Using Participatory Photography for Social Change

“I want to die in Bhutan” from Children’s Forum. Photography by young Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. © Bishnu Maya / Children’s Forum / PhotoVoice

In 1998, Anna Blackman, a photography and anthropology student at Edinburgh University, took time from her studies to travel to Southeast Asia. Staying in Vietnam, she was moved by the plight of the country’s street children. She teamed up with Ho Chi Minh Child Welfare Foundation and established Street Vision, a photography course for homeless youth. Participants were taught photography, given an opportunity to expand their academic knowledge and received vocational skills that would allow them to be creative and generate their own income. Over the next ten years around 200 young people passed through the course, receiving skills, camera equipment and work placement in Ho Chi Minh city and beyond.

At the same time that Blackman was setting up her program in Vietnam, Tiffany Fairey, another Edinburgh University photography student, was doing much the same thing in Nepal’s Bhutanese refugee camps. Her Children’s Forum project provided training in photography for young refugees, a creative outlet and a way to make an informal income through wedding and event photography. When the two travelers returned, they met, compared notes, saw the value of participatory photography in helping marginalized communities, and founded PhotoVoice, an NGO dedicated to using photography to help disadvantaged groups around the world.

PhotoVoice has now run more than 50 projects in 23 different countries. Since 2006, it’s been able to employ full-time staff, and is currently running projects in Albania, Ethiopia and in Russia and Bosnia Herzegovina among others.

“We find ways for photography to work.”

Some projects begin at PhotoVoice as a response to an issue or situation which the group decides participatory photography can help. They look for a local partner with links in the community and raise funds through grants, trusts and events.

We are not issue-specific,” explains Matt Daw, PhotoVoice’s Projects Manager, “but rather are experts in finding ways for participatory photography to work practically in any context to provide a group that is in some way marginalized with a way to represent themselves and speak out through photography.”

At other times though, an organisation already working on a specific issue brings PhotoVoice in as consultants. PhotoVoice designs the project but again, the group works with a partner organisation that understands the issues and has local knowledge.

All projects use participatory photography techniques. Members of a community affected by an issue are given training in digital photography, in understanding how images communicate and in ethical representation that touches on consent, political risk and child protection. They’re given skills and equipment, and taught how to use captions to explain to different audiences the contents of the images.

“Our participants are not encouraged to tell their own stories – although if they wish to we support that process and advise them on risks and implications,” says Matt Daw. “The aim of projects is to give them an opportunity to explore issues that affect them and to create work that conveys their thoughts and perspectives.”

Participants retain copyright of all the images they produce but choose photos and captions that may be exhibited and which PhotoVoice and the local partner can also use for publicity. Participants also get to keep the equipment, and local systems are set up so that the new photographers can continue to enjoy support and get their work seen.

Each project is unique and each throws up special challenges. A project intended to bring together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, all of whom had lost family members as a result of the conflict, ran into some difficult bureaucracy even if the result was productive. Working with a landless indigenous tribe in Paraguay last year threw up some different problems. With no electricity, solar panels had to be used to charge the cameras, and the traditional hierarchy dictated that all decisions were made by the community rather than by individuals, a process that ran all the way from initial project approval to choosing the captions.

That a foreign organization has to teach communities how to use cameras at a time when even the simplest mobile phone has a lens, and shared images have powered revolutions across the world might seem a little strange. But Daw points out that there’s a difference between having a camera and knowing how to use it to safely convey messages and stories so that there’s no negative backlash from subjects or audiences.

“A perfect example of how understanding is as important as ability is the prevalence of young girls sharing nude or suggestive photos of themselves and then being the subject of stigma, mockery or exploitation,” says Daw.

Nor does everyone have access to even the lens on a phone. About 40 percent of the world’s population have no mobile phones let alone the handsets and structure to share images, says Daw, raising the risk of what he calls “double marginalization.” While those with cameras and Internet access are able to communicate their views and issues through images, those without cameras become easier to forget and ignore.

Do it for them, not for you.

For marginalized communities, participatory photography provides an opportunity to communicate a complex message quickly, directly and by themselves. It’s empowering, increases understanding and can even provide employment opportunities. For photographers though, it’s also a way to use their skills to give back to the community. PhotoVoice runs a three-day workshop in London four times a year through which some 170 individuals have passed, including some photographers. The group does receive interest from photographers interested in working on their projects and provides a form to receive applications. Usually, however, they require applicants to have undertaken the organization’s training course or to have voluntary experience before being considered for paid work in such a specialized field.

But neither Anna Blackman nor Tiffany Fairey had experience or training when they set up their first projects. Nor did they have the advantage of the experience of other trailblazers who had already used participatory photography to help disadvantaged groups and provide a path for others to follow. If you are planning on setting up your own project, you will, however, need to do it carefully.

“It is more damaging to attempt a participatory process unprepared or claim that a project is participatory when it is not, than to avoid participation at all!” warns Daw. “Don’t underestimate the task, take advantage of PhotoVoice’s many free online resources, and make sure you are doing it for the participants, not for yourself.”

One comment for this post.

  1. Mariano J Garcia Said:

    Off I go with my iphone to the Northern Territory, get some piccies & maybe of some local hospital records e.g.of 36yr olds dying with cardiovascular disease-common & yet incredulous!

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