“COVID Summer!”: My first experience with photovoice as a virtual youth activity

by Stephanie Lloyd

About me
Although I currently reside in San Francisco, I was born and raised in a suburb outside of Cleveland, Ohio. As a child, I enjoyed “setting up scenes” and taking pictures with a Polaroid camera. In middle school, my parents gave me my first SLR camera and enrolled me in a Black and White Darkroom photography course, and I’ve been taking pictures and developing film as a hobby ever since. After undergrad, I served with AmeriCorps, providing in-school support and after school programming to youth in D.C. During graduate school is when I first heard about photovoice from the amazing Maria Paiewonsky, who hosted a “lunch and learn” about using photovoice for her dissertation at the Institute for Community Inclusion in Boston, and then generously setup a time to talk with me further afterwards. I could not believe that my two loves – data and photography – could combine to form a methodology that provides an opportunity for underrepresented populations to have a say, develop new skills and power, and advocate for social change. Throughout my career, I’ve worked to include photovoice in evaluation and research projects in any way I can. All these experiences have led me to my favorite part of 2020!

This past spring, I dreamed up a vision where youth could have the opportunity to do something a little different (during this definitely different summer). It was a hypothetical dream until a couple colleagues told me to put it on paper so we could recruit parents. And thus, Young Changemakers with a Camera: Photovoice 2020 was created!

This is a waterfall called lower falls. It’s coming down from a swimming hole called the “devil’s bathtub”. Legend is that if you fall into the “devil’s bathtub” it will take you to the underworld. It’s actually only 7 feet deep. I didn’t fall into it, but they’ve done research. It’s supposed to be nearly impossible to escape it. It’s located down in Hocking Hills. -Marin, youth participant

How did this work?
A friend living in Ohio spoke about the project with her group of Girl Scout moms, and then provided emails so I could share project information and consent forms to those who were interested. After both the parents and the girls had given consent, each family was given access to an individual Google Drive folder where I could add notes and materials after each session, and the participating girls could add photos and captions. Girls were given the option to borrow a phone, iPad, or other camera as long as the photos were digital and could be uploaded to Google Drive.

I took this photo to symbolize that since Lakewood is a walkable town you should choose to walk or ride a bike instead of driving. If a lot more people choose to walk it would cost you less money because you won’t be needing as much gas and it will be a lot better for the environment. We always walk because downtown Lakewood is right down the street, but I also know a lot of people who choose not to walk, even though they can choose to walk they don’t.-Alma, Youth Participant

On Tuesdays and Thursdays during August, the PhotovoiceWorldwide summer intern and I met five rising middle schoolers on Zoom at 9:30am ET (6:30am PT) to execute my vision! Although I didn’t call it the “COVID project,” the girls were instructed to take photos about their summer – What do you like? What do you want to do more of? What do you wish you could do?

I choose to take a picture of the pool because I like to go swimming. This is the family pool in the background. My sister and I and a few neighborhood friends like to swim together.

-Charlotte, youth participant

Sessions included:

  1. Welcome to photovoice & careful photo-taking
  2. Photo sharing & caption writing
  3. Creating categories
  4. Selecting photos & revising captions
  5. Gallery walk & presentation practice
  6. Exhibit, celebration & reflection

Between each session the girls had “action steps” to complete. These included: taking photos related to the prompts, writing captions, drawing pictures, practicing their “photo presentations” and uploading materials to the folder.

We take a lot more walks because we are in the middle of a pandemic. We saw this bunny and it has one ear. I don’t know why I took this photo, but it has one ear. This was on a walk with my family in the neighborhood. -Ellie, youth participant

In one of the later sessions, the group talked about how to make it easier for others to understand our photovoice project by somehow grouping the photos in a way that made sense, much like the way clothes are arranged at a store. The girls identified the following categories (or themes) in their photos:

  • People
  • Water
  • Plants, flowers, vegetables
  • Summer necessities
  • Things we do in a typical summer
  • Things we are doing more because of COVID!
  • Mechanics: Moving around the neighborhood

We went to the beach. It’s of a growing wave and I took it because I was trying to get my camera inside a wave that’s curling over. I wasn’t able to do that so I came out with this. I thought this looked kinda weird so I decide to include it. Also, the original photo had a bunch of sky and I cropped out a bunch. I tried to make it look like the wave was bigger than it actually was. -Eleanor, youth participant

A few things I learned…

  • Having an already established group participate and one parent contact was critical to easily setting up the dates/timing. It was also nice that the girls already knew each other and had good rapport. Since they had been in the same Girl Scout troop for a number of years, the girls were comfortable working together on this project, and enjoyed spending this time with their friends during a summer of isolation. When working virtually, it can be hard to monitor feelings, so the positive dynamic of the group helped keep us on track.
  • In the first session, one girl said: “I don’t understand what we are going to be doing?” My reply: “Excellent point!” I went on to explain that photovoice projects feel a little confusing at first because they are shaped by the participants. So, although I would be here for guidance and support, it was the group of girls who would take pictures, write captions, and decide on what to present at the end. I also reassured the group that we would have something to present at the end as long as everyone fully participated in each session and completed the “action steps” in between. All of the girls happily agreed to move forward and work together on the project, even if they were not exactly clear about every up front – it was like a puzzle we would solve together.
  • Zoom sessions can be lively—full of laughs and fun! When planning each session, I made sure to switch activities every five minutes or so and frequently request feedback from the group. We started each session with a warmup, stood and stretched in the middle, and spent as little time as possible with me presenting in a school-like manner. When I needed to share information, I made sure my slides included colorful pictures along with prompts for the girls to read aloud or questions to answer. The group enjoyed typing in the chat, presenting their photos, and going into Breakout Rooms to complete smaller group tasks. Although a parent reported back that there was a lot of silliness in her daughter’s Breakout Room, they always arrived back at the main session with their tasks completed and ready to present. These girls knew how to have fun while also staying on top of things! 
  • This was an amazing experience: to listen to girls explain how they felt, see photos showcasing their sense of social isolation, and hear about what they wished for. At this critical time in our world, it was refreshing to work with smart, caring, thoughtful young people who wanted to learn something new and share their ideas with others.

Do you have a group of youth who would enjoy learning how to use their voice? Contact us at info@photovoiceworldwide.com to set-up a youth project tailored to your group.

Colleen Mackey and Laura Lorenz: You supported my dream and helped make this opportunity possible – Thank you! Special shout out to the five amazing girls from Girl Scout Troop 70863 in Lakewood, OH – you all are true rock stars, and your ideas, hard work, and passion will take you far!

Training Community Health Workers to support the African Immigrant: Photovoice project

By Stephanie Lloyd

“Pictures are powerful… Pictures represent how someone felt at that moment in time.”
–Training participant, African Immigrant Photovoice project

The African Immigrant Health Research Consortium (AIHRC) is a 7-member partnership comprising New England-based patients, providers, community organizations and researchers. During March 2020, the partners decided that in-person community forums would be halted due to COVID-19. In addition, they recognized the need for rapid responses to COVID-19 issues quickly emerging in African immigrant communities.

