Options for Photovoice photo-taking

By Stephanie Lloyd, MA

Photovoice, a participatory method that has been used with a variety of populations across the globe since the early 90’s, provides participants with the opportunity to take pictures, and discuss issues they care about most. When planning a photovoice project, it is critical to consider the individuals involved as well as the local context in order to decide on the type of cameras and photo-viewing method to use in your project. Depending on the population of participants (e.g. youth, homeless individuals, people with disabilities, seniors, residents of a low-income neighborhood, etc.) that you are working with, different cameras might make more sense. And given today’s technology, in some contexts it may be appropriate to have participants use their cell phones to take pictures and post them to a closed social media group, as opposed to providing cameras and making physical prints. 

In the seminal photovoice project led by Wang and Burris with village women in rural China, “All participants learned to care for, load, and unload a Ricoh YF-20 autofocus, autorewind camera” They completed rolls of 36-exposure color film were “shuttled to county or provincial sites for one-hour developing” and then brought back to the group for discussion.

In the early days of photovoice there were only film cameras with the option to develop a limited number of exposures. However, more recently, photovoice projects around the world have used a diversity of cameras and photo formats. Here is a brief review of several photovoice papers, published since 2000 and involving a range of participants and cameras.

Wang, C. C., & Redwood-Jones, Y. A. (2001). Photovoice Ethics: Perspectives from Flint Photovoice. Health Education & Behavior28(5), 560-572. https://doi.org/10.1177/109019810102800504

Youth, youth leaders, adult neighborhood activists, policymakers and community members took pictures that advocated for funding and investment in Flint neighborhoods. Participants were given Holga cameras and black-and-white film, because “the Holga… allows the photographer to take double and multiple exposures, enabling one to literally layer meanings.” This project also employed local professional photographers who provided “technical assistance, advice, and encouragement” during sessions, and focus group discussions. Tip: When using Holga cameras you may want to provide additional sessions focused on camera use and techniques.

Strack, Robert & Magill, Cathleen & McDonagh, Kara. (2004). Engaging Youth through Photovoice. Health Promotion Practice. 5. 49-58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524839903258015.

In this project, youth, aged 11-17, from a predominately low-income, urban neighborhood were provided with 35-mm point-and-shoot cameras and memo-sized notebooks to document their lives, as well as community assets and deficits. After hearing about the project, a local camera shop owner donated rolls of film and developed them for a reduced rate. However, “Camera difficulties early on due in part to misuse of relatively inexpensive cameras also slowed the process.” The authors also recommend that a project with youth include “photo expeditions” to support photo-taking with an unfamiliar camera, and a couple of sessions facilitated by a professional photographer to provide instruction and critique as part of the curriculum. Tip: A skill-building photography approach in your project may be appealing to teens and also to any age group.

Sands, Catherine & Reed, Lee & Harper, Krista & Shar, Maggie. (2009). A Photovoice Participatory Evaluation of a School Gardening Program through the Eyes of Fifth Graders. Practicing Anthropology. 31. 15-20. 10.17730/praa.31.4.a13w33753g12t4kn.

Sixteen fifth graders in rural Massachusetts were given the opportunity to act as researchers and “document their perspectives of the garden and local foods curriculum…” in order to share their understanding of food related to health outcomes. The authors reflected that, “The students in both classes were excited to use digital cameras.” And, using digital cameras was ideal in this context because of the limited time constraints of the project. Tip: With digital cameras, your logistics investment will be lower.

Balbale, Salva Najib & Morris, Megan A., & LaVel, Sherri L. (2014). Using photovoice to explore patient perceptions of patient-centered care in the Veterans Affairs health care system. Patient. 2014 ; 7(2): 187–195. doi:10.1007/s40271-014-0044-5

Veteran patients from two VA sites were given “a five megapixel digital camera, a two gigabyte secure digital memory card…and instructions for participation…. Technical training was provided to ensure that participants were comfortable with using a digital camera and taking photographs.” The participants took photographs that described their view of patient-centered care, and then mailed the envelop back to the researchers at the end of the specified time frame. Later researchers interviewed participants to discuss the photo prints. Tip: If there is time between when participants take photos and then discuss them with you, ask participants to look through their photos and sort them before you begin the photo interview.

Moya Eva Margarita, Chavez-Baray Silvia M., Loweree Jacqueline, Mattera Brian, Martinez Nahomi. (2017). Adults Experiencing Homelessness in the US–Mexico Border Region: A Photovoice Project. Frontiers in Public Health. 5. 113. 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00113.

A total of 12 persons adults who reported a history of homelessness or lived in a shelter were provided with disposable cameras, in order to share their experiences. “Participants were asked to carry consent forms and cameras with them for a period of 4–5 weeks and to shoot one or two rolls per week.” At the end of the project, the themes identified by participants led to a Call to Action for policymakers. Tip: Disposable cameras may be safer for participants who could be vulnerable when taking photos or storing their camera.

Ashley Walker, Gavin Colquitt, Steve Elliott, Morgan Emter & Li Li (2019) Using participatory action research to examine barriers and facilitators to physical activity among rural adolescents with cerebral palsy, Disability and Rehabilitation, DOI: 10.1080/09638288.2019.1611952

In this study, adolescents with cerebral palsy were given a tablet with a camera “to improve ease of use” and parent participants were given digital cameras to take pictures of barriers and facilitators to frequent physical activity. The participants were given 14 days to complete the photo assignment, and then brought the camera or tablet back to the researcher for an interview. “The photographs were transferred from the digital camera and tablet to the conference room or classroom computer, and the pictures were projected onto a screen.” The researchers advised the participants to take at least eight photos, which would serve as the basis for conversation, theming, and content for a community forum. Tip: A tablet can help to facilitate success for people with physical issues when taking photos and sharing them with others.

