Photo voice

Photo voice is a tool often used in forms of action research. In that context, it asks participants in a research process to use photographs, images or other visual material to represent their experiences of the research. In an evaluation context, it allows those groups and individuals who have been part of a project to have a voice in the evaluation of that project. This is done by their presenting images which they feel represent:

  • the process itself that a group undertook in that project; or
  • their own part in that project; or
  • their reactions to that project; or even
  • their own evaluations of the project.

Why use photo voice?

Photo voice would normally be used in a classroom evaluation when seeking the views of students about the processes in which they had been engaged during a project. Like any form of participatory evaluation, photo voice can build capacity and empower those who otherwise simply remain the subjects of the evaluation. In other words, student participation in evaluation through a process like photo voice would itself be a learning exercise.

Strengths and limitations of photo voice

Photo voice provides a window into how students perceive the work of the classroom/school. It also provides them with a voice, which some may find less intimidating or more meaningful than other forms of contributing to an evaluation. It can also provide a voice for students who are just becoming literate or struggling with literacy. It is an exercise in learning of itself, and is usually highly engaging for the students taking the photographs.

Its limitations can be that if few students are actually taking the photographs, then a student view on the overall project may only be partial or otherwise not representative. As a consequence, it may need to be supplemented as a resource for evaluation. Usually, photo voice does not provide data that is readily quantifiable.

How do I use photo voice?

For an evaluation of, say, a new pedagogy for student engagement, one scenario might be to have students take photographs of processes going on in the classroom under that new pedagogical practice over a week. In this case, signs of engagement among students in the photographs might be presented as typical of that time.

Students could then be instructed to sort and select from these, for example, asked to choose three photos that best represent engagement in the tasks they have completed in a week?. They would then need to explain what there is about the chosen photographs that best shows engagement related to the new pedagogical practice.

A sequence of steps using an example of evaluating the impact of a problem-based learning program

A teacher is introducing problem-based learning in a particular class for the first time. Students are working in groups over an extended period (say, one week) to solve the problem presented by the teacher. The teacher wants to evaluate the success of the project and decides on photo voice as one instrument.

  1. Choose one or a number of students. Supply each with a camera (phone, other device).
  2. Their instruction is to take photographs during this lesson (over this week) that show the class working on the problem. Teachers might ask them to photograph or film when good learning is happening. Students may be rotated on this duty each day for over a week or so.
  3. At the end of the period (one week, in this example), students who took photographs (or even students who didn't) are asked to choose a small number of photographs that they think best represent what the class has been engaged in over the period of time.
  4. These students are asked to explain why these were the images they chose, and why they best represented the class's engagement over that time. This could be done in writing or as talk. If done as talk, teachers would consider whether to record or transcribe the students' answers. Questions may be framed as "Why did you choose this photo as representing this task?" or "How does it represent what we have done here?" or "How does it show engagement in solving the problem you were set?"

This could lead to a presentation to the class from the photographer(s).

Photo Voice could also be used by students as a form of self-evaluation, or as a form of evaluating the group in which they were working.

When do I use photo voice?

Photographs would usually be taken during the project and the discussion/justification for choices of photographs to represent the project would usually be during or after the project.

Throughout the project/study At the end of the project/study
Purposes To record the project and sometimes to evaluate its impact so far To contribute to the evaluation of the impact of a program

Selected students take photographs of students engaged in the relevant project, say problem-based learning

Students discuss their choices and the reasons for them

What might be used in tandem
  • Student Self-assessment
  • Peer Assessment
  • Teacher Observation
  • Student self-assessment or peer assessment
  • Teacher Observation
  • Student Interviews, Focus Groups or Surveys
  • Student Products
  • Most Significant Change
How long does it take and with whom? About 2 weeks with students About 3 weeks with students

What the research says

For good coverage of photo-oriented techniques for researching and evaluating with students in schools, see: Susan Groundwater-Smith, Sue Dockett and Dorothy Bottrell (2015) 'Participatory research with children and young people'. London: Sage (see also 'Photo Elicitation')

Dana Harley of Northern Kentucky University discusses using Photo Voice with children and adolescents, including the issue of ‘photovoice safety’. She also has links to other important 'Photo Voice' sites.

Though not school-education based, there is a useful literature review on 'Photo Voice' and its role in participatory research at: Kuratani, D.L.G. & Lai, E. (2011) Team Lab: Photovoice Literature Review (PDF 80KB).

A pioneering reference in the field is: Wang, C. and Burris, M.A. (1994) ‘Empowerment Through Photo Novella: Portraits of Participation (PDF 1.336 MB)’, Health Education and Behaviour, 21:2, 171-186. doi: 10.1177/109019819402100204

Resources and references

Photo Voice: Reframing the world is a charity and a key site for an overview of techniques and projects using 'Photo Voice' and an introduction to its potential for participatory research:

(‘Working in partnerships with other charities, NGOs and community organisations, Photo Voice designs and delivers tailor-made participatory photography, digital storytelling and self-advocacy projects for socially excluded groups’- Photo Voice website, About us)

See also STEPS Centre – Photovoice – Uncertainty through the lens

Though not focused on evaluation, there is a very useful YouTube clip on how to go about 'Photo Voice' that is easily adapted to the classroom.

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