This summer, a ‘Talking with Pictures’ course alum reached out to our team to develop a training for Community Health Workers and to support the implementation of 6-8 photovoice projects across New England. The projects purpose is to systematically document and compile actual on-the-ground experiences and recommendations by African immigrants living throughout New England to support real-time development of effective, culturally and linguistically appropriate COVID-19 healthcare practices in the region. Project findings are intended to produce useful knowledge to inform interventions engaging African immigrant patients in COVID-19 prevention, testing and treatment options; and contribute to the body of knowledge needed for managing the capacity at hospitals and healthcare systems to adequately serve African immigrants during this and future pandemics.

Funded by Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), this enhancement aims to use photovoice to systematically:

(1) document challenges and successful strategies.
(2) provide recommendations for engagement in COVID-19
prevention, testing and treatment.

From the beginning, our team felt that using a photovoice method in this particular project would be true to Caroline Wang’s initial intentions to give a voice to those who have valuable lived experience, promote awareness of a problem and the potential solutions outlined by participants, and create a space to provide compelling evidence for changes in practices and policies.

In early September, PhotovoiceWorldwide staff delivered a 6-hour training to state-level consortium staff and Community Health Workers from all six New England states. Prior to the training, participants indicated that they were hoping to learn:

  • how to best facilitate and practice skills necessary to effectively complete the project,
  • the best methods to recruit members for the research, and
  • “How to use photovoice as a power tool to inform, collect, and engage the African community in understanding our health related issues—how to empower individuals.”

During the three, 2-hour sessions, participants learned about the photovoice method, gained hands-on experience in each step, developed photo-taking questions to guide their forthcoming projects, and discussed how to facilitate projects with their participants. During discussions with this highly engaged group, a number of interesting questions and options surfaced.

For the purposes of the training, participants were instructed to take a positive and a negative photo related to the photo-taking prompts:

  • Experiences as an African Immigrant living in New England;
  • What it’s like to be a nonprofit leader; or
  • What supports or detracts from completing work or educational goals.

Participants used their photos to write captions, develop preliminary themes, and reflect on what it was like to take pictures related to a prompt. In addition to familiarizing participants with photovoice’s participatory visual research method, this hands-on experience also allowed participants to experience and understand the tasks they would be asking their own photovoice participants to do.

“Having home with you”
–Asha, Training Participant, African Immigrant Photovoice

The photo pictured at left shows a hand with a henna tattoo. The participant who took this photo talked about feeling close to her sister without being together.

The group also talked about seeking permission from photo subjects, and the pros and cons of asking their participants not to include any photos that show faces, as an option.

“Where pain lies, hope grows”
–Azam, Training Participant, African Immigrant Photovoice

This photographer explained that COVID has not stopped growth, and the plant pictured represents hope to get to where we will be able to hug the people we love and be around them again.

During the module on caption-writing, a participant noted that facilitators can see different things in the photos, and thus it is extremely important to ask the photographer about what the photo means to them, and what decisions they made to take a specific photograph.

“COVID has created disorder”
– Emmerence, Training Participant, African Immigrant Photovoice

The “trash pile” shown at left is the physical representation of one person’s experience living during the current pandemic.

We usually offer our photovoice participants the option to take one photo that is ‘representational’ and documents something they want to show us, and another photo that is a metaphor, or a ‘symbol’ for their feelings. This photo was selected along with several others to showcase the overarching theme of being overwhelmed.

Training participants also reflected on the positive use of small groups prior to presenting photos to the larger group. The group concluded that this would be a successful strategy to help their photovoice participants get to know each other and gain confidence when speaking to the larger group.

We also talked about how to support participants who are not literate or who cannot write in English, and are fluent in other languages. Since the core principles of photovoice include voice and understanding, it is extremely important to consider languages. We talked about making sure to have a translator on the project team and the possible need to work with some participants in a small group or one-on-one setting. In addition, it might be necessary to use voice narration, or have the facilitator write the caption as the participant speaks. During the final exhibit or in any publications, captions could appear in multiple languages to keep the participant’s voice and intent at the forefront.

Community Health Workers are currently in the process of facilitating their photovoice sessions, which will yield rich data (in the form of photos and captions) by African immigrants living throughout New England. The culmination of these projects will be a virtual town hall, designed to foster dialogue about patient experiences with various stakeholders (e.g., providers, researchers, hospital administrators, etc.) across the region and gain feedback on themes. Finally, this will lead to a list of recommendations for effective models and practices to inform interventions engaging African immigrants in COVID-19 prevention, testing, and treatment options. 

In total, PhotovoiceWorldwide was slated to provide this team:

  • “Photovoice 101” training
  • Ongoing technical assistance for individual training sites
  • Advanced Photovoice trainings on facilitating photovoice projects remotely and working with participants to caption photos and develop themes
  • A bi-weekly check-in with the program coordinator throughout the project

This project is funded by Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Eugene Washington PCORI Engagement Award (17466-MAC).

If you and your team are interested in customized photovoice trainings or consulting, contact us at info@photovoiceworldwide.com.

Q&A with Nora Canellakis

A Conversation with PhotovoiceWorldwide’s Newest Intern

Nora Canellakis graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Spanish in May of 2020. We recently sat down with Nora to talk about her interests, views, and aspirations, as well as to learn about her experience taking PVWW’s seminal course, “Talking with Pictures.”

PVWW: You majored in anthropology, so you are obviously interested in people. How do you see this fitting in with your work at PVWW?

NK: Yes, I love people and find the study of the worlds of humans fascinating, be it cultural, linguistic, biological, or archaeological. I have found that my studies in anthropology have tied in well with the mission that PVWW seeks to accomplish. In particular, my background in visual ethnography falls right in line with photovoice’s work to provide individuals with cameras to be able to document and uncover the truths embedded in their own lives. In my studies my professor would always say, if only there were a way to provide the tools of the colonizer to those colonized themselves, hinting at the regrettable roots of the discipline of anthropology. I think the fact that photovoice does just that is essential. As a visual methodology, it provides tools and a space for people to share their experience and create social change. As a lover of photography, with an interest in people and a passion for learning and social justice, photovoice provides me with the opportunity to be able to meld these interests, to learn more about the lives of others, and to advocate for its use across social media platforms.

PVWW: I understand you are an avid writer. What is your favorite genre and why?

NK: I have always loved writing stories since I was a little kid. My mom is a writer, and I suppose taking after her I have a passion for writing fiction and autobiographical narratives based on everyday experience. I love the ability that words have to paint vibrant images and scenes. The use of fun descriptors to convey the sensory details of a space. I enjoy words that communicate experiences of touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell. In essence, I enjoy the ability of words to transport readers into their imagined scenery and to express lived experience. 

