Photovoice uses photography in participatory ways as a form of individual or collective expression, particularly for disempowered groups. Developed in the early 1990s, it is now a relatively established methodology in a variety of research settings, especially in the fields of health research, community development and education. There is no single, prescriptive approach and different photovoice projects may vary in their preparation and the ultimate aims of the photography. Nonetheless, the main commonality is that photography is used as a supplement to, or a complete replacement for, verbal expression.
Photovoice provides a way of communicating an insider perspective that is not structured around verbal methods, such as questionnaires, interviews or diaries. Verbal forms of research that are introduced by external actors inevitably direct people in particular ways of thinking. Even in the most unstructured, open-ended methods some form of direction is necessary, which leads to the prioritisation of certain themes. Power relations between researcher and researched are especially apparent in face-to-face exchanges. The use of language itself raises broader issues of people’s varying ease and ability to articulate ideas through direct verbal expression.
Photography does not completely get around all of these issues; photovoice projects usually have a theme to direct the photographer, the use of photographic methods and equipment can add different complications, and power dynamics are part of any social encounter. Yet the provision of an alternative to the verbal is vitally important. Where they are directed, photovoice projects are intentionally very broad and should allow the perspectives of research participants to emerge more clearly. Research participants also take photos in the absence of the researcher, allowing more independent interpretation.
In photovoice, photography is typically linked to a broader set of activities involving preparation or training; it may also be associated with research, advocacy or activism on a particular theme. Photography is not an end in itself. Once the photos have been taken they are used to support some form of individual or collective reflection. This may be as a visual prompt for further (verbal) discussions. Particular photos may also be selected by research participants to be used more publicly, in an exhibition or publication that can be presented to policymakers or other powerful actors in order to demonstrate the perspectives of research participants. Maintaining the involvement of research participants throughout this process is vital and a key attraction of the photovoice approach for this research project.