Photovoice: An Exciting Tool for EPIC

Telling Stories with Cameras

Here at EPIC, we have been exploring tools and techniques for forwarding our mission in Iraq.  We are particularly excited about a technique called photovoice because of its power, simplicity, and participatory nature.  We thought we’d share some of our excitement with you, to keep you updated on what we’re working on.

Drawing inspiration from participatory education, critical theories, and their own field experience, social scientists Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris developed a technique for understanding community needs through photography.  This method, called photovoice, addressed a major complaint in the social sciences: what researchers THINK people need isn’t always what they ACTUALLY need.

Think about it this way- when Grandma gets you itchy wool socks for your birthday, it’s not because you needed them.  It’s certainly not because you asked for them.  It’s because, in Grandma’s head, you’re still that adorable baby who needs to keep its little feet warm.  Her assumptions and your reality don’t match.  And while this is fine from Grandma, it creates real problems in social science.

This is the central purpose of photovoice: community-needs assessment that can be done by the community itself, without the assumptions and biases of outsiders.  Once these needs are identified, they can be addressed within the community, spark discussions, or be taken to policymakers.

To achieve this, photovoice must clear two major hurdles: it must be participatory, letting people tell their own stories; and accessible, transcending specifics of location.

With photovoice, technology makes this possible.  Cameras and recording devices are becoming more readily available and easier to use every day.  By giving cameras to individual community members, they are able to express their own needs the way they see and understand them, in a visual language that transcends barriers.  Initially used to assess the needs of rural women in China, part of photovoice’s strength is its flexibility.  Because it asks communities to determine their own needs, photovoice can be applied anywhere.

We’re going to be working more with the photovoice technique in the coming weeks- look out for more updates as our upcoming projects are unveiled!

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