PhotoVoice and Photo Elicitation are popular methods in which you use pictures as a tool to explore people’s perspectives about a certain phenomenon, subject or event. It is commonly used in and very suitable for Participatory Action Research. You can use them to guide your interviews and or discuss a certain topic more in-depth or as an exposition during a focus group, so that people can discuss pictures together. In Photo Voice you ask participants to make pictures regarding a certain subject and in Photo Elicitation you bring photos yourself and discuss them with your participant(s). Here, we will focus on PhotoVoice. Whether you choose this method is a decision you have to carefully weigh as it comes with big advantages, but can also be an extreme hassle. Read all about it below!
What the pictures above show
The pictures above are taken by people from a small village in the Bolivian Amazon region. I asked them to make pictures of what they liked and disliked after the implementation of an ecological sanitation project. In the pictures, you see for example ecological latrines (e.g., the lady sitting on the toilet wanted to express she was relieved to finally be able to sit on a toilet instead of hanging above a pit latrine) and kitchen gardens, where people show how the organic fertilizer from their latrines revived their fruit trees, flowers and vegetable growth.
|Goal||Exploring people’s perspectives, where a normal interview solely would not suffice|
|Ideally to be used in which stages?||System exploration, Solution identification|
|Level of difficulty||Medium, preparation needed|
|Time investment||Disposable camera’s: high, digital: low|
|Costs||Disposable camera’s: high, digital: low|
|To combine with||Personal Interviews, Focus Groups|
- Taboo subjects, sensitive subjects or subjects that are otherwise hard for people to talk about
- When respondents are shy
- When it seems like participants get bored of only a one on one interview or want something fun/creative to do
- When the subject you want people to make pictures about is too abstract or otherwise difficult to photograph
- When you are limited on budget (in case of disposable camera’s, as you have to develop the pictures) or time (it can take long before people have made pictures for you
- PhotoVoice and -Elicitation often provide more information than what you would get in a normal interview and often on different subjects that you and your participant may have overlooked in an interview.
- It can help to promote more relaxed and open bond between researcher and participant. It can bridge social and cultural gaps between them as it is effective in breaking down relational and communication barriers.
- Emotionally laden or taboo subjects turn out to become more easy to talk about when pictures are involved. Shame is easier to overcome when the attention is first on the picture, which relieves the strain of being questioned directly.
- There is more aware participation in the research. People feel they are playing a more active role in the research process which in turn could increase their feeling of ownership during the execution of solution plans that were created during research.
- Through photo-voice or -elicitation you collect more quantitatively and qualitatively complete data compared to that obtained through verbal inquiry such as an interview.
- It is very valuable if you are looking for opinions or perceptions on certain phenomena from different stakeholders. Photo-elicitation stimulates the informants’ ability to express their practical knowledge through the attribution and association of meanings. In these activities, the informants will not only provide information, but they will also be asked to describe their perceptions of specific phenomena and the values they attribute to them.
- It can be a great solution if you notice that people are not really interested in being interviewed, show signs of boredom. Photo-elicitation is generally seen by participants as a fun method and is therefore a great motivator for bored participants.
- It is very suitable for people with a different language than the researcher, people who have limited language skills, children and the mentally disabled.
- PhotoVoice can be relatively time-consuming (for researchers and participants), and several contact moments with participants are required. The participant needs instruction, needs time to take pictures, the camera needs to be collected and developed and then the interview itself takes place.
- Because of this, you risk that participants drop out somewhere during the research process.
- It must also be considered whether, in certain contexts, this technique will be rejected or not readily accepted by the informants. Some people feel really uncomfortable using cameras, especially when they have never used a camera before. Reconsider using this method when you notice this.
- It is difficult to have a good balance between letting the participant speak freely and ensuring that research objectives are addressed. Researchers are sometimes tempted to contaminate the pictures with his/her personal understandings and interpretations.
- The method can lead to unusable data when people make other pictures than you asked them to.
- The method can become quite expensive when you need lots of cameras and need to develop lots of pictures.
Let’s consider you want to know what a participant likes and dislikes about his/her community. Your photo voice excercise could then be for participants to make 3-5 pictures of what they like and 3-5 pictures of what they dislike in their community.
- First, you make a form in which you explain your research (like in a questionnaire) and if necessary, an explanation of how to use the camera. If participants have phones or camera’s you can ask them to use them and there is obviously no explanation required, but when people don’t have them you may need to bring disposable or other types of cameras.
- Let’s consider people have no cameras themselves. You invite your participant to join the exercise, thereby explaining your research (as in interviewing) and if necessary, explaining how the camera works. By the way, it is not always ethical to use beautiful digital camera’s for them to ‘borrow’ and then take them away again. Ask locals what is advisable. Disposable ones are then a bit more low-key and easier to use. In case people are not used to cameras, as an appreciation you can offer for them to make some personal pictures as well to keep for themselves. When I did that in Bolivia people highly appreciated that. Give your participant some few days to make the pictures.
- Next, you pick up the camera’s and develop the pictures, so you have them on paper.
- Go back to the participant and show the pictures. It is a nice ice breaker to give them their personal pictures. Lay out the pictures they made for the research on a table so you can discuss them.
- Like in a normal interview, make sure you use the start-middle-end structure again, even if you have to repeat what you said the first time. People often appreciate you explaining again what you are doing and why. Tell the participant you would like to discuss each picture and ask them with which picture they would like to start. For discussing each picture, you can use the same tips as I gave you in the interviewing chapter (the middle part). Whether you choose or not choose this method highly depends on the topic of your research, your time and money (it can be quite time consuming, requires a lot of coordination and developing pictures may be expensive) and what is locally acceptable. I have quite an extensive video lecture on PhotoVoice, you can find it on the 7Senses YouTube channel. My article ‘Harnessing the plurality of actor frames in social-ecological systems: ecological sanitation in Bolivia’ (2017) explains how PhotoVoice was part of my research there.
- To analyse, you can use your interview transcripts or notes and analyse it as how you would with a normal interview. In addition, you can analyse the content of the pictures by clustering in themes what they made pictures of and checking for patterns or trends.