PVWW: What is the last book you read, and what did it teach you?

NK: I dove into The Twilight Saga novels a few months ago. The release of a new book, Midnight Sun, by Stephanie Meyer, prompted me to reread the series. I am just finishing the last novel, Breaking Dawn. It has inspired me to marvel at the power of narration to transport readers to fictitious worlds, and the depth of detail that can be provided to breathe life into that reality. It reminds me to believe in the power of imagination to surpass boundaries, and to create the magic in our everyday lived experience.  

PVWW: You are of Greek heritage, and have visited Greece multiple times with your family. How has that changed or add to your worldview?

NK: My family heritage adds to my understanding of myself, my cultural identity as a whole, and has enriched my understanding of the diversity that exists in our world. As a half-Greek American, when I was young, I would travel to Greece every other summer to visit my paternal grandfather who lived in Galatas. My Greek heritage has shaped who I am today. During my trips there I was able to get a taste of life in the Peloponnese, and to carry shells back with me to remember the beaches. My grandmother would always say that language is a window into a culture, and I truly believe it is. Fluency in Spanish, acquired during my study abroad in Spain, allowed me to become fully immersed in Spanish customs and way of life while living in Salamanca, Spain. Interacting with global cultures in my family travels and studies has allowed me to understand and cultivate an appreciation for the beauty of the diverse identities that make up our world today. Because of this I see myself as a global citizen, and I enjoy engaging with friends from all over the world.

Nora and her family on one of their trips to Greece

PVWW: What inspired you to pursue an internship at PhotovoiceWorldwide, and what do you hope to get out of it?

NK: My best friend growing up, Carson Peters, a former PhotovoiceWorldwide intern, recommended that I, with my love of visual arts and photography, apply, and I am so happy she did! I feel so fortunate to have come across PhotovoiceWorldwide! I hope to continue to develop the skills I have cultivated in my undergraduate studies, in a career environment. I hope to be an activist for social change, raising awareness of relevant issues, and to work in visual storytelling. I’m happy to be a part of the team!

PVWW: You recently completed the course Talking with Pictures. What did you enjoy most about the course, and what was your greatest takeaway?

NK: Yes, I did complete Talking with Pictures! I really enjoyed the content of the course, and to be able to study the theoretical underpinnings of photovoice and its original use among women in Yunnan Province, China, to effect policy change. I enjoyed how the course assignments allowed us to act as participants in the photovoice model, using photographs and captions to convey experience literally and symbolically. I enjoyed learning about how photovoice can be used to support individuals with disabilities and those recovering from traumatic brain injury. Additionally, I enjoyed Laura’s teaching style, the variety of tools and resources she shared as a complement to the methodology, and the way in which she integrated personal experience into each lesson so that the information went beyond the classroom. I loved the opportunity to be able to share a learning space with individuals from around the world, to hear their experience, and see how they were able to adapt the photovoice methodology to their project of interest.

PVWW: Are you considering graduate school? If so, what academic field would you choose, and why?

NK: I am considering graduate school. Particularly I am interested in attending a cinematic arts program that specializes in digital content creation for documentary storytelling. I think the power of images to convey stories is infinite, and it is an essential skill to have. I think that a visual arts-based program would provide me with the flexibility, structure, and tools to be able to create content to share experience, educate others, and tell stories. I enjoy the medium of film. It would be an exciting experience to develop these interests further in an academic setting, and use images to highlight awareness for themes such as environmental activism, sustainability, gender, identity, and animal welfare.

Talking with Pictures

By Nora Canellakis

I recently completed the online course Talking with Pictures: Photovoice, taught by Dr. Lorenz. It was a great introduction to photovoice as a visual methodology and its use to create projects for social justice. I was excited for this opportunity to learn about how photos and lived experience can heal and spark change. We unearthed the theoretical foundations that are the basis for this methodology, with its roots in anthropology, feminist theory, and documentary photography. As a student of anthropology with an affiliation for visual arts, I was able to connect with this approach immediately. The photovoice projects Dr. Lorenz has done with those affected by traumatic brain injury, using images to reflect experience, particularly resonated with me as the younger sibling of an older brother who survived a stroke at birth. I was able to see how versatile the photovoice approach is and how insightful the data is that it provides.

What began among a group of village women in Yunnan province, China, working as visual anthropologists to effect policy change, has been developed and transformed into a universal participatory visual research method through the work of Dr. Lorenz and others, in which cameras become tools for empowerment.

Blind Walkway Beijing Sidewalk- Diana Weggler in the Talking with Pictures: Photovoice course

Defined during the course, photovoice is a creative approach to exploring and enhancing the lives of individuals and their communities according to their own concerns and interests. Regardless of a participant’s literacy level, photovoice taps into the universal language of photos, allowing community members with insight into their own communities to become catalysts for change. The work of Dr. Lorenz, beginning as a photojournalist, has taken her around the world photographing development efforts and leading photovoice projects for group and community empowerment. Her work and insight enrich the course, as she provides lessons with real-life anecdotes and stories into the execution and outcomes of photovoice projects.

The course allows for collaboration among participants to share their ideas and explore the photovoice approach for themselves. Assignments brought me out with my own camera, taking photos to document experience, and then called for reflection on those images to understand the experience they communicate. We learned how to arrange photos thematically according to common ideas or experiences. We also discovered that photovoice participants should not shy away from capturing both positive and negative aspects of their realities, as all add value to the group process.

I was able to utilize photographs to capture and explain my experience living with my family in West Cornwall, Connecticut, during the pandemic. I saw the power of an image through its ability to illuminate detail from the photographer’s vantage point, and learned the importance of pairing a caption with a photograph, to contextualize it within the narrative of one’s experience.

“Blurry Family Photo”- Nora Canellakis in the Talking with Pictures: Photovoice course

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to be an active participant in this course. Our small session included participants from around the globe engaged in work across fields, yet collaborating on photovoice methodology together. We were a virtual gathering of four engaging in a common space. As such, across each class meeting it felt like we got to know each other, as our thoughts and ideas were shared in this intimate virtual classroom environment. I witnessed how images can be used to capture individualized experience and, utilizing course tools and planning pages as guides, was able to map out a photovoice project of my own. I learned a lot over these sessions, and highly recommend others to take this class too!

The Power of Photos for Protesting: Part 2

By Carson Peters 

In Part 1 of this blog we talked about how protest photos from the BLM convey stories of activism; showcase change-makers; evoke feelings of solidarity, resistance, and advocacy; and demonstrate political action. By illuminating voice and engaging communities, these photos can reframe the narrative of BLM through this powerful visual tactic. 

How does Photovoice contribute to the conversation of BLM protest photos? Let’s explore this further by delving into how several theories and the framework of Photovoice reflect social justice approaches in BLM protest photos.  

