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How to Create a Community Photo Project Using PhotoVoice

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Read Time: 17 min

In this tutorial you'll learn how to make a collaborative artwork for social change, using photography.

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Abstract oil by manfredxy, Envato Elements

PhotoVoice: Framework for Collaborative Social Photo Documentary

PhotoVoice is a framework for making collaborative documentary photography. In With this method, people – usually people with limited power due to disability, poverty, language barriers, race, class, ethnicity, gender, or culture – use photos to record aspects of their environment and experiences and share them. The pictures, with captions composed by the photographers, are used to bring to public attention realities of the photographers’ lives, and spur policy and decision-makers toward change.

The key ideas are:

  • Images teach
  • Pictures can influence policy
  • Community members ought to participate in creating and defining the images that shape healthful public policy
  • The process requires that from the outset planners bring policy makers and other influential people to the table to serve as an audience
  • PhotoVoice emphasizes individual and community action

The Photographer-Facilitator

In many PhotoVoice projects the facilitation team includes a community developer and a professional or advanced amateur photographer. Photographers, however, usually don't have much (or any) experience with facilitating this kind of project.

This tutorial assumes you team is using the PhotoVoice framework, and focuses on the photography. You'll learn how to think about your role as a photographer-facilitator in a participatory art project, how you might structure and shape the collaboration process, how you can help people make great pictures, and how to edit those photos into a compelling body of work.

We're trying to inspire people to make photographs that, in turn, inspire change, so I've included, throughout this tutorial, words of inspiration from my own photography teachers that you might like to use.

During my research for this tutorial I found that there are many good resources. A terrific place to start is Phil Rabinowitz's introduction to PhotoVoice projects for the Community Tool Box. The WITNESS project has a great technical and tactical training library for activists and their allies, all free to remix and re-use as you wish. Josh Schachter's list of publications and list of community-based media and storytelling organizations is great if you want to dig deep.

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Abstract oil bubbles by manfredxy, Envato Elements

1. Greetings

Photography is not only technical challenge; it's also an emotional one. You want people to bring the pictures they care about, that they feel connected with. What you are creating is a space for people to learn to love their photographs.

Keep it simple and start with a friendly, engaged greeting to the participants. Here's a letter (adapted from a class introduction written by the photographer Paula Allen) to set you off right:

Dear All,Welcome to our photography project!Please come to our first session with ideas about the photo essays you want to work on. I will ask you lots of questions to help each of you determine the connection between yourself and what you want to photograph. If you are unclear about what that might be we (myself and the other people in our group) will help you to figure it out and get excited about photographing. Please also bring as many photographs as you need to express who you are as a photographer and what you want to accomplish. I am looking forward to meeting each of you and making art together for the next few months. If you have any questions before the class, email me at

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Abstract background by shotsstudio, Envato Elements

2. Let's Make Art Together

Documentary photography is a cumulative process; you collect images together, into a shared vision. The idea is to create a photographic project and polish it into an exhibition, book, website, film, and so on. The group is a creative team, it exists to support and encourage all of the members. Each person makes a unique contribution. It's not a competition.

There is a lot of flexibility when it comes to running session with your photographers. What follows is the method I use. Please adapt and shape it to suit your needs.


During the first session, divide everyone in two random groups, X and Y, of equal number. The groups will alternate, sharing their work every other session. Each person will show at least 45 pictures created since their last update. 

Effort is the key. If someone has had a bad week, that's OK: that's what they share. The purpose is to get out of the photographic comfort zone and start exploring.

At each session, regardless of whether they present pictures or not, each photographer will give a short report on their project: what's happening, troubles, successes, where they got stuck and where they had a breakthrough. Have a conversation and support the free-flow of ideas and suggestions.

Showing Work

I suggest you use prints instead of the computer, but that people should bring both prints and digital files. 

The prints don't need to be fancy. Simple 3.5x5" lazer prints (four to a page) or cheap 4x6" prints from the drug store are fine.

Sort the digital files into two folders, one for the first 45, and another folder for a reasonable number of seconds. Although the prints are where you'll do most of the review work, it is helpful to have the digital files on hand to put up on a projector for scrutiny.

