When I set out to make this piece, I intended to write about how to run PhotoVoice
projects. Photovoice is a collaborative documentary photography process in which people – usually people with limited
power due to poverty, language barriers, race, class, ethnicity, gender,
or culture – use photos to record aspects of their environment and experiences and share them. The pictures, with captions composed
by the photographers, are used to bring to public attention realities of the photographers’ lives, and spur policy and decision-makers toward change.
The key ideas are:
Pictures can influence policy
Community members ought to participate in creating and defining the images that shape healthful public policy
The process requires that from the outset planners bring policy
makers and other influential people to the table to serve as an audience
Photovoice emphasizes individual and community action
I set out to write this for people thinking about running a PhotoVoice project (or thinking of running
one), with a community development perspective. During my research, however, I found that there are already plenty of resources that cover this well:
But what if you’re a photographer, though, thinking of getting into this?
Photographer as Facilitator
In many PhotoVoice projects the facilitation team includes a community developer and a professional or advanced amateur photographer. Most photographers don’t have much (or any) experience or training on how to facilitate specialized collaborative social documentary projects like PhotoVoice, however. And, as I found, most PhotoVoice guides are written for the professional facilitators.
So, this tutorial assumes you team is using the PhotoVoice framework but focuses on the photography. You’ll learn how to think about your role as a photographer-facilitator in a participatory art project, how you might structure and shape the collaboration process, how you can help people make great pictures, and how to edit those photos into a compelling body of work.
We’re trying to inspire people to make photographs that, in turn, inspire change. I’ve included, throughout this tutorial, words of inspiration from my own photography teachers.
1. Greetings, Friend!
Keep it simple and start with a friendly, engaged greeting to the participants. Here’s a letter (adapted from a class introduction written by the photographer Paula Allen) to set you off right:
Dear All, Welcome to our photography project. Please come to our first session with ideas about the photo essays you want to work on. I will ask you lots of questions to help each of you determine the connection between yourself and what you want to photograph. If you are unclear about what that might be we (myself and the other people in our group) will help you to figure it out and get excited about photographing. Please also bring as many photographs as you need to express who you are as a photographer and what you want to accomplish. I am looking forward to meeting each of you and plunging in together for the next few months. Please have a look at my website, http://website.com, so you can get an understanding of my relationship with my camera and the world. If you have any questions before the class, feel free to email me at email@example.com See you soon, Jackson Couse
Photography is not a technical medium; it’s an emotional medium. You want people to bring the pictures they care about, that they feel connected with. What you are creating is a space for people to learn to love their photographs.
2. Let’s Create a Body of Work Together
Photography is cumulative. You collect images together, into a shared vision.
The idea is to create a photographic project and polish it into an exhibition, book, website, film, and so on. The group is a creative team, it exists to support and encourage all of the members. Each person makes a unique contribution. It’s not a competition.
There is a lot of flexibility when it comes to running session with your photographers. What follows is the method I use. Please adapt and shape it to suit your needs.
During the first session, divide everyone in two random groups, X and Y, of equal number. The groups will alternate, sharing their work every other session. Each person will show at least 45 pictures created since their last update.
Effort is the key. If someone has had a bad week, that’s what they share. The purpose is to get out of the photographic comfort zone and start exploring.
At each session, regardless of whether they present pictures or not, each photographer will give a short report on their
project: what’s happening, troubles, successes, where they got stuck and
where they had a breakthrough. Have a conversation and support the
free-flow of ideas and suggestions.
I suggest you use prints instead of the computer, but that people should bring both prints and digital files.
The prints don’t need to be fancy. Simple 3.5×5″ lazer prints (four to a page) or cheap 4×6″ prints from the drug store are fine.
Sort the digital files into two folders, one for the first 45, and another folder for a reasonable number of seconds. Although the prints are where you’ll do most of the review work, it is helpful to have the digital files on hand to put up on a projector for scrutiny.