Feminist Theory: This theory positions women at the forefront within the dominant and marginalized social discourses. By rejecting institutionalized pedagogies (historical, economic, political, and social structures), feminist theory allows women to advance social change (Lienbenberg 2011). Photovoice uses this theory for the collaboration and inclusion of women to foster empowerment and liberation (Lienbenberg 2011; Wang et al., 1996). BLM is a movement created by three women who sought to be change-makers for issues affecting their community. Both Photovoice and BLM empower women to be voices and leaders within their communities, discourse, and discipline. 

Paulo Freire’s critical consciousness theory creates awareness in communities and illuminates the importance of social change. This pedagogy describes the impetus for using photos to illustrate how social and political realities shape people’s lived experiences (Lienbenberg 2011). Critical consciousness is when individuals gain awareness of oppressive structures, where communities have the propensity to mobilize against these systems of power.  (Lienbenberg 2011). The Freire theory reflects ideals of BLM where the “praxis for change and collective action of the community work together to create meaningful change” (Lienbenberg 2011). 

The principles of photography expand upon how photography can be a visual tool for creating representation, advocacy and social change. Wang and Burris (1994) explore the “essentiality of documentary photography for narrative research; where photos critically reflect lived experiences, and fundamentally represent “signifiers of culture, values and expectations of individuals, communities, and society” (Lienbenberg 2011). In doing so, Photovoice uses this framework to evoke policy change. BLM uses protest photos and visual methods to shape a narrative for social change and advocacy. Through the tactics of grassroots and community member-led network, the ideals of agency and voice are exercised to foster meaningful impact in communities. This often occurs through the lens of political reform or policy. 

Photovoice utilizes the community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) model which emphasizes the “democratization of knowledge development as a component of social justice” (Lienbenberg 2011). CBPAR recognizes the mobilization in communities, where the inherent knowledge, realties, needs and expertise are valued (see model pictured below), and social transformation can take place. Both Photovoice principles and BLM engage communities, promote grounded experiences and knowledge; and value how participation, and action, lead to social change/justice. 

Within BLM protest photos, there are ethical considerations of ownership, usage, and consent, which also hold relevancy in Photovoice projects. The notion of ownership includes the misuse or misrepresentation of photos, which can be taken out of context or abused from the original intentionality. Thus, there is a need to ensure that individuals “sharing the messages best understand the language and what needs to be said” (The Guardian 2020). Ethical considerations of usage emerge since some photos may receive more recognition or have more relevancy (Brehman 2016). There is a pressing need for BLM protest photos to be representative and authentic. This ethical consideration is discussed in many Photovoice projects, as well in the context of how to best to share and which photos should be recognized. Consent is also an ethical consideration, since the identity of the protestors should be protected if consent is not granted, which is also the case for Photovoice projects. Overall, the ethical considerations of BLM protest photos represent ethical considerations that should be considered for Photovoice projects. 

The ideals of community, participation, advocacy, and agency are illuminated in visual methods. At the heart of what we do at PhotovoiceWorldwide LLC is to create awareness, foster dialog, bring real lives into practice and policy conversations, and plant seeds for change within the global community. This photovoice method ideal complements how BLM protest photos recognize the power of using visual methods to enhance participatory approaches and decision making among policy makers. These visual method approaches demonstrate the power of advocacy in being change leaders in global communities and mobilizing change agents. The photovoice method and BLM protest photos are examples of ways to empower communities by providing opportunities to use their collective voices and share/value an individual’s and a group’s lived experiences to create positive impact in global communities.  

So, how can you get involved? 

  • Create a photobook, photo journal, or photo essay about social justice initiatives in your local area. Make sure to align with ethical considerations. Reflect on this project. 
  • Listen to this Ted Talk Playlist about the Power of Protest.  
  • Reflect on: What role can photographs play in revealing injustice? What role can they play in encouraging people to act against injustice?  
  • Read about Teaching Tolerance

NA. (2020). Black Lives Matterhttps://blacklivesmatter.com/about/ 
Bell, Brandon et. al.(2020). Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/jun/12/capturing-the-cry-for-change-photographers-on-the-blm-protests 
Brehman, Caroline. (2016). An Analysis of the Iconic Images from the Black Lives Matter Movement.” Elon University. https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/communications/journal/wp-content/uploads/sites/153/2018/05/07_Brehman.pdf 
Coscarelli, Joe. (2020). #BlackoutTuesday: A Music Industry Protest Becomes a Social Media Moment. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/02/arts/music/what-blackout-tuesday.html 
Ghreichi, Christine.  (2016). Black Lives Matter and Social Justice.” University of Minnesota. https://cla.umn.edu/news-events/story/black-lives-matter-and-social-justice 
Hanna, Philippe. (2016). Conceptualizing social protest and the significance of protest actions to large projects. The Extractive Industries and Society.  
Liebenberg, Linda. (2018). “Thinking Critically About Photovoice: Achieving Empowerment and Social Change International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406918757631 
Patrick, Stewart. (2020). “Black Lives Matter—for Social Justice, and for America’s Global Role”. World Politics Review.  https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28839/black-lives-matter-for-social-justice-and-for-america-s-global-role 
Speltz, Mark. (2016). How Photographs Define the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter Movements. Time Magazine. https://time.com/4429096/black-lives-matter-civil-rights-photography/ 
Taylor, Alan. (2020). Images From a Worldwide Protest Movement. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2020/06/images-worldwide-protest-movement/612811/ 

Part 2: Disposable Cameras: Rethinking Image-making with Photovoice

By Erica Belli

I am a big fan of disposable cameras, both for my personal work and for photovoice purposes. Disposable cameras have a limited number of images each. What better way to encourage your photovoice participants to concentrate and really think about their images? I’ve also noticed that younger generations are intrigued by this “vintage” tool, and treat it with respect. They know about film cost and the lack of infinite opportunities to retake the same photo. Because of these limitations, I find disposable cameras to be a great tool for “brain image making” as well. And this is a “life skill” that participants can use in other areas of their life, beyond their photovoice projects. By helping participants learn how to concentrate and think about their images, you may be helping them build skills that enable them to envision future possibilities for themselves in their everyday lives.  

Usually when we take a picture with a digital or film camera (even with our cell phones), we have a certain amount of power over the process. We can adjust the camera’s shutter speed, the aperture, and the depth of field. We can use different types of film – color, black and white, fast speed, slow speed. However, when we use disposable cameras, we need to change our point of view regarding the technical aspects of taking a photograph. Getting the most out of your disposable camera may mean adjusting yourself instead.  

Disposable cameras have limited flexibility: they have certain settings you cannot change. For example, they have a:  

  • Fixed lens (usually 35mm- allowing for a wide angle to shoot even landscape photos) 
  • Fixed aperture (something around 8.0f – where everything that is about four or more feet away should be in focus) 
  • Fixed speed (1/125- so that subjects can look still) 
  • Fixed ISO (usually 400). 

