critical for those who had no prior experience with photographing because learning to capture one’s thoughts in photographs is like learning a new language. There should also be enough time budgeted to allow sufficient opportunities for participants to discuss the photographs and to come to their own conclusions and actions to take.
2) Researchers. The researchers are playing the role of facilitators for discussions and learning, and advocates of changes. Therefore, they should be able to create trust and a comfortable platform for participants to discuss openly. They should be comfortable with sharing power with participants on data analysis, formulation of conclusion and actions, and even selection of research topics. Additionally, researchers should be clear with their own stance on the issues that participants are advocating for change and actions through their photographs to avoid feeling of discomfort and misalignment of values.
3) Participants. They may be randomly or purposively sampled individuals; however, they need to understand what participatory action research means and that are comfortable with playing an advocacy role.

Is an expert needed?
No, no expert needed No prior experience with photovoice is required for researchers to use it in their project. Having some background in focus group discussions and being comfortable to engage with participants and research partners would be helpful. It is important to bear in mind that the objective of photovoice is not to take professional photographs. Instead the photographs are merely used as a tool to stimulate reflective discussions on an issue that needs actions and change. Researchers’ role is to facilitate partners to use photographs to communicate and reflect, and to draw their own conclusion and plan of actions, and to support participants in moving from thoughts to actions.

How to
Implementation steps
1) Determine whether photovoice is an appropriate method for a research project. Normally, research questions drive research design, which in turns influences the selection of research method. With photovoice, researchers and participants may agree that it is the method of choice before determining their research questions together. Because photovoice is a participatory action research, it demands a much greater degree of sharing of power and responsibilities between researchers and participants. Therefore, researchers would have less control over the research project relative to a non-participatory and a participatory research. If researchers are more interested in collaborating with participants to advocate for actions and change on an issue, then photovoice could be a good candidate method.

2) Apply to the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB is a committee that reviews and approves applications for research projects involving human subjects. The primary purpose of the IRB is to protect the rights and welfare of the human subjects. If your research institution has an IRB, then you would have to submit an application for conducting a research with human subjects. You can complete a training course for conducting a human subject research online at Researchers should carefully plan for procedures to protect the rights and welfare of the participants. If the research topics involve photographing children, youth or other vulnerable populations, extra care must be taken to protect the rights and welfare of these people. This includes discussing ethical issues with the participants and researchers early in the project (see item 5). Note that if your institution has an IRB, you cannot start participant recruitment until you have received an approval from the IRB.

3) Recruit participants. The research design should include sampling method and approach for recruiting participants. Sampling can be random and purposively. An example of purposively sampling technique is snowball sampling, where researchers rely on the referrals of participants to identify new participants. During recruitment of participants, researchers should give a project briefing, where project objectives and the photovoice process are explained. It is also at the recruitment when the consenting process is conducted with the participants to ensure that they understand the nature of their participation and that their participation is voluntary and confidential.

4) Determine photograph topics. The research questions again should help to determine the appropriate subject matters to photograph. If participants are involved in determining research questions, then they may also help with deciding photograph topics. As little directives as possible should be given regarding the content of the photographs. Rather, the emphasis should be on simplifying the photograph topics to eliminate any technical jargons and to sufficiently discuss the topics with participants to ensure that there is a common understanding of what they are asked to photograph.

5) Safety and ethical considerations. Researchers should discuss safety and ethical considerations with the photographers early on for example during recruitment. The central principles to discuss include not putting oneself in a dangerous position while photographing, and only taking photographs of other people if they would be comfortable being similarly photographed. Photographers need to exercise careful judgment when photographing people, particularly if the photographs can lead to embarrassment and/or legal implications, because people’s identities can be easily recognized in a photograph.

5) Camera instructions. Researchers should explain to participants the basic operational instructions of the project cameras -- such as taking and playing back a photograph and zooming in and out -- before they start photographing. A handout of these basic instructions can be handy for participants to have, if they are unfamiliar with digital photography.

6) Select photographs for group discussions. Researchers need to consider a reasonable number of photographs to be used for each group discussion to give participants sufficient time to discuss each photograph. It would not be advisable to place a limit on the number of photographs that a participant can take because this may worry some participants and stifle their creativity. The decision of selecting which photographs to discuss could be made by participants at the start of a group discussion. Researchers can simply ask participants to choose however many photographs that they consider as most important or illustrative of the research topics.

7) Group discussions with photographs. Researchers use group discussion to give a platform for participants to explain the meaning of their photographs and share their thoughts on the issues captured in the photographs with other participants to facilitate a critical reflection. In these discussions, research can start with simpler questions first to give participants a chance to warm up to the more difficult questions. Initial questions could simply be asking participants to explain what they are trying to capture in their photographs and why they took those photographs. As in a focus group discussion, research questions should influence discussion questions, which should aim at leading participants to delve deeper into an issue of concern. With photovoice, participants are expected to have multiple rounds of discussions with the photographs. At each round, researchers should facilitate participants to reflect deeper into the issue of concern and may ask participants to general new photographs for each session. These group discussions should ultimately help participants to decide on what actions they would take to advocate for change.

8) Document participant narratives and match them to photographs. During group discussion, researchers need to have an approach to document what participants said about each photograph. Some researchers prefer to record interviews, for which permission should be obtained from participants; while others prefer to keep written notes. Either way, researchers should take care to capture the richness of the narratives as fully as possible without being distractive to the group discussions. One way for researchers to match each narrative to the respective photograph is to number the photographs and use the number to organize the narratives.

