Photovoice: A critical introduction

EJ Milne, Rachel Muir

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    In 1997 Wang and Burris published a seminal paper in which they elucidated a visual research methodology, which has become widely known as ‘photovoice’. The qualitative method they outlined proposed that cameras should be given to people so that they could document their realities, engage in critical reflection, and advocate for change (Wang, 1999; Wang and Redwood-Jones, 2001). In their initial project with women in the Yunnan counties of Chenjang and Luliang in China, Wang and Burris argued that photographs could become powerful tools ‘to furnish evidence and to promote an effective, participatory means of sharing expertise and knowledge’ which could be utilised as potential catalysts for change within communities (1997:369). They distinguished this method from ‘photo novella’ and ‘photonovel’, which they had previously used to describe processes of using photographs or images in storytelling and educational literacy, and instead defined photovoice by its orientation to social change and critical dialogue with policymakers or those in positions of power (Wang et al., 1996; Wang and Burris, 1994). Photovoice, they suggested, was significantly different from ‘photo novella’ and enabled people to ‘identify, represent, and enhance their community through a specific photographic technique’ (Wang and Burris, 1997:369). In the article, they outlined the three main goals of photovoice: 1) to enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns, 2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important community issues through large and small group discussion of photographs, 3) to reach policymakers (Wang and Burris, 1997:370).

    Since Wang and Burris’ original paper (1997), photovoice has been adapted and evolved, and a considerable amount of researchers and practitioners have sought to make use of photovoice’s specific potential to develop insights into the everyday lives and experiences of people sometimes described as ‘seldom heard’, ‘hard to reach’, and ‘marginalised’. This is with the intention of ‘giving voice’ to people and specific communities, challenging prevailing representations, and exploring ‘hidden’ lives. A rather smaller literature explores and critiques the inherent promise of emancipation within photovoice, whilst raising concern about the latent potential for its use in surveillance and embedding negative representations of particular people and communities (Prins, 2010).

    In this chapter, we describe the theoretical underpinnings of photovoice before outlining how to undertake a photovoice project, contextualising this within a broader discussion of how photovoice has been used and applied by researchers, practitioners and communities. We also highlight key strengths, challenges, limitations and debates by drawing together discussions in the literature, as well as revisiting Wang and Burris’s detailed explanations of photovoice and the contemporary literature from a range of disciplinary traditions. This chapter is written from the perspective that a researcher will be involved in facilitating the photovoice project, rather than the project being led by a practitioner or community facilitator.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationSAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods
    EditorsLuc Pauwels, Dawn Mannay
    Place of PublicationLondon
    PublisherSAGE Publications
    Number of pages15
    ISBN (Print)9781473978003
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


    • Photovoice
    • participatory methods
    • Participation
    • Visual Methods
    • photo-elicitation
    • Participatory photography


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