The fixed aspects of a disposable camera means that we, as photographers, need to adjust to these settings. Therefore, to successfully translate the image in our head into a picture, we need to know first how your camera “sees” and the types of issues we could encounter on your path to getting the image we want. 

There are three common issues that frustrate people when looking at photos they have taken with a disposable camera. For each issue, I provide some remedial strategies. The examples provided are from a photovoice project I facilitated with migrant youth in the town of Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, in Italy.   

Issue: Low Light / Dark Picture  

© Photo from “Spunti di Vista”- a photovoice project with migrant youth in the town of Cinisello Balsamo, Milan. Used with permission. 

Issue: The disposable camera sees much less light than we do, therefore, the image may be darker than we expect. When you are taking a photo outdoors near sunset or dawn, keep in mind that the camera will record the image as if the time were an hour later in the evening or an hour earlier in the morning, when the light is lower and darkness more prominent. 

  • Strategy 1: To understand the camera’s point of view on light, try this exercise: Squeeze your eyelids close together, as if you were to almost close your eyes. Observe how doing this darkens or mutes what you see. That is how your disposable camera sees or records incoming light. Whatever the camera sees through its lens and records on film will be darker than what you see with your eyes wide open.  
  • Strategy 2: If you are taking a photo indoors – unless you are near a window during a bright day – use the camera’s built-in flash to avoid blurry or indistinct images.  

Issue: Blurry pictures/out of focus  

© Photo from “Spunti di Vista”- a photovoice project with migrant youth in the town of Cinisello Balsamo, Milan. Used with permission. 

Issue: With disposable cameras – and Polaroid cameras as well – the lens cannot focus on any object closer than four feet away. Anything closer than four feet away will look blurry and out of focus in the printed image. However, when the photographer looks through the viewfinder, the image will not look blurry! So how can your participants take photos from a close-up perspective?  

© Photo by Erica Belli 

Strategy: Use the camera creatively to show different areas of interest in the same picture (especially when trying to give perspective or a specific focus in a photo). I took this shot with a b/w disposable camera in Venice. To add depth of field to it, I decided to frame the grid in front of me into the picture. Because of its proximity I knew that it would come out blurry (or out of focus) in the final print. This served my intention well: to bring all the viewer’s attention to the man walking in the rain.  

Issue: Centering and composing pictures  

© Photo by Erica Belli 

Issue: What we see through the camera’s “viewfinder” is slightly different from what the actual camera lens will see and record. With most disposable cameras, the viewfinder is separate from the camera lens, often slightly to the left. 

Strategy: This shift means that if we want to have a particular object or person in the center of the photo, we need to adjust how we are pointing the camera. We will need to move the subject in the viewfinder a bit to the side – which will place our camera lens right where we want it. Here is where our mental image for a photo may be useful. What angle will compose the picture the way we want it to look? How do we need to move or point the camera to get the image we want? 

Other issues that can affect photo-taking for photovoice when using disposable cameras include: Mixed light source, sticky fingers, accidental shots, and foggy pictures. The handout Disposable Cheat Sheet provides a quick overview of the issues noted in this blog post and strategies for avoiding them. Use the “Cheat Sheet” as a quick reference guide to support your photovoice participants’ photo-taking.  

In conclusion, disposable cameras can be an excellent option for photovoice projects. Participants can use them to take great pictures. Some simple instructions from you, as a photovoice researcher or facilitator, will help participants use their limited number of pictures to their best advantage. The strategies described in this blog post are based on my photographic training and on actual experience facilitating photovoice. I hope the practical ideas presented here will help you support your participants in getting good images and feeling pleased with their photovoice photos. 

Erica Belli – 

Erica is an educator and photographer based in Italy. She studied at the Italian Institute of Photography and is currently attending the Faculty of Psychology of the G.Marconi University. She facilitates photovoice projects in Northern Italy and focuses on photo-creative approaches to therapy. 

The Power of Photos for Protesting

By Carson Peters, PhotovoiceWorldwide Summer Intern

We’ve seen the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. However, without protest photos, our “framing” would be different.  

Black Lives Matter is an internationally recognized grassroots social movement that advocates for justice for the Black community. Founded in 2013 by three Black female organizers, the movement affirms the lives and humanity of all Black persons, reducing systemic prejudices, mobilizing communities to be agents of change, and capitalizing on local power. Visit this link to learn more https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/.  

Core to the BLM mission is the use of nonviolent, civil disobedient protesting. This purposeful strategy creates resistance, and can lead a powerful collective voice to influence decisions that lead to social change (Hanna 2016; Ghreichi 2016). By using these approaches and frameworks, BLM encourages dialogue and raises awareness to influence policy through mass mobilization and organization, political interventions, and other reform. BLM represents a holistic movement that empowers individuals to use their voices for change. 

It is important to note the global focus of BLM. These protests are occurring worldwide and not in a vacuum. The Black Lives Matter Global Network and The Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc., which are housed within BLM, seek to mobilize the global community. BLM has actively mobilized a global outcry for social justice (Patrick 2020) via the advancement of human liberty and dignity worldwide. Here are some protest photos from around the world, published in a photo journal in The Atlantic, curated by Alan Taylor. Check here to see more.  

Thousands of people demonstrate in Cologne, Germany, on June 6, 2020, to protest against racism and the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis.” Martin Meissner / AP. Taken from “Images From a Worldwide Protest Movement” by Alan Taylor in The Atlantic.  
“In Seoul, South Korea, people march to protest during a solidarity rally over the death of George Floyd on June 6, 2020.” Ahn Young-joon / AP. Taken from “Images From a Worldwide Protest Movement” by Alan Taylor in The Atlantic.  
“Demonstrators protest against racism and hate crimes during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 7, 2020.” Silvia Izquierdo / AP. Taken from “Images From a Worldwide Protest Movement” by Alan Taylor in The Atlantic.  

Protest photos show a multitude of BLM themes, including: emotion, engagement, documentation, meaning, support, and purpose. 

Here are some themes from photographers who have recently photographed BLM protests. 

Emotion: Photos illuminate feelings. A photographer in Minneapolis indicates, “throughout the day, I was photographing: joy, mourning, and reflectance; and at the end of the night, I was photographing anger, frustration, and turmoil” (Bell, The Guardian 2020). Another photographer indicated that BLM photos illustrate mistrust, hopelessness, and determination (Speltz 2016). These photographs convey emotions that are expansive and diverse. Images are both valuable and powerful because they instantly guide emotional responses, even before logic, and can motivate action (Brehman, 2016; Wakeland, 2013). 

A protester is silhouetted against flames from a burning building
“A protester is silhouetted against flames from a burning building” By Bell, Brandon. (2020). [photography]. Minneapolis, Minnesota. From The Guardian in “Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests.”  

Photos capture moments in time and space by serving as historical documentation—of meetings, marches, and demonstrations. These protest photos “document, preserve, inspire, attest, and provide evidence” to showcase moments in time (Speltz 2016). BLM protest photos will inform citizens, activists, and scholars far into the future.   

