Research Summary

A review of photovoice applications in environment, sustainability, and conservation contexts: is the method maintaining its emancipatory intents?

Photovoice can serve as an equitable method, but emancipatory outcomes are needed

Environmental Education Research
2020

Individual reflection and community empowerment are critical tools for implementing social change. Photovoice is a participatory action research method that uses photography and group discussion to help participants document and reflect on their experiences. This method engages participants collaboratively in the research process. Photovoice enables participants to reflect on their community’s strengths and weaknesses, communicate issues, and start grassroots efforts towards social change in an effort to influence policymakers and include groups often left out of decision making. Photovoice has been used in a variety of communities with audiences of all ages. This literature review aimed to determine how photovoice is used with youth, and if these applications are in line with the original intent of the photovoice method.

The researchers conducted a comprehensive literature review in February and March of 2019. They searched for original, peer-reviewed research in eleven academic databases using the terms photovoice, youth, and pedagog. A total of 195 articles were collected and then reviewed for direct connections to conservation, or science, environmental, place-based, and sustainability education. The 32 articles containing direct connections were analyzed and key information was record. All articles used were published after 2009, though the researchers did not filter for specific date ranges. Researchers identified four approaches to photovoice in these contexts: place as pedagogy; conservation and sustainability practices; science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education; and decolonizing education. The articles were categorized based on the approach used and were then analyzed to determine whether each article met the original goals of photovoice (that is, evaluating community strengths and weaknesses; engaging in critical dialogues; influencing policy).

In the selected studies, the researchers identified several modifications to the photovoice method, such as photojournalism, song writing, and video, each designed to best suit the communities or groups engaged in photovoice work. They found that eight articles focused on place as pedagogy, where photovoice was used to explore what one can learn from a place about topics such as sustainability or culture. Most of the articles addressed community strengths and weaknesses as well as facilitated dialogue, but fell short in bringing information to policymakers. The eleven articles where photovoice was used as a conservation or sustainability tool best addressed all three goals because they developed environmental knowledge, encouraged dialogues, and provided the space and tools for community members to support policy changes. The majority of the eight articles where photovoice was used as a STEM teaching tool also addressed the three goals by connecting youths’ lived experiences to science and deepening their knowledge. Finally, photovoice was used to educate communities about decolonizing in five articles, which brought Indigenous pedagogies into environmental education. While the programs addressed community strengths and weaknesses and provided opportunities for dialogue, four out of five cases did not include adequate opportunities to connect with policymakers. Overall, the lack of influence over policy and policymakers was the most consistently unmet goal across all four approaches.

This literature review had some limitations. Only eleven databases and three terms were used to conduct the literature review, which may have led to the exclusion of some pertinent articles. Also, positive photovoice experiences are more likely to be documented in articles, leading to some bias with the results. The focus on environmental contexts may have also led to the exclusion of key information from other disciplines where photovoice is widely used.

The researchers had some recommendations. They noted that very few studies contained an evaluation of their effectiveness, which they suggest implementing to identify and achieve program goals. They also emphasize the efficacy of modified photovoice approaches such as songwriting, film, or storytelling for children in particular. Overall, attention should be given to the original goals of photovoice when implementing it; underheard voices are to be amplified in the process and these groups and their knowledge need to be a part of the process of bottom-up change with policymakers.

The Bottom Line

Photovoice is a research method that uses photography and group discussion to document and reflect on participant experiences. This literature review aimed to determine how photovoice is used with youth in environmental contexts, and if these applications are in line with the method’s original goals: evaluating community strengths and weaknesses, engaging in critical dialogues, and influencing policy. The researchers collected articles from 11 databases using three search terms: photovoice, youth, and pedagog. Thirty-two articles were categorized into four approaches: place as pedagogy; conservation and sustainability practices; science, technology, engineering, and math education; and decolonizing education. Most of the research proficiently met the first two goals, but many lacked opportunities to influence policy. The researchers recommend that practitioners remain cognizant of the original goals of photovoice when using the method.