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 Matter 
Bell, Brandon et. al.(2020). Capturing the cry for change: photographers on the BLM protests. The Guardian. 
Brehman, Caroline. (2016). An Analysis of the Iconic Images from the Black Lives Matter Movement.” Elon University. 
Coscarelli, Joe. (2020). #BlackoutTuesday: A Music Industry Protest Becomes a Social Media Moment. New York Times. 
Ghreichi, Christine.  (2016). Black Lives Matter and Social Justice.” University of Minnesota. 
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. 
Patrick, Stewart. (2020). “Black Lives Matter—for Social Justice, and for America’s Global Role”. World Politics Review. 
Speltz, Mark. (2016). How Photographs Define the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter Movements. Time Magazine. 
Taylor, Alan. (2020). Images From a Worldwide Protest Movement. The Atlantic. 

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.