Mourners carry George Floyd’s casket into the memorial service
“Mourners carry George Floyd’s casket into the memorial service.” Bell, Brandon. (2020). [photography]. Minneapolis, Minnesota. From The Guardian in “Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests.”  

Photos encourage change agents and mobilizers to take action. Speltz (2016) mentions that, protest photos “convey immediacy and inspire activism.”  

Hundreds march to protest the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others
Hundreds march to protest the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.  Jarrus, Sylvia. (2020). [photography]. Detroit, Michigan. From The Guardian in “Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests 

Photos portray meaning and share stories, where photographers act as “translators of these times and the teachers of our stories” (The Guardian 2020). Photos communicate messages, both personal and societal. Photos from BLM protests convey meaning through their content, structure, or composition (Brehman, 2016). 

Crossing the Brooklyn bridge
Marchers cross the Brooklyn bridge.  Ngala, Flo. (2020). [photography]. New York. From The Guardian in “Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests.” 

The purposes of protest photos are versatile and multi-pronged: some photos “tell stories and illuminate the joys and struggles of everyday people working for change, whereas others reveal how local people and their communities are suffering” (Spetlz 2016). Photos may be raw, and real, while others may be uplifting. Photos may be authentic, or somewhat manufactured or staged. The purpose of protest photos encompasses many reasons, but the intention remains within the purview of the photographer. 

On the first night of protests, Louisville Metro police officers don riot gear and create a line between protesters and the Hall of Justice.
On the first night of protests, Louisville Metro officers don riot gear and create a line between protesters and the Hall of Justice.”  Cherry, Jonathan. (2020). [photography]. Louisville, KY. The Guardian in “Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests.”

Photos can demonstrate support of social movements. Protest photos can be deployed through social media as a tool, either by reposting photos using #BLM or sharing photos from #BlackoutTuesday on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. These social media-based BLM actions swept across local platforms and allowed supporters across the globe to express solidarity with the movement.   

Protest photos create a visual narrative emblazoned in time and space 

Protest photos are a visual time capsule. BLM protest photos are situated within a social context. While these photos are captured in real time, they are placed in a historical archive of knowledge and social evolution. Such photos not only enhance the visibility of social movements and historical events, but also act as symbols. Protest photos shared via various outlets and sources tell a multitude of stories, conveying “the intensity of the struggle, but also, the massive resistance to change” (Speltz 2016). Through these stories, symbols emerge which “serve as ‘frames’ that “construct narratives about politics, society, and identity” (Spratt, 2008). Using the mechanisms of stories and symbols, photos reinforce agency by allowing mobilizers or change agents to reform the narrative and communicate their experiences of solidarity and resistance. These photos “generate a new narrative surrounding race and police brutality,” where the tactics of re-use and repetition reshape collective memories” (Brehman 79, 2016). Thus, protest photos have the propensity to influence a shift in attitudes, ideologies, and policies.  

A teenage protester displays her home-made sign to officers at a blockade at the City Hall
“Teenage protesters displays their home made-signs to officers at a blockade at the City Hall”. Cherry, Jonathan. (2020). [photography]. Louisville, KY. The Guardian in “Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests” 
A local Black Lives Matter organiser leads the march towards the heavily kitted police line.
“A local Black Lives Matter organiser leads the march toward the heavily kitted police line”.  Cherry, Jonathan. (2020). [photography]. Louisville, KY. The Guardian in “Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests”  

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog, where I explore how Photovoice frameworks and theories apply to BLM protest photos. Check out more BLM protest photos here

Sources Consulted: 

NA. (2020). Black Lives Matterhttps://blacklivesmatter.com/about/ 

Bell, Brandon et. al.(2020). Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests.  

The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/jun/12/capturing-the-cry-for-change-photographers-on-the-blm-protests 

Brehman, Caroline. (2016). An Analysis of the Iconic Images from the Black Lives Matter Movement.” Elon University. https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/communications/journal/wp-content/uploads/sites/153/2018/05/07_Brehman.pdf 

Coscarelli, Joe. (2020). #BlackoutTuesday: A Music Industry Protest Becomes a Social Media Moment. New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/02/arts/music/what-blackout-tuesday.html 

Ghreichi, Christine.  (2016)Black Lives Matter and Social Justice.” University of Minnesota. https://cla.umn.edu/news-events/story/black-lives-matter-and-social-justice 

Hanna, Philippe. (2016). Conceptualizing social protest and the significance of protest actions to large projects. The Extractive Industries and Society.  

Liebenberg, Linda. (2018). “Thinking Critically About Photovoice: Achieving Empowerment and Social Change International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406918757631 

Patrick, Stewart. (2020). “Black Lives Matter—for Social Justice, and for America’s Global Role”. World Politics Review. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28839/black-lives-matter-for-social-justice-and-for-america-s-global-role 

Speltz, Mark. (2016). How Photographs Define the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter Movements. Time Magazine. https://time.com/4429096/black-lives-matter-civil-rights-photography/ 

Taylor, Alan. (2020). Images From a Worldwide Protest Movement. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2020/06/images-worldwide-protest-movement/612811/ 

Facilitating Better Photographs with Photovoice: Part 1

By Erica Belli

An area that has received less attention with photovoice is the technical issues related to taking photographs. In Part I of this blog post, I draw from my own experience as a photographer and photovoice facilitator to prepare your photovoice participants to take better photos. In Part 2 I underline some of the common issues that may lead to participants’ frustration with their photovoice photos, and provide strategies to avoid or overcome these issues.

As photovoice researchers and facilitators, we know all too well that the beauty of the photo itself is not our core objective. We care more about photos that are thoughtful, insightful and representative. However, closer attention to preparing to take a photo – before having the camera in hand – can help participants feel more at ease with their cameras and their photo assignment. Spending a few minutes on some basic photography training can improve participants’ ability to take photos they feel proud of and are willing to share outside the photovoice group.

Step 1: Form a mental image

At photography school, I was taught that a picture should be formed in your mind first, before you take up your camera. My teachers conveyed to me that the job of a photographer is to extract this mental image as faithfully as possible. 

How do we define a mental image and help our photovoice participants create an image in their minds? To begin, I facilitate short activities so that participants can visualize pictures and scenes in their heads. For example, I ask them to think about their commute home, or a street that they know very well.  Then I ask them to close their eyes and describe the scene. I might ask questions to support their mental image-making, such as:  

  • “What time of the day is it?” 
  • “At what point does your image begin?” 
  • “What do you see in the corners of the image?” 
  • “Is there anything in particular happening?”

This simple, imaginative exercise provides participants with a brief yet powerful experience of what “an image in your head” looks and feels like. Depending on your group and the time you have for photography training, you might encourage participants to continue this mental practice on their own time, outside the project sessions – perhaps for each image they want to take for the photovoice project.

