Research Summary

New approaches to facilitate learning from youth: Exploring the use of Photovoice in identifying local watershed issues

Understanding Local Watershed Issues Using Photovoice

The Journal of Environmental Education

Reaching out to and hearing from a variety of community voices in dealing with watershed issues is vital. In particular, little research has been done as to how teenagers understand watersheds and their management. A new way of appealing to young people and hearing their perspectives is using photovoice, a method that involves taking photographs and then discussing those photos in a group. For this study, the researchers asked whether photovoice could be an effective tool for working with teens to identify their perceptions of local watershed issues and priorities.

This study took place in Washington, D.C., and considered two Chesapeake Bay watersheds. The first watershed was part of the Anacostia River and the second was part of the Patuxent River. The researchers met with local highschool students, all of whom were active in the Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA). At the first student meeting, the researchers described the project, distributed cameras, and told the students where and what they should look to photograph in the watershed. They asked the students to take at least 25 photos of any features within the watershed. After the students had taken their photos, researchers met with them for half an hour to discuss the photos; then they asked the students to complete a worksheet. They asked the students to select 10 images and write a short narrative about each image, detailing 26 where they took the photo, what was happening in the photo, and what positive or negative reactions they may have had to the photo, using a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” symbol as an indicator.

The 20 participating students took a total of 468 photos, with 9 students at the Anacostia site taking 221 photographs and 11 students at the Patuxent site taking 247 photographs. When the researchers analyzed the students’ narratives, they found evidence for four main themes: water, problems with the watershed, the relationship between the community and the watershed, and stormwater management. In the narrative descriptions, students used positive terms and phrases to describe 62.6% of Anacostia photos and 68.5% of the Patuxent photos. Certain words tended to be mentioned by both groups, with “water” and “pollute, -ing, -ed” occurring frequently. Students at the Anacostia site used words in their narratives that were more often coded as negative, such as “trash,” “pollution,” and “sewers,” than students at Patuxent, who mentioned these words less frequently. This was unsurprising considering that trash is a known problem in Anacostia. Despite these differences, both groups connected pollution with the need to take action by either cleaning up the watershed and/or proactively taking care of it.

The Bottom Line

Photovoice is a research method that can be empowering for participants, particularly youth, as it provides a way to explore the environment independently, unfiltered by researchers’ words and expectations. Photovoice’s visual aspect can be particularly powerful for identifying persistent concerns, such as those related to watershed management, like flooding, stormwater runoff, and pollution contamination. In the case of high-school students’ exploration of nearby watersheds, photovoice can focus attention on positive aspects of the watershed, while also increasing awareness of issues. Through this method, which focuses on developing agency, youth can consider age- and place-appropriate avenues toward proposing solutions, such as taking preventative actions or cleaning up polluted waterways. In these ways and others, using photovoice as part of teen-focused environmental education initiatives may help connect youth with local environments while also developing their civic engagement skills.