Participatory Photography: a background
By Laura J Hirst, on 20 January 2015
While there exists a broad history of ‘participation’ in visual research methods, participatory photography or ‘photo voice’ has evolved as a specific participatory action research method for development, which involves providing (often marginalized groups of) people with cameras to record their realities and perspectives.
The process of taking photographs and subsequent group discussion amongst participants and researchers (which can take the form of storytelling, coding, explaining choices taken in making images) can provide new spaces for dialogue, exchange and knowledge production about personal and community issues. The following anecdote illustrates some of the potential of the method as a way of prompting reflexive discussions:
In 1973, while conducting a literacy project in a barrio in Lima, Peru, Paulo Freire and his colleagues asked people questions in Spanish, but distributed cameras and requested the answers in photographs. When the question ‘What is exploitation?’ was asked, some people took photos of a landlord, grocer, or a policeman. One child took a photo of a nail on a wall. Freire & Boal interpreted it as an abstract metaphor of the hard lives of children who worked long hours as shoe shiners, and had to walk long distances between home and the city.
The ensuing discussions revealed that as their shoe-shine boxes were too heavy for them to carry, these boys rented a nail on a wall, usually in a shop, where they could hang their boxes for the night. For them, that nail on the wall symbolised exploitation within their community. The photograph spurred widespread discussions in the Peruvian barrio about other forms of institutionalised exploitation, including ways to overcome them. 
In some cases the resulting photographs are themselves used as a powerful advocacy tool, attempting to inspire change through bringing stories and experiences to the attention of decision-makers and the wider public through campaigns and exhibitions.
As well as having roots in Freirean theories of conscientisation (where a critical awareness of one’s social reality is developed through both reflection and action), the method also draws from feminist theory which advocates research participants as actors rather than objects of study, and identifying the empowering potential of knowledge production for participants. 
In 2014, participatory photography was used as one of several research methods during fieldwork examining neighbourhood planning and urban governance in the city of Kisumu, Kenya, conducted as part of the MSc Social Development Practice fieldwork. Keep an eye out for future blog posts elaborating on how this was used in practice and reflections on its potential as a tool for empowerment and change in communities.
 From: Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper, ‘Photovoice Research’ in Participatory Visual and Digital Methods (Left Coast Press Inc, 2013): 69-89 and Singhal, A., L.M. Harter, K. Chitnis, and D. Sharma, 2007, Participatory Photography as Theory, Method and Praxis: Analyzing an Entertainment-Education Project in India. Critical Arts 21 (1): 212-227.
Laura Hirst has been working as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice. She has recently left the DPU to join the DPU-ACHR-CAN intership programme in the Philippines where she will be working with community groups in Davao for the next 4-6 months.