Using Photovoice

Photovoice is an effective, empowering way to learn about real-life experiences of people who live with a mental illness and to support their process of recovery. It is a form of Participatory Action Research, where participants are contributors to the data collected, as well co-researchers who assist in directing the purpose of research and analyzing data. Photovoice aims to:

  • Identify and record participants’ strengths and struggles
  • Explain participant experiences through reflection and discussion
  • Inform decision-makers and influence policy

In photovoice, participants take photographs of their experiences and then discuss what these images represent for them. This technique is effective in beginning to understand what is important to your participants. It also allows participants to build connections based on shared experiences, in a fun and engaging way.

Before Starting a Photovoice Project

As with any component of your walking group, participating in a photovoice activity is optional; participants should feel free to decline to participate or withdraw at any time. Remind participants that the photographs and words produced belong to them, and be sure to ask their permission before sharing them in any way.

Participants may use their own camera, be provided with a disposable camera, or take turns sharing a group camera. It is important to provide some information about camera usage, as participants might have little or no experience. If possible, involve a guest photographer to support your group. Be sure to cover basics such as how and when to use flash, how to advance the camera to take the next picture (if applicable), and how to handle a camera. Also, be sure to discuss the ethics of taking photographs in public prior to beginning (i.e., ask other people before taking their photo, and obtain written consent before sharing photos of other people). You could instruct participants to take photos that represent their experiences as part of your walking group, barriers and supports to their participation, and aspects of the group they would to change or keep. Participants may also find it helpful to journal about their photos and experience taking photographs to support future discussion.

Photographs and Group Discussion

Taking photos may be an ongoing component of your group, perhaps with several participants accessing the camera each week. After you have amassed some photographs, your group should meet at least once to share their pictures and discuss what the photographs mean to them. Participants may bring written explanations of their photos if they like. Some questions to facilitate discussion include:

  • What does this photograph mean to you?
  • How does this picture relate to your life?
  • What does it say about wellness?
  • What does this photograph say about our community? Our environment?
  • What strengths does this image show?
  • Does this picture show a need for change of some kind? If so, what needs to change? How could this be done?

The facilitator of this session, potentially a peer leader, should be known to and trusted by participants. Throughout the session, open-ended questions can be used to encourage people to explore any deeper meaning or themes behind their photos. Attention should be paid to the uniqueness of participants’ experiences as well as to the elements participants share in common. If participants are willing, recording this discussion can be helpful in reviewing information that is shared, and creating captions for photographs that may be displayed.

Sharing the Benefits

Your group may want the opportunity to show the photographs they have produced. If so, involve your participants in a discussion about how these images could be shared and who the audience should be. Ideal audience members are those who are in a position to make changes or influence decision-making, or are members of your community who share similar interests. Some people who may be interested in your showing include:

  • The local city or town council, including city planners
  • Other mental health and human service agencies
  • Health-promoting organizations
  • Hiking or walking groups
  • Conservation Authorities or environmental groups
  • Local colleges or universities
  • Government agencies and departments
  • Interested community members

By strategically targeting audience members, you will maximize the potential impact of your exhibit.

A photovoice project can be a valuable addition to a walking group. It can be a choice means for participants to express themselves in a new and creative way. Such images provide a great starting point for discussion and can help participants connect through shared experiences. Photos can also provide excellent promotional materials for your group, created by participants themselves!

Source: A Practical Guide to Photovoice (Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence, 2009)

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