Youth and adults learn how to use photography as a tool for civic engagement

In a workshop at the 2012 Michigan 4-H Teen Leadership and Community Change Conference, youth and adults learned how to use a documentary photography method called Photovoice to document their perceptions of community strengths and concerns.

With an air of excitement and armed with everything from the most basic point-and-shoot to high-end digital single-lens reflex cameras, 21 youth and adults filtered into a room at the Kettunen Center (Michigan 4-H’s volunteer and youth training center) on a cold winter afternoon. The photographers, ranging in experience from novice to expert, were attending the Michigan 4-H Teen Leadership and Community Change Conference, held in Tustin, Michigan, January 21-22, 2012. During the next three hours, the photographers would be participating in a workshop to learn how they could combine their photography skills with civic engagement efforts in order to create positive change in their communities. 

The focus of the workshop was PhotoVoice, a participatory action research (PAR) evaluation method developed in the 1990’s by Caroline Wang of the University of Michigan, and Mary Ann Burris of the University of London. According to Wang and Burris, PhotoVoice is a form of documentary photography with three main goals: “ enable people to (1) record and represent their everyday realities; (2) promote critical dialogue and knowledge about personal and community strengths and concerns; and (3) reach policymakers.”

PhotoVoice offers an ideal way for youth to engage in a role of civic leadership, as the method is well suited to teenagers’ interest in creative self-expression, and the method provides a framework for youth to explore community-based strengths and concerns through individual reflection and group dialogue. 

After hearing an overview of the PhotoVoice method, watching a YouTube video highlighting a youth PhotoVoice project sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Health, and discussing the power and potential risks of community-based photography, workshop participants fired up their cameras and began trying out PhotoVoice for themselves. The photographers captured images that demonstrated concepts and conditions which contributed to, or detracted from, positive community health. 

After spending an hour taking photos, the group reconvened and began the process of interpreting their photos. After choosing one photo that best captured their perspective, the photographers answered a series of questions about their chosen image. The questions were based on a model which helps PhotoVoice participants explore the underlying causes of the strengths or concerns that they capture in their photos. After spending time interpreting their own photos, all the participants shared their photo and their analysis with the rest of the group. Photos included pictures depicting community concerns, such as trash and cigarette butts, dangerous building conditions, and the overuse of cars and trucks for transportation, as well as photos depicting community strengths, such as interpersonal friendships, healthy food choices, and a vibrant natural ecology. 

Following the workshop, the photos taken by participants, along with their analysis of community strengths and concerns, were shared as a slideshow with the rest of the participants at the conference. After attending the PhotoVoice workshop, many photographers expressed an interest in applying their newly developed knowledge and skills by organizing a PhotoVoice project in their home communities. For those interested in trying a PhotoVoice project in their community, it is helpful to recruit a facilitator who has training or experience with the method, or for a local coordinator to receive training in the PhotoVoice method before beginning a project. 

When applied in a community setting, the final step of a project is presenting the results to decision- and policy-makers, who can use their position of power to ensure positive outcomes based on the findings of the project participants. PhotoVoice projects offer a unique and engaging way for youth and adults to work together to document and understand the causes of community strengths and concerns.  This technique offers a powerful tool for community-based groups of youth and adults to use when examining social, environmental, cultural, political and health conditions in their community, and a quick search of the web will uncover many resources for groups interested in using the technique.

To learn more about the opportunities Michigan 4-H provides for youth to engage in leadership and civic engagement, go to

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