  • Name the folders YYMMDD_FirstInitialLastName_ProjectName, where the date is the date of the session. So, for me, the folders might be 181203_JCouse_UrbanForest_A and 181203_JCouse_UrbanForest_B
  • Name the files with the same structure, followed by the original filename. For example, 181203_JCouse_UrbanForest_DSC3406.jpg
  • Save the files as jpeg images, 1600 pixels on the long edge, 72 dpi, compression 8, AdobeRGB colourspace

Load all of the files onto the computer before you start each session.

To start the critique, have two photographers lay out their work at once, one on one table and one on another. Critique the first photographer's work, and then move on to the second. While the second critique is happening, the recipient of the first critique can pick up their work and make notes, and the third photographer can begin laying out their pictures.

Staying Organized

Everyone needs a project box. It can be simple, it can be ornate, whatever people need to feel good about it is fine, but the box must exist for each person, for everyone's sanity and the good of the project. Each photographer puts everything they gather into their box: notes, clippings, prints, recordings, artifacts, contact sheets, releases, notebooks, objects, everything. For the sessions they are presenting, the photographers should bring their box.

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Abstract oil background by shotsstudio, Envato Elements

3. Photo Editing

Editing is the selection, sorting, and arrangement of photos into a cohesive, expressive package. Editing takes a long time to do intelligently.

Great moments do not necessarily work as photographs. When it works, there is a tension between form and content, a creative balance that heightens the intrigue of a frame. Mystery makes the spirit move.

Release yourself from the necessity for a literal, journalistic narrative. You do not have to hold the viewer by the hand. Let them find their own path. Respect their intellect. Entice them. To pose questions, to move a viewer to question intent, content, and choice is to engage the human part of us.

"A photograph wants other photographs. Photographs need other photographs to create meaning."—Jeff Jacobsen

Look for a moment where the inside and the outside merge, where the photographer's and the subject's emotional space meet in a situational composition that is graphically interesting. Do this looking while editing. Turn off the emotional chatter. Just fuse, and react from the heart as much as the head.

How to Look Critically at Photographs

All photographs need interpreting. In doing so, you need to say the reasons and criteria behind the judgments you make.

How do we look at photographs critically? To summarize, we question all arguments. Take nothing at face value. Question the dominant view or authority (but remain polite), question the tradition or conventional wisdom or common sense. Understand that everyone has bias and a point of view, that no one is objective.

Critiquing photographs is an important way we learn from each other. Critiques should not be taken as casual judgment; rather they should be taken as a suggestion of how to make our pictures. Each photographer is challenged to listen to what everyone is saying instead of speaking in their own defence, even though this is sometimes very hard to do. Be alert to what everyone has to say. Talking and engaged criticism will improve the quality of everyone's photography.

Important to remember: the artist owns her own work but does not own the meaning of the work or how it is interpreted.

Question Possible Aspects
Type News, documentary, advertising, promotion, etc.
Subject matter What is physically most prominent
Intention Intellectual central point
Questions Resolution or uncertainty
Emphasis Visual or graphic elements, what is important in the image
Interpretation Derived meaning
Technique Effective, or an encumbrance
Background Relevant, encompassed or ignored
Emotional response How does this image make you feel, think, imagine, remember? How do you feel about what or who is in the photograph? Active or passive? Enriched or disdainful? Encouraged or defeated? Informed or confused?
Relevance Cultural, political, social, psychological, historical, artistic content

We all notice different things. Sometimes we notice the same things in different ways. Someone might notice something about a picture that everyone else ignores.

While viewing each others' work, everyone will take some time to write down a few phrases or words that come to mind. If you want to create a form or sheet for people to fill out, that can help. Encourage the photographers to share their feelings and determine what in the photos triggered them. Be careful with your descriptions, they are a way to get other people to notice what you are seeing. Ask:

  • What is the strongest picture?
  • How does the photographer relate to the subject?
  • Is there a strong point of view?
  • Is the story provocative? (Do the pictures leave you wanting more?)
  • Can you think of a way to improve what you're seeing?
  • What does the series exclude?
  • Does the series take anything for granted?

We also have a specialized vocabulary for photography and it's good to use it to talk about pictures. In this way everyone, with some basic introduction, can understand what we mean.