Step 2: Take a picture that matches the image in your mind

Ask participants how they plan to achieve the picture in their mind. Are they going to show up at the place at a certain time of day or night? Is there anything they can do to help set up their scene and realize their vision? What do they need to have with them to create the image they want (a scarf, some flowers, an old shoe)? If your participants are like mine, you will soon find yourself debating over the features of the camera and different ways to get the picture they want.

Part of learning to take photographs involves making choices or compromises with the camera. When making choices, photovoice photographers will want to consider the intention or purpose of the photo, the framing that will focus on the important subject, and the light that will shine in the final print. It is important to prioritize  these aspects, which takes practice. Making a conscious choice about the top priority for any one image will help your participants to take photos that best match the mental images in their minds.

To explore a mind image gone well, let me introduce you to an example from my own photography: a night shot taken in Japan in 2016 (Photo 1).

Even though this may look like a spontaneous picture, it was indeed born in my head as a mental image, months prior. The year before I had taken a trip to China where I’d started drawing my inspiration for night shots: the neon lights  reflecting on the water or shining in an alley were so appealing. I wanted to catch a glimpse of that magic, but I wondered how. I shot a couple of pictures during that trip but I wasn’t satisfied with them.

I realized I had to first work on my mental image. While drawing inspiration from Japanese painter Koitsu’s work and researching night shots, a picture started to form in my mind. I envisioned a vertical shot, like much of Koitsu’s work. It had to be colorful with neon signs and paper lanterns and I knew I wanted a sense of movement in my photo.

As I was walking down an alley in Nagasaki, I saw the opportunity to bring all this to life. It had just lightly rained, and I realized the wet signs would show even brighter if I used the flash directly below them. The sun had just set, meaning that even signs at the very end of the picture could still show, an advantage for reaching a sense of depth. I knelt down and tilted my head a bit to give the picture a sense of movement. I waited until people walked off a little further, and I finally clicked the shutter. My mental image was finally alive!

Let’s discuss some practical examples: Suppose I am taking a picture while it is getting darker. If my intent is to take a portrait of the person in front of me, I want the person to be clear and in focus. I do not care as much if the surroundings are over exposed, blurred or unrecognizable. If I am using an SLR film camera, I might widen the lens aperture and increase the shutter speed so that the person is recognizable and in focus, while their surroundings fade into the background.

Or, suppose I am taking a photo of a neighborhood street at night. When it is dark, objects and people on the street may be indistinct. Perhaps that is what I want. If not, I might need to take my photo late in the day but before it is actually dark, to show more of what I want in the image. If my intention is to document the scene’s details and the ongoing actions that are unfolding , then I will make choices that show those actions. I might decide that I am okay with some parts of the photo looking slightly darker and less distinct than others. I might decide that seeing any one person’s face clearly and in focus is less important.  In that case, I would adjust the camera settings such that more of the street scene is in focus in the frame, and the individual details are blurred.

Thus, each photovoice photo your participants take involves making compromises and setting priorities in order to meet their goal or intention for the image. By first forming a mental image of the photo they want to take, they will be able to make better decisions .

Next, we need to think about the medium itself – our choice of camera. The choice of camera for photovoice involves instructing participants on its use. The choice is also crucial to achieving great images. In my photovoice projects I have often provided participants with disposable cameras, which have both technical advantages and limitations. In part 2, I will review the use of disposable cameras with photovoice and the ways their use can prompt us to rethink image making.

Erica Belli is an educator and photographer based in Italy. She studied at the Italian Institute of Photography and is currently attending the Faculty of Psychology of the G.Marconi University. She facilitates photovoice projects in Northern Italy and focuses on photo-creative approaches to therapy. 

An earlier PhotovoiceWorldwide blog post by Stephanie Lloyd (Options for Photovoice Photo Taking), introduced us to different camera options, their pros and cons, and a brief overview of their use in photovoice projects.

Strengthening Brain Injury Support Groups Through Photovoice

By Stephanie Lloyd 

People find their voices in many different ways – photovoice is a way to align what I’m thinking through pictures. –BIA-MA Support Group Leader & Photovoice Training Participant  

PhotovoiceWorldwide staff recently facilitated a training with Support Group Leaders from the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts (BIA-MA), to prepare them to facilitate photovoice with their group members. Participants gained hands-on experience with the method as they took photos related to a prompt, discussed them with their colleagues, developed captions, and identified common themes. All the photos shared in this blog were taken by BIA-MA support group leaders for this training.  

As we have said before, all our trainings are participatory in nature, and thus are slightly different each time based on participants’ needs and interests. This particular group asked questions and thought deeply about how to adapt the photovoice method for their support group members.  

Here are a few different topics and reflections that emerged during the training sessions:  

  • Overall, taking photos and talking about them increases opportunities to hear about what people have to say. And as Caroline Wang originally envisioned, a successful photovoice project can help participants feel that they have been heard. Support group leaders noted that individuals living with brain injury may use photovoice to help family members understand their experience and to be seen by the community in a different way.  
  • Although there are plenty of options for facilitating photovoice remotely, this group expressed preference for the rich experience of facilitating photovoice in-person. Yet facilitating photovoice remotely may grow in importance if the pandemic continues to prevent in-person meetings for the foreseeable future. PhotovoiceWorldwide will be working with BIA-MA staff to develop written materials, screen shots, and videos on Zoom features and photo sharing that can support use of the technology with support groups online.  Experience during the professional development sessions showed that with tailored training and supports, BIA-MA support group leaders can help their diverse participants fully share their photos and join in discussions online. (For information about facilitating photovoice remotely see our related blog post and recorded webinar.) 
A wooden table

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Photo taken by Laura M. 
  • During discussions, a leader offered that photovoice might naturally attract support group members who are interested in photography. She noted that it is important to emphasize photo content over beauty, and that most important is for participants to take photos that express something they want to say. Leaders suggested emphasizing with your group that photovoice is not about being a professional photographer or creating a “display worthy” image, but about sharing ideas and communicating something of significance.  They noted that when participants use film cameras, they don’t have a chance to erase or delete their images, and sometimes a “bad” photo makes for good discussion. At the same time, however, a digital camera can make it easier for people to “get the picture that they want.”  
A close up of a cage

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Photo taken by Cynthia C. 

At the end of our time together, BIA-MA support group leaders expressed their excitement about facilitating photovoice with their group members and the potential for the method to have value for their groups. One leader commented: “I’m truly looking forward to seeing the creativity of all of the participants. It’s a great opportunity to get to know people on another, more personal level.” 

We truly appreciate this collaboration with BIA-MA, and will continue to support their work to strengthen healing and advocacy for people living with brain injury in Massachusetts. To find out more about their work, please visit: http://www.biama.org/.   

If your organization or team might be able to use photovoice in their work, please reach out so we can design a specialized training to meet your needs!  