9) Data analysis. In photovoice, participants may also be involved in analyzing their own narratives of the photographs and group discussion content. They can use common qualitative analysis techniques such as coding and content analysis to analyze the narratives and discussion content. The research questions would influence the type of qualitative analysis to be performed. If participants are more familiar with qualitative analysis methods, then researchers need to provide them with the necessary training.

10) A platform for a public discourse. Participants are encouraged to use their photographs and narratives to engage the public in a discourse on the issue of their concern. Researchers can help participants to achieve that by organizing a forum or an exhibition, and invite the public, including specific audience such as politicians or key decision-makers on the issue of concern. I have seen photovoice projects that led to exhibitions in the Capitol of the United States, local art galleries, as well as academic conferences. With the popularization of internet, one may even use social media or a webpage as a platform to engage the public. Researchers and participants should consider who their target audience is and the best way to engage them in a discourse when selecting the platform.

Data management
Researchers have a responsibility to protect the confidentiality of participants and those named in photographs as a part of data management. This entails using procedures to disassociate participant identities from their narratives during data analysis. Researchers can use numeric or alphabetic codes in place of participants’ identification in notes and data analysis files. Upon conclusion of the research project, any documents that contain identify information about the participants need to be destroyed according to the guidance by Institutional Review Board on research involving human subjects (See item 2 under Implementation steps).

Dissemination of the results
The confidentiality issue would have an implication on the dissemination of the photographs produced by participants in that researchers need to secure permission from the individuals in the photographs prior to reprinting them in public spaces. Participants also have to secure permission from individuals in the photographs if they want to disseminate the picture in public spaces. Similarly, participants’ identities need to be kept confidential from narratives accompanying photographs, when they are being disseminated.
There are a number of channels to disseminate results from research using photovoice. These include peer-review journals, conferences and forums, exhibitions, grey-literature and online platforms including blog pages and webinars. See step 10 of the implementation steps for a further discussion on that.

Good practice tips
As a participatory action research method, photovoice requires time and commitment because the achievement of project aim is dependent on trust building and genuine collaboration between researchers and participants. Therefore, researchers should take not to rush the process and be willing to share power and control with participants. Besides time and commitment, photovoice demands substantially more financial resources such as cameras and a platform for public discussion of the photographs than other participatory research methods.

Because photovoice is more about advocacy than about simply addressing research questions, this method requires skills beyond those that are commonly associated with researchers. It requires skills that are more often associated with advocacy groups and community-based organizations. It is possible for researchers to consider partnering with these groups and organizations to leverage their strengths and experience with mobilizing the public to bring about change.

What makes up for these drawbacks is that photovoice can be a very powerful method for researchers to engage participants in critical reflection about topics that can be controversial or taboo and to help them to bring about change. The impact of a photovoice project has the potential to be profound and extremely rewarding for those who are interested in advocacy work beyond conventional research.

Success stories
Photovoice has been applied in a variety of projects across the world because of it flexibility and potential for making positive impacts. Below is a list of some examples of photovoice projects implemented in different countries, under different contexts and for different causes.

Photovoices International is an international program that uses photovoice to give voices to community members in China and Indonesia to share important issues in their lives, and community strengths and challenges with policy-makers. The photovoice project in China was initiated to engage the rural villagers in the Yunnan Great Rivers Project to use photographs and their own words, written down by others, to communicate their knowledge, values, and concerns to those making plans for the future and to a global audience through a year-long exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. You can read more about these two projects at

PhotoVoice is a small charity that works with other NGOs to help them develop and implement photovoice projects all around the world. Building Resilience and Adaption to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) is one of their photovoice projects. They used photovoice to help rural villagers to share with other community members and decision-makers to raise awareness about the BRACED project and to promote reflection on the impact of climate change to the community. You can read more about this project and other examples at

Photovoice Hamilton has been coordinating and supporting Photovoice projects in Hamilton and the surrounding area. One of their projects is called Women’s Journey, where they helped women to share their experience and perception of women’s abuse, motherhood and poverty through photographs and an online platform at

University of Kansas has a website called Community Tool Box, where they have listed a number of photovoice projects such as the Southern West Virginia Photovoice Project and the Kaiser Permanente’s Community Health Initiatives Photovoice Project. In both projects, photovoice was used by community residents to document their community issues and to identify opportunities for change. You can read more about these projects at

To learn more
There are a number of freely available resources for photovoice. Some of the photovoice organizations in Success Stories also have useful resources such as how-to guides for photovoice: Photovoice Hamilton ( and University of Kansas ( The later website has checklist and a PowerPoint presentation summarizing the major points in photovoice.

Other online resources are:
“Chapter 3. Assessing Community Needs and Resources | Section 20. Implementing Photovoice in Your Community | Main Section | Community Tool Box.” 2016. Accessed October 9.

“Photovoice.” 2016. STEPS Centre. Accessed October 9.

Josh Schachter Photography Teaching Resources has a wide variety of useful resources for those looking to begin a Photovoice or other media-centered project in their community. It offers an extensive list of Community-Based Media and Storytelling Organizations that have conducted projects all across the globe. (

Then there are these seminal articles on photovoice by Caroline Wang and colleagues.
Wang, Caroline, and Mary Ann Burris. 1997. “Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment.” Health Education & Behavior 24 (3): 369–87. doi:10.1177/109019819702400309.

A Participatory Action Research Strategy Applied to Women's Health. Caroline Wang. Journal of Women’s Health, vol. 8. no.2, pp. 185-192, 1999.


Created on 10 Oct 2016 21:17 by Taryn Kong
Updated on 28 Nov 2016 13:25 by Barron Orr

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