Visual Element Quality and Expression
Light and Source Front, back, side, and direct, diffused, flash, available light
Tone High- or low-key, full scale
Contrast High and low
Texture Emphasized or minimized
Focus Selective or overall
Depth of field Shallow or deep
Frame How the shapes in the images meet the edges
Viewpoint Average eye-level, snake eye, bird's eye, child's eye
Space Shallow/deep, positive/negative
Perspective Compressed (telephoto), expanded (wide angle)
Line Curved, straight, broken, horizontal, vertical, and diagonal
Balance Juxtaposition of elements in a frame
Quality Grain or noise,texture, surface, resolution
Colour Full, spot, or monochromatic
Movement Deliberate blur or frozen, mixed
Time signs and symbols
Keywords out of context, unsettling associations

Mental Models

The sensation of focusing is a double-take: it refocuses the mind itself. Mental models structure your pictures and how you see them. By being mindful, photographers can bring this mental level under control and intuitively begin to formulate their own photographic vision.

The mental level refines our experience of the depictive level. A photo might have shallow depictive space but deep mental space. A photo might have deep depictive space but shallow mental space. Mental space is an interaction of observation, understanding, imagination, and intention. The combination of these aspects must all be engaged. All that mental stuff must be in play! This is the gestalt of the photographer.

4. Participatory Documentary

Historically, documentary photography has played the role of furthering education, within the existing social order, to describe a more-or-less objective reality. But another way, the way Photovoice does it, is to think about documentary photography as a vehicle for social and political change.

Pradeep Dalal said: "The social documentary photography tradition is built on social surveillance and coercion, a language with power relationships and history. It's premised on the transgressive pleasure of looking down the social scale or, rarely, up it. Social documentary legitimized this looking as a way of enlightened social reform. This history is deep.

The stories that are interesting are not found through professionals like us. We receive documentary and art projects from the people we interact with. We make art through our communion."

The present moment is very fragmented. The stakes are high. Find your references, and make yourself a toolbox.

The PhotoVoice ethics statement is a short document that outlines five broad core principles, plus seven further areas of concern, and details standards of practice. It's a compact overview of the process: 

"The participatory photography process centres around taking photographs, but also incorporates a broad range of elements beyond ‘pressing the shutter’. It involves learning to express opinions, to interpret and discuss images, to work as part of a group, to listen to others, to develop ideas and a voice, to edit and caption images, to identify and define audience and messages–deciding what pictures to take and for whom.

All these elements are an equally important part of the process and the route to self-expression and advocacy.

PhotoVoice’s projects begin by building participation and photography skills, allowing the group to develop and participants to gain confidence. This part of a project focuses on workshops, with the taking and sharing of images typically restricted to the group, project staff and immediate family or community.

Advocacy-based projects go on to develop a public communications dimension, in which photographs are taken for and viewed by a wider, public audience in order to influence attitudes or policies. The relationship between the relatively private and more public aspects of a project is a dynamic and delicate one, which requires careful balancing."

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Abstract mineral by sergeyskleznev, Envato Elements

5. Photographing Community

Everyone goes out alone and photographs in their life, in their community, and then you come back together to review. This is where the photographic learning and imagination really takes off.

What does it feel like to be in your community? On making pictures of life, here's what Jeff Jacobsen had to say:

"Photography, it's a pretty solitary thing. You have to learn to confront the challenges and fears that come up when you engage the world alone. Even today, before I go out to photograph, I get that fear. And that's OK, because that is a fear out of respect. When you go out with a friend that's OK, but things happen when you're alone. There's an incredible freedom I feel when I'm out there alone with a camera (and maybe a dog)."

"Why do people sometimes not choose their most interesting pictures? What are the barriers, demands, and habits that allow that to happen?"

The goal is to get people seeing what they are photographing. "To do that, you need to see the photographs that you're not choosing, and honour those pictures. Understand where you're standing in regards to your subject, why to move, when, and how. Sometimes where you stand is a question of moving your body or your perception of perspective, but sometimes it is a question of standing your ground."