While this is not a comprehensive review of cameras used with diverse populations in photovoice projects, the  papers described above shed light on options and decisions for planning a photovoice project. In table below, we list some advantages and considerations for several types of cameras based on their use in published studies. While earlier projects always used film cameras, here we focus on projects since 2000 when digital cameras and tablets became more readily available.

Camera Options and Considerations

In sum: As noted in the table above, there are a range of viable camera options available for photovoice project leaders. While this is not a comprehensive review, this is a way to consider camera options for photovoice projects based on the context and population.

  • Disposable cameras are cheaper, easier to use, and may encourage thoughtful photo-taking (given the limited exposures). This may be a good option if it is useful to use hard copies during the photo discussions, and if the researcher can negotiate the timing and logistics involved with getting film developed quickly in time for sessions with participants.
  • Cameras that include manual settings provide the opportunity for participants to learn a new skill and to look at photos on a projection or computer screen (in addition to print copies). In some cases, researchers have provided participants with the instruction manual or brought in professional photographers to facilitate a few sessions.
  • Both point and shoot and digital cameras with manual settings are more expensive and may be heavier or more challenging for participants to carry with them. When using cell phones and tablets, the participants will not need training on technical use or to return film for processing, but have the option to email or post photos in a closed social media group regularly throughout the project.
  • Using tech items that include cameras may be expensive or prohibitive for some participants.


Wang, C. C., & Redwood-Jones, Y. A. (2001). Photovoice Ethics: Perspectives from Flint Photovoice. Health Education & Behavior, 28(5), 560-572. https://doi.org/10.1177/109019810102800504 

Strack, Robert & Magill, Cathleen & McDonagh, Kara. (2004). Engaging Youth through Photovoice. Health Promotion Practice. 5. 49-58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524839903258015. 

Sands, Catherine & Reed, Lee & Harper, Krista & Shar, Maggie. (2009). A Photovoice Participatory Evaluation of a School Gardening Program through the Eyes of Fifth Graders. Practicing Anthropology. 31. 15-20. 10.17730/praa.31.4.a13w33753g12t4kn. 

Balbale, Salva Najib & Morris, Megan A., & LaVel, Sherri L. (2014). Using photovoice to explore patient perceptions of patient-centered care in the Veterans Affairs health care system. Patient. 2014 ; 7(2): 187–195. doi:10.1007/s40271-014-0044-5  

Moya Eva Margarita, Chavez-Baray Silvia M., Loweree Jacqueline, Mattera Brian, Martinez Nahomi. (2017). Adults Experiencing Homelessness in the US–Mexico Border Region: A Photovoice Project. Frontiers in Public Health. 5. 113. 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00113.  

Ashley Walker, Gavin Colquitt, Steve Elliott, Morgan Emter & Li Li (2019) Using participatory action research to examine barriers and facilitators to physical activity among rural adolescents with cerebral palsy, Disability and Rehabilitation, DOI: 10.1080/09638288.2019.1611952 

What is the Difference Between Photovoice and Photo elicitation?

By Laura Lorenz, PhD, MEd and Olivia Iovino, MSN, ARNP-C

We are commonly asked about the differences between these two methods, Photovoice and Photo elicitation, but let’s first talk about how they are similar.  Both Photovoice and Photo elicitation use photographs for gathering information about a focus group or population either for research, education, advocacy, or healing.  With Photovoice, the participants will take photos and bring them back to the group for discussion.  After discussing the photo, the participants will write captions or narratives describing why they took the photos, and the group can put the photos into categories and potentially exhibit them for community education or advocacy.  Photo elicitation is performed one on one between the facilitator and the participant.  In some circumstance, the facilitator will have the participant take photos for discussion, but in other cases, the facilitator may use a pre-selected set of photographs such as photos of a particular location or historical photos.  The facilitator will interview the participant to understand their reaction to the photos.  Let’s discuss some reasons to pick one method over the other depending on the goals of your project and the resources available to you.

Because Photovoice is a group process, individual members of the group can feel empowered by the project.  The members provide support for each other, for example with photo ideas and caption or narrative writing.  Through sharing their experiences, the participants gain an understanding they are not alone in the subject they are going through.  Laura discovered on a Photovoice project conducted in 2006 with an already established support group for people with acquired brain injury that the project benefited the participants so much, they have continued to build on the original project to this day.  Some members of your group will also develop or enhance their leadership abilities.

In other circumstance, photo elicitation project might make more sense for you.  If your study population is separated by a large distance without easy transportation to a meeting point, the one on one interviews may be more feasible.  Also, your focus may be on an issue where confidentiality is very important, in which case sharing in a group may not be ideal.  If your topic only has a small pool of people available for study, the sample size might lead you to choose photo elicitation as well.  This could also be better on a tight budget.  Finally, if there are severe communication issues beyond the simple fix of having a translator, this method could be the right choice for you.

If you like both methods, though, you can use both if you have the means and desire.  You might start with a group Photovoice project, and then do one on one interviews with some of the participants afterwards.  Or if your group is spread over a big distance, you could do photo elicitation with the members, then bring them together for just one group discussion session after the captions have been written, to share about the experience and group the photos into themes.

To learn more about the Photovoice project on acquired brain injury go to:  http://photovoiceworldwide.com/projects

To learn more about training and consultation opportunities go to: http://photovoiceworldwide.com/lectures