Name the folders YYMMDD_FirstInitialLastName_ProjectName, where the date is the date of the session. So, for me, the folders might be 181203_JCouse_UrbanForest_A and 181203_JCouse_UrbanForest_B
Name the files with the same structure, followed by the original filename. For example, 181203_JCouse_UrbanForest_DSC3406.jpg
Save the files as jpeg images, 1600 pixels on the long edge, 72 dpi, compression 8, AdobeRGB colourspace
Load all of the files onto the computer before you start each session.
To start the critique, have two photographers lay out their work at once, one on one table and one on another. Critique the first photographer’s work, and then move on to the second. While the second critique is happening, the recipient of the first critique can pick up their work and make notes, and the third photographer can begin laying out their pictures.
Everyone needs a project box. It can be simple, it can be ornate, whatever people need to feel good about it is fine, but the box must exist for each person, for everyone’s sanity and the good of the project. Each photographer puts everything they gather into their box: notes, clippings, prints, recordings, artifacts, contact sheets, releases, notebooks, objects, everything. For the sessions they are presenting, the photographers should bring their box.
3. Photo Editing
Editing is the selection, sorting, and arrangement of photos into a cohesive, expressive package. Editing takes a long time to do intelligently.
moments do not necessarily work as photographs. When it works, there is
a tension between form and content, a creative balance that heightens
the intrigue of a frame. Mystery makes the spirit move.
yourself from the necessity for a literal, journalistic narrative. You
do not have to hold the viewer by the hand. Let them find their own
path. Respect their intellect. Entice them. To pose questions, to move a
viewer to question intent, content, and choice is to engage the human
part of us.
“A photograph wants other photographs. Photographs need other photographs to create meaning.”—Jeff Jacobsen
for a moment where the inside and the outside merge, where the
photographer’s and the subject’s emotional space meet in a situational
composition that is graphically interesting. Do this looking while
editing. Turn off the emotional chatter. Just fuse, and react from the heart as much as the head.
How to Look Critically at Photographs
All photographs need interpreting. In doing so, you need to say the reasons and criteria behind the judgments you make.
do we look at photographs critically? To summarize, we question all
arguments. Take nothing at face value. Question the dominant view or
authority (but remain polite), question the tradition or conventional
wisdom or common sense. Understand that everyone has bias and a point of
view, that no one is objective.
is an important way we learn from each other. Critiques should not be
taken as casual judgment; rather they should be taken as a suggestion of
how to make our pictures better. Each photographer is challenged to listen to what everyone is saying instead of
speaking in their own defence, even though this is sometimes very hard to do.
Monologues are not conversation. Likewise talk without response is not a
conversation. Be alert to what everyone has to say. Talking and engaged
criticism will improve the quality of everyone’s photography.
Important to remember: the artist owns her own work but does not own the meaning of the work or how it is interpreted.
News, documentary, advertising, promotion, etc.
What is physically most prominent
Intellectual central point
Resolution or uncertainty
Visual or graphic elements, what is important in the image
Effective, or an encumbrance
Relevant, encompassed or ignored
does this image make you feel, think, imagine, remember? How do you
feel about what or who is in the photograph? Active or passive? Enriched
or disdainful? Encouraged or defeated? Informed or confused?
all notice different things. Sometimes we notice the same things in different ways.
Someone might notice something about a picture that everyone else
While viewing each others’ work, everyone will take some time to write down a few phrases or words that come to mind. If you want to create a form or sheet for people to fill out, that can help. Encourage the photographers to share their feelings and determine what in
the photos triggered them. Be careful with your descriptions, they are a
way to get other people to notice what you are seeing. Ask:
What is the strongest picture?
How does the photographer relate to the subject?
Is there a strong point of view?
Is the story provocative? (Do the pictures leave you wanting more?)
Can you think of a way to improve what you’re seeing?
What does the series exclude?
Does the series take anything for granted?
We also have a specialized vocabulary for photography and it’s good to use it to talk about
pictures. In this way everyone, with some basic introduction, can
understand what we mean.
