SEATTLE, Washington — It is no new revelation that art has the ability to cause social change. A mere painting or photograph, which transcends cultural and language barriers, has the power to influence public perspective and knowledge. Photovoice methods are a modern, ethical take on art as a tool for empowerment. Combining photography with social activism, this concept uses research, education and community involvement to address global issues. PhotoVoice, a United Kingdom-based international charity, is based on this method and works together with NGOs and local organizations to deliver self-advocacy projects to communities around the world. Through its various projects, PhotoVoice has enabled individuals to express the injustices and realities they live with, thus creating the dialogue that leads to positive change. Putting cameras in the hands of the marginalized, this charity enables individuals to take back control of their stories.
The Photovoice Approach
Photovoice is a concept that was first founded in the early 1990s. Developed as a means to explore societal issues through a community-based perspective, it enabled researchers to better identify and understand complex situations. The method takes the principles of community-based participatory research (CBPR), which shapes community members as agents of change, and uses photographs to express individual circumstances when words alone are not completely successful. The result of photovoice is a community’s active engagement in conversations and decision-making aimed at addressing social and human rights issues.
The PhotoVoice organization has taken this same concept and made it their mission to help at-risk communities who are underrepresented. Since its founding, the charity has worked on over 65 projects in 35 countries in an effort to make meaningful, positive changes in people’s lives. In partnership with other organizations, it delivers customized photography projects to start a discussion about community issues and uncover innovative solutions that would not have been apparent otherwise. HIV support, women empowerment and poverty alleviation are some examples of PhotoVoice’s projects, all of which use photography to reach people in power and make them confront inequalities. Anna Blackman, a founder of PhotoVoice, explains why photography is the charity’s method of social change, “Pictures spark off something in people – they look at them and then they start to think more about the life of the people in the photos… they encourage you to ask more and more.”
PITCH: A PhotoVoice Case Study
Among its international work, PhotoVoice has delivered photography workshops to support PITCH – a project that advocates for equal health for those living with HIV and promotes sexual health rights for marginalized groups. In 2018, PhotoVoice teams went to Uganda, Myanmar and Nigeria to build photography skills and provide camera equipment for communities to create an advocacy campaign that shared their perspectives.
During the project, participants showcased their photos in a public exhibition to argue for the improvement of healthcare services for those living with HIV and the promotion of policies that uphold the rights of marginalized communities. They told their unique stories through photographs, while also challenging the misconceptions people held. https://photovoice.org/pitch/
Ariana, a 24-year-old from Uganda, used her photos to discuss her sexual health experience as a transgender woman and to comment on the discrimination she has experienced. Nonetheless, as represented by her confident, resilient photos, she stated at the end of her speech, “The trans community are people who want to work hard to gain acceptance. I believe there is going to be change and I believe that one day transgender people are going to be able to go to school, to walk freely and to be accepted by their families, religious leaders and by the government.”
In Myanmar, PhotoVoice worked with PITCH to deliver photography workshops for sex workers who have contracted HIV. Ma Nwe, a former sex worker and community advocate for sex work, took photos of locations around her community and described the abuse and criminalization that sex workers are subject to. Under a picture of a messy bed, she said, “Criminalised, their lives are discarded. For many their existence is miserable. Sex workers need empathy. Sex workers need policies that support and protect them, instead of punishing.”
Photos Taken by People, Not of People
So often in photography, pictures are taken of people and the story behind the work is written in a blurb underneath. This takes away a distinct viewpoint of the storytelling process, the subject’s perspective. PhotoVoice’s philosophy avoids this and gives people complete control of their stories by putting them behind the camera lens. Not only does this offer different insights, realities and voices to be heard, but it gives the individual increased confidence in themselves and the power to elicit change.
PhotoVoice assures the messages of change that arise from this process continue to spread by leaving camera equipment with participants and providing ongoing support for communities. The charity continues to work internationally and locally in the U.K. through various projects. Most recently, it has undertaken the development of online approaches to continue its work during COVID-19.
– Anastasia Clausen