Critical Thinking Part 2: Strategies and Tools to Facilitate Critical and Creative Thinking with Photovoice

By Erin Bush and Laura Lorenz

In Part 1 we explored critical and creative thinking in photovoice projects. In this sequel, we look at the ways that facilitators and clinicians can use specific strategies and tools to strengthen critical and creative thinking in photovoice projects. As we learned in Part 1, all stages of photovoice entail critical and creative thinking. Participants use these skills when a) choosing photos to take, b) sharing photos and providing feedback on others’, c) writing and sharing captions, d) receiving and considering feedback, and e) making decisions about where and how the work should be presented.

In Part 2, we suggest three practical strategies to foster critical and creative thinking with photovoice: 1) presenting thought-provoking ‘going deeper questions’ to the group, 2) finding words to share experiences and feelings, and 3) practicing low-stakes caption writing.

Going deeper questions

It can be helpful to have some provocative, follow-up questions in your ‘back pocket’ and use them as needed to encourage conversation. Early in your project, some participants will doubt their abilities. Use questions with your group or with individual participants to encourage talking and sharing.

  • How do you see your role in the project?
  • What might be the ideal end product for you? How can you contribute to that?
  • What are you comfortable sharing about yourself?
  • What is something unique that you know or have experienced that is different from the other group members?

These types of questions encourage creative thinking and may help the participant to see what their unique contribution is. Later on, as participants share their photos and captions, rich discussion can ensue! Some participants, however, will feel hesitant to share. Reminding participants of the project’s larger purpose can be helpful:

  • What do people in our community need to know?
  • Which photos will help our cause the most?
  • Which pictures might have the most impact on our audience?
  • Is there something you have always wanted people to know about your situation/condition?

Remind people that there are no right or wrong pictures, that photos can be literal or metaphorical, and that a photo can help to tell a story. Questions to support photo conversations include:

  • Which pictures “say” the most to you?
  • Which pictures are showing something surprising that the audience doesn’t expect?
  • Which pictures tell a story that we want to share?
  • What are some of the points we can make using our pictures?

These questions can also support decisions about which photos to include in your exhibit.

Finding words

Plan ahead to bolster photovoice conversations by creating a list of words relevant to your project topic. When people are struggling or frustrated, pull out your list and use it to facilitate ideas and conversation. With adolescents and participants living with intellectual disabilities use a word-generating exercise as a warm-up activity. Ask participants to say aloud some words that relate to your project topic while you record them on a white board, chalk board, or flip chart. Return to these words during photo discussions or when identifying themes across photos. Participants use creative thinking to generate words, and critical thinking to select a word they feel is best.

Photovoice projects can stimulate a wide range of emotions, and naming feelings can be hard. However, using a word to describe that feeling can help participants to feel understood and even empowered. Consider using an online tool such as the feeling wheel developed by Gloria Wilcoxi, to identify a specific word for an emotion. Wilcox created the wheel using colors to further represent emotions and help people identify and communicate their feelings. All three of the links below lead to feeling or emotion wheels that can support photo conversations:

Low-stakes practice with captions

With Photovoice we are not left to guess what the photo represents because we can read the caption. Writing captions helps participants to communicate what the photos mean to them. Some people feel confident about writing, others will feel apprehensive and vulnerable. Provide low stakes practice with caption writing before asking participants to write their own. One strategy is to bring some general, non-topic photos to the group and ask participants to take turns describing how they might caption it. Start by modeling an example first. We provide two examples below:

Example 1: Practice with low-stakes caption writing

First ask participants to write a “literal” caption, for example “Family time” or “Playing in the backyard” or “Big brother taking care of little sister.” Next, ask participants to write a “metaphorical” caption that describes a time when they felt surprised about something, learned something new about themselves, or surprised other people. For example: “Many people are surprised when I tell them about my head injury, because TBIs are invisible. People can’t usually tell.” Or “I surprised myself when I started enjoying art after my brain injury.”

Example 2: Practice with low-stakes caption writing

Again, ask participants to suggest a literal and a metaphorical caption – or choose one approach. A literal caption might be “my favorite place to go fishing.” A metaphorical one could describe a feeling: “I am finally at peace after 15 years of activism work. I have found serenity like a calm breeze making ripples in water”. Or “I am getting glimpses of new opportunities for the future, like the mountains peeking up behind the trees.”

Caption writing may still be difficult for some participants. A second strategy is to bring some ready-made captions for participants to choose from when discussing a general photo (not taken by a participant). Have a range of captions printed on strips of paper. Ask participants to choose a caption for a sample photo and explain why they chose it. This exercise can prepare participants living with intellectual disabilities, a communication disorder, or any condition that makes caption-writing a challenge, to talk and think about their own photos in a different way.

Participants will feel more excited about photovoice when the tasks are clear and they have a chance to practice. Writing captions is a critical and creative thinking activity that helps participants to take others’ perspectives into account, enrich their message, and enrich the project as a whole!


Photovoice projects cover a wide range of topics, yet challenges that arise are often similar. Project leaders may need to facilitate strategies that encourage creative and critical thinking to help participants feel more comfortable or confident about sharing. Strategies such as ‘going deeper’ questions can encourage group conversations and new ways of thinking about photos and the project topic. Using a feeling wheel to aid in formulating captions and themes can be helpful. Bringing some general photos and even pre-written captions can provide inspiration. Photovoice projects are designed to be inclusive. Everyone participating in your project wants to know – and feel – that their voice is being heard. We encourage you as facilitators and clinicians to use strategies and tools that can support meaningful participation and communication and critical and creative thinking by all.

More ideas for tools and strategies? Please comment below!

Erin Bush is an assistant professor in the Communication Disorders division at the University of Wyoming. Before attending the University of Nebraska Lincoln for her doctorate, Erin worked in medical and rehabilitation facilities as a speech-language pathologist. She teaches and conducts research regarding acquired neurogenic communication disorders, and her work has mostly been with people who have had a TBI, stroke, or other neurological condition such as Parkinson’s disease. She also has a specific interest in qualitative research methodologies. Erin attended the Photovoice Worldwide training in March and has been working with Laura since that time on blogs as well as an upcoming webinar about critical and creative thinking with photovoice!

Laura Lorenz is co-founder and educator at PhotovoiceWorldwide LLC. She has a PhD in health policy and health services research from Brandeis University and a Master of Education (Instructional Design/Adult Education) from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Laura has been using photovoice since 2001 with girls, youth, people living with brain injury, older adults, and people living with mental illness. She has published in peer-review journals and books on disability, brain injury, health, healthcare, cost-effectiveness, managed care, rehabilitation, research involvement, sociology, visual education, and visual methods. She facilitates the professional development course ‘Talking with Pictures’: Photovoice.

i Wilcox, G. (1982). The Feeling Wheel: A tool for expanding awareness of emotions and increasing spontaneity and intimacy. Transactional Analysis Journal, 12(4), 274-276.