Quality and Expression
Light and Source
Front, back, side, and direct, diffused, flash, available light
High- or low-key, full scale
High and low
Emphasized or minimized
Selective or overall
Depth of field
Shallow or deep
How the shapes in the images meet the edges
Average eye-level, snake eye, bird’s eye, child’s eye
Compressed (telephoto), expanded (wide angle)
Curved, straight, broken, horizontal, vertical, and diagonal
Juxtaposition of elements in a frame
Grain or noise,texture, surface, resolution
Full, spot, or monochromatic
Deliberate blur or frozen, mixed
signs and symbols
out of context, unsettling associations
sensation of focusing is a double-take: it refocuses the mind itself.
Mental models structure your pictures and how you see them. By being
mindful, photographers can bring this mental level under control and intuitively
begin to formulate their own photographic vision.
The mental level refines our experience of the
depictive level. A photo might have shallow depictive space but deep
mental space. A photo might have deep depictive space but shallow mental
space. Mental space is an interaction of observation, understanding,
imagination, and intention. The combination of these aspects must all be
engaged. All that mental stuff must be in play! This is the gestalt of
4. Participatory Documentary
documentary photography has played the role of furthering education,
within the existing social order, to describe a more-or-less objective
reality. But another way, the way Photovoice does it, is to think about
documentary photography as a vehicle for social and political change.
said: “The social documentary photography tradition is built on social
surveillance and coercion, a language with power relationships and
history. It’s premised on the transgressive pleasure
of looking down the social scale or, rarely, up it. Social documentary
legitimized this looking as a way of enlightened social reform. This
history is deep.
The stories that are interesting are not found through professionals
like us. We receive documentary and art projects from the people we
interact with. We make art through our communion.”
The present moment is very fragmented. The stakes are high. Find your references, and make yourself a toolbox.
The PhotoVoice ethics statement is
a short document that outlines five broad core principles, plus seven further areas of
concern, and details standards of practice. It’s a compact overview of
“The participatory photography process centres
around taking photographs, but also incorporates a broad range of
elements beyond ‘pressing the shutter’. It involves learning to express
opinions, to interpret and discuss images, to work as part of a group,
to listen to others, to develop ideas and a voice, to edit and caption
images, to identify and define audience and messages–deciding what
pictures to take and for whom.
All these elements are an equally important part of the process and the route to self-expression and advocacy.
projects begin by building participation and photography skills,
allowing the group to develop and participants to gain confidence. This
part of a project focuses on workshops, with the taking and sharing of
images typically restricted to the group, project staff and immediate
family or community.
Advocacy-based projects go on to develop
a public communications dimension, in which photographs are taken for
and viewed by a wider, public audience in order to influence attitudes
or policies. The relationship
between the relatively private and more public aspects of a project is a
dynamic and delicate one, which requires careful balancing.”
5. Photographs Will Flow Out of the Conditions of Life
What does it feel like to be on planet earth today? On making pictures of life, here’s what Jeff Jacobsen had to say:
it’s a pretty solitary thing. You have to learn to confront the
challenges and fears that come up when you engage the world alone. Even
today, before I go out to photograph, I get that fear. And that’s OK,
because that is a fear out of respect. When you go out with a friend
that’s OK, but things happen when you’re alone. There’s an incredible
freedom I feel when I’m out there alone with a camera (and maybe a
Everyone goes out alone and photographs in their life, in
their community, and then you come back together to review. This is
where the photographic learning and imagination really takes off.
“Why do people sometimes not choose
their most interesting pictures? What are the barriers, demands, and
habits that allow that to happen?”
The goal is to get people
seeing what they are photographing. “To do that, you need to see the
photographs that you’re not choosing, and honour those pictures.
Understand where you’re standing in regards to your subject, why to
move, when, and how. Sometimes where you stand is a question of moving
your body or your
perception of perspective, but sometimes it is a question of standing
And when do you press the shutter? Where you stand
is more interesting than timing. Where do you stand socially,
politically, economically, culturally, and in your life? Where do you
stand in relation to photography?
