PhotoVoice donation button

Background to the field: PhotoVoice, photovoice methodology and participatory photography

PhotoVoice operates within a field commonly referred to as ‘participatory photography’ - a methodology with roots in the community photography scene that emerged in the US and UK from the 1960s onwards and Paulo Freire’s influential theory of critical pedagogy and participatory methodologies which has influenced international development practice from the 1970s onwards.

Since its invention, photography has been used as a tool for social activism.  In the 1920 - 30s, photojournalists working within a humanitarian and liberal tradition used their cameras to document the plight of marginalised and persecuted groups around the world and publicised their stories to international audiences.  More recently, practitioners have sought alternatives to traditional documentary photography.  This has led many photographers to work with participatory and collaborative methods where they develop a more involved relationship with their subject; sometimes working with them to create images, sometimes handing over the camera and supporting participants to create their own images.  Some of these photographers work independently1 whilst others have established organisations2 to create sustainable structures for the projects they have initiated.

Participatory photography refers to projects where participants are supported to generate their own photographic work – a facilitator works with a group of people, often marginalised and/or disadvantaged, and teaches them to use a camera with the aim of supporting them to define, communicate and improve their situation.

Since PhotoVoice’s inception in 2000, there has been a rapid growth in the use and application of participatory photography by a diverse range of practitioners across a number of fields and disciplines.  Photographers, researchers, community, youth and NGO workers, and community and participatory artists all use the methods.  For this reason, diverse ways of working and standards of practice exist and it cannot be assumed that all projects share the same approach.  Each and every participatory photography project is implemented with its own specific aims and objectives and these can range from artistic, educational, therapeutic, research-related community development, policy change or a means of social activism.

Practitioners within the field of participatory photography use the concept and term ‘photovoice’ extensively. Caroline C. Wang and Mary Anne Burris from the University of Michigan who developed participatory photography methods as a community development tool in Yunnan province, China, first coined the term in the mid 1990s. It has since been used by numerous practitioners, researchers and organisations and therefore references to ‘photovoice’ methods and projects, often signify a general participatory photography methodological approach.  While sharing similar roots, not all projects referred to as ‘photovoice’ projects are specifically PhotoVoice projects, as run by this organisation.

1 Examples include Wendy Ewald, Jim Goldberg, Julian Germain
2 Examples include Nancy McGirr (Foto Kids), Zanna Briski (Kids with Cameras), Jim Hubbard (Shooting Back / Venice Arts)