And when do you press the shutter? Where you stand is more interesting than timing. Where do you stand socially, politically, economically, culturally, and in your life? Where do you stand in relation to photography?

Still photos, when you take them away from the context of words, have a powerful ambiguity on their own. They pose questions. Photographs can render a still image in a specific time and place. This is the unique power of photography.

"I like photography, like any art, that has mystery to it. I want to be challenged. I want to have responsibility as a viewer. I want to be provoked."—Jeff Jacobsen

These questions never end. What do I shoot? What do I care about? What's next? Don't get lost in trying to please someone else. Find meaning for yourself. Let go of the focus on narrative and get back to fun. Don't worry about the product, enjoy the process. Relax. Being a photographer is like being a surfer: you ride the energy of a wave, you work with the energy of a moment."

However. "A photograph is not the moment, a photograph is not reality. A photograph is an image on a piece of paper. It is a design problem, a graphic composition. Let the pictures determine an emotional reaction without the influence of words. Let the photos stand on their own.

Choose your projects broadly. Think broadly. Think visually, not politically, journalisticly, socially, or economically. Allow yourself the freedom to explore and play. Give yourself the opportunity to make a wide range of photos. What situations will be interesting photographically? When you do carry a conviction, find a way to think about it photographically."

Photographs will flow out of the conditions of life. "Forget content (for now), read the photographs as they exist in the language of photography: graphics. Decisive moments are not about editorial content; graphic elements take primacy. Editorial content flows from graphic composition. It doesn't matter how important the content is, without a graphic structure the message is lost. Every photograph needs a structure."

"Literal, editorial readings are not that interesting: feelings, questions are more interesting than intellectual conclusions. Giving information about a specific situation is not the point. Finding a universal question is. Photography can see the world unfiltered. The message emerges from the image. The idea comes from the photographs, not the photographs from the idea."

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Closeup of abstract watercolor background by Rawpixel, Envato Elements

6. Seeing

Laura Simms said the following. Consider this as you work with your group:

"Is it possible for something to be there without you projecting a story onto it? The activity of the eye, the shock of seeing reality, is the gist of storytelling. No matter how much you've set up or projected, seeing and being present is the source of storytelling. Image can penetrate conceptual thinking. Truth can meet you through perception. This is the politics of truth and ideas, unbiased perception that breaks right through.

Stand up. Make your body loose, let it be loose. Observe the world around you. Caress the world with your eyes.

Any art depends on putting the mind into the body. Art is an antidote to the speed and distraction—the abstraction of the world. We are part of the world. The only place the story takes place is in the body of the one who is listening.

"Caress the world with your eyes."—Laura Simms

Compassion and connection in a story, not just a crass exploitation of the subject, is essential. To do what you do, you have to be the most human being you can be. You are the human telling the most human of stories. Make it human through story, and image. Give the viewer their own little earthquake, a feeling and an emotion.

I am on a quest to ask good questions about humanity, to create community, and tell stories about us. To support and encourage the capacity for awareness. Awareness of life, body, consciousness, and humanity, others, self, and the world. To break the way we're trained to think and live. To combat numbness, acceptance, speed, consuming. And to support discernment, taste, focus, and enjoyment, access to the present. For dialogue, relationship, and care."

7. Friendship

I'll end with what what Greg Miller said in his class:

"Life unquestioned is life lived in a religious state: A world where the penetration of technology is total; where we live inside a completely technological reality, abstract from the reality of nature. A way of life out of balance, of unstable extraction.

So many people think the world is flat, and that it will go on like this forever. As photographers, the point is to show the world not as it looks, but as we see it. In slow motion. You have to be on the street for long enough to be in a state where you see patterns, where you watch and see things.

Friendship. Friendliness wakes up our sense of togetherness. We are conditioned to feel separate. By photographing people we are widening our circle of compassion. When you talk to people on the street in your community it is very likely the first time a photographer has talked to them.

The feeling of troubling someone for a photograph never goes away, but your relationship to that feeling changes. Focusing is a physical thing but it's also an emotional state while photographing. Vocalizing your process can help: you'll be talking to yourself, they won't understand, but it'll help you calm down."

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Oil an water macro by manfredxy, Envato Elements

Good luck, and have fun with your projects!

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