Still photos, when you take them
away from the context of words, have a powerful ambiguity on their own.
They pose questions. Photographs can render a still image in a specific
time and place. This is the unique power of photography.
“I like photography, like any art, that has mystery to it. I want to
be challenged. I want to have responsibility as a viewer. I want to be
These questions never end. What do I shoot?
What do I care about? What’s next? Don’t get lost in trying to please
someone else. Find meaning for yourself. Let go of the focus on
narrative and get back to fun. Don’t worry about the product, enjoy the
process. Relax. Being a photographer is like being a surfer: you ride
the energy of a wave, you work with the energy of a moment.”
photograph is not the moment, a photograph is not reality. A photograph
is an image on a piece of paper. It is a design problem, a graphic
composition. Let the pictures determine an emotional reaction without
the influence of words. Let the photos stand on their own.
your projects broadly. Think broadly. Think visually, not politically, journalisticly, socially, or economically. Allow yourself the freedom to
explore and play. Give yourself the opportunity to make a wide range of
photos. What situations will be interesting photographically? When you
do carry a conviction, find a way to think about it photographically.”
will flow out of the conditions of life. “Forget content (for now),
read the photographs as they exist in the language of photography:
graphics. Decisive moments are not about editorial content; graphic
elements take primacy. Editorial content flows from graphic composition.
It doesn’t matter how important the content is, without a graphic
structure the message is lost. Every photograph needs a structure.”
editorial readings are not that interesting: feelings, questions are
more interesting than intellectual conclusions. Giving information about
a specific situation is not the point. Finding a universal question is.
Photography can see the world unfiltered. The message emerges from the
image. The idea comes from the photographs, not the photographs from the
6. Seeing Reality
Later in that same class with Paula Allen, Laura Simms said the following. Consider this as you work with your group:
it possible for something to be there without you projecting a story
onto it? The activity of the eye, the shock of seeing reality, is the
gist of storytelling. No matter how much you’ve set up or projected,
seeing and being present is the source of storytelling. Image can
penetrate conceptual thinking. Truth can meet you through perception.
This is the politics of truth and ideas, unbiased perception that breaks
Stand up. Make your body loose, let it be loose. Observe the world around you. Caress the world with your eyes.
art depends on putting the mind into the body. Art is an antidote to
the speed and distraction—the abstraction of the world. We are part of
the world. The only place the story takes place is in the body of the
one who is listening.
“Caress the world with your eyes.”—Laura Simms
and connection in a story, not just a crass exploitation of the
subject, is essential. To do what you do, you have to be the most human
being you can be. You are the human telling the most human of stories.
Make it human through story, and image. Give the viewer their own little
earthquake, a feeling and an emotion.
I am on a quest to ask good
questions about humanity, to create community, and tell stories about
us. To support and encourage the capacity for awareness. Awareness of
life, body, consciousness, and humanity, others, self, and the world. To
break the way we’re trained to think and live. To combat numbness,
acceptance, speed, consuming. And to support discernment, taste, focus,
and enjoyment, access to the present. For dialogue, relationship, and
unquestioned is life lived in a religious state: A world where the
penetration of technology is total; where we live inside a completely
technological reality, abstract from the reality of nature. A way of
life out of balance, of unstable extraction.
So many people
the world is flat, and that it will go on like this forever. As
photographers, the point is to show the world not as it looks, but as we
see it. In slow motion. You have to be on the street for long enough to
be in a state where you see patterns, where you watch and see things.
wakes up our sense of togetherness. We are conditioned to
feel separate. By photographing people we are widening our circle of
compassion. When you talk to people on the street in your community it
is very likely the first time a photographer has talked to them.
feeling of troubling someone for a photograph never goes away, but your
relationship to that feeling changes. Focusing is a physical thing but
it’s also an emotional state while photographing. Vocalizing your
process can help: you’ll be talking to yourself, they won’t understand,
but it’ll help you calm down.”