Using Photovoice in Qualitative Research

This week’s screencast and blogpost are authored by Ana Soler. Ana Soler is the Chairperson of the National Association of Educational Translators and Interpreters of Spoken Languages (NAETISL: She completed her degree in Social Work at Georgia State University, her Master’s Degree in Public Health at Emory University, and is a Ph.D. in Special Education student at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include the collaboration between special education teachers and bilingual and multilingual families and the role of spoken language interpreters and the quality of language access in home-school partnerships.

To view the screencast, click here: Photovice as a qualitative rsearch method.

Photovoice is an innovative data collection method that can provide deep and rich information for researchers and engage the community in the research process. Photovoice is based on the power of documentary photography and highlights the importance of impacted populations to participate in the generation of questions and solutions. Participants in essence are expressing their life experiences through photography and collaborating through data encoding, and formation and interpretation of themes.

Photovoice is a very flexible method that can be used in a variety of settings and is applicable in most age groups. This technique can be used in phenomenological studies, grounded theory, ethnography, and participatory action research (Wang & Burris, 1997). Researchers have used Photovoice as a way to increase rural residents’ participation in community health assessments (Downey et al, 2009); as a means of empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities (Povee et al, 2014); and as a tool to gain a more thorough understanding of the experiences of adults residing in assisted living facilities in order to improve their home environment (Lewison, 2015). Photovoice appears in the education field as well, for example in the exploration of the lived experiences of mothers of children with a disability (Munsell & O’Malley, 2019), where mothers were asked to take photos that represented life with their children. 

Some of the steps to ensure the effectiveness of using photovoice include establishing a sense of purpose between researchers and participants prior to taking cameras into the community. Researchers must also share ethical considerations and provide strategies to protect the privacy of others as well as protect the participants’ personal safety along with that of their organization and community. Clear parameters and instructions must be provided to photovoice project participants to ensure that ethical principles are respected throughout the project. Issues such as individual privacy, harmful images, transferring ownership of photos, and publishing of photos must be discussed with participants as part of this process. After participants complete their photo collection, researchers facilitate group discussions to learn about the meaning of each photo and how the participant relates it to the central theme.

For participants, the photovoice process provides an opportunity to visually portray experiences and share personal knowledge about particular issues that may be difficult to express with words alone. This active engagement of community members in the research process demonstrates to participants that they are valuable members of the research team and that they can collaborate to draw attention to important community issues. For researchers, the combination of the narrative and visual depictions enhances our ability to accurately capture the meaning of an issue from the participant’s point of view. The dialogue that is encouraged among participants and researchers may generate different ideas and perspectives that the researcher may not have seen at the beginning of the project. 

Photovoice may present challenges related to ethics and rigor in applied research. Policy and community changes do not automatically occur after using photovoice as part of community participatory research. Involving stakeholders and building relationships with key players in the community prior to the start of the photovoice process are essential to creating viable opportunities for community action or change. Researchers must define how to engage decision-makers to take part in the process, how to sort and analyze the abundance of data resulting from data collection; and how to ensure that the photographs and narratives are presented in a way that accurately portrays the participants’ most important issues.

It is essential for researchers to capture how individual personality and mood influence perceptions, rather than images alone. This will help ensure that participants’ subjective experiences don’t influence the data collection process. The photovoice process is very time-consuming and requires a large investment of both human and financial resources. In addition, the issues identified through photovoice are representative of a small sample of the population. Thus, if the process was to be repeated with a specific sub-sample of the population or with different people generally, the outcomes and results of the photovoice activity may be very different. Although this is an inherent limitation of photovoice, the method is, in fact, designed to allow people to represent their personal everyday realities (Wang & Burris, 1997).

Some of the recommendations described by researchers using photovoice as a data collection method include clarifying expectations for photo content from the start and reviewing ethical principles such as the exclusion of minors in the photos and privacy or information. A limit on the number of photographs taken by participants can help control an abundance of data that, along with focus groups and interviews are relatively easy to collect, but can create significant methodological challenges in terms of data analysis and presentation to ensure that participants’ perceptions are portrayed accurately.

Allowing enough time for participants to select key photos and discuss their selections is also important. It is recommended that researchers using photovoice in the future pay attention to the photographs that may be leftover after participants select the images that are meaningful to them. These leftover photos or photos with no story, or photovoice without the voice (Darbyshire et al., 2005) still include the inherent value of the community and thus researchers must discuss with participants if and how these additional photographs can be meaningfully integrated into the data analysis and presentation of community results. 

Photovoice is one of several qualitative methods utilized in community-based participatory research and allows participants to use photography, and stories about their photos to identify and represent issues of importance to them, which enables researchers to have a greater understanding of the issue under study. Using photovoice in conjunction with both community knowledge and best practice evidence can help address complex social issues in a way that is also meaningful for the community involved.


Darbyshire P., MacDougall C., Schiller W. (2005). Multiple methods in qualitative research with

children: More insight or just more? Qualitative Research, 5, 417–435.

Downey, L.H., Ireson, C.L., Scutchfield, F.D. (2009). The use of photovoice as a method of

facilitating deliberation. Health Promotion Practice, 10, 419–427.

Lewison, D., Willis, A., Edwards, N. (2005). Through seniors’ eyes: An exploratory study to

identify environmental barriers to and facilitators of walking. Canadian Journal of

Nursing Research, 37(3), 48–65.

Munsell, S. & O’Malley, L. (2019) The lived experiences of mothers of children with a

disability. The New Educator, 15(4), 269-280.

Povee, B., Krieg, B., Murdock, L., Havelock, J. (2009). A practical guide to photovoice: Sharing

pictures, telling stories and changing communities. Winnipeg, MB: Prairie Women’s

Health Centre of Excellence.

Wang, C., Burris, M. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs

assessment. Health Education and Behaviour. 24, 369–387.

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