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.