Photo-Voice: Girl Behind the Camera

Images can give us information about the outside world without requiring us to read any words or use our imaginations. We often see photos as concrete proof of a reality and rarely read any bias into them. We forget that the person behind the camera uses his/her own subjectivity to decide what is beautiful, what is photo-worthy and what will draw our attention. We are not seeing the world, but rather the world from that photographer's perspective. This is his or her photo-voice.

A professor at the Faculty of Education at McGill University, Claudia Mitchell uses photo-voice as a methodology for gathering information and finding solutions to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. As you may know, the primary transmission of HIV in Africa is through unprotected sex, and because of the widespread belief that sex with a virgin is a cure for sexually transmitted diseases, young girls are often the victims of rape.

Working predominately in Rwanda and South Africa, two countries in the throes of dramatic change with legacies of violence, Mitchell has chosen to teach young girls how to use a camera in order to find out how they see the world around them.

I had the opportunity to hear Claudia Mitchell speak at the YWCA's International Conference on Youth, Media and Sexualization last May, and her presentation was powerful. After gaining the trust of a group of girls living in a rural area and teaching them how to use the technology, Mitchell asked them to go around their village and school and take pictures of "feeling strong" and "not so strong."

When young girls control the gaze

After viewing the pictures the girls had taken and asking them a few questions, Mitchell and her colleagues made some important discoveries. Girls had taken pictures of a broken bathroom door at their school. This was a place where the girls felt vulnerable or "not so strong." Mitchell and teachers were also surprised to see a picture of the door to the home of a local soccer star. One of the girls later spoke of a close call with this individual. There were also photos of an isolated path used to go to school and transport water. This was another place where the girls "felt not so strong." Unsurprisingly, several of the girls had taken pictures of themselves and their friends in their classroom as a place where they "felt strong" and safe.

These photos helped Mitchell and the community devise some measures to make the girls safer, such as allowing them to go to the washroom with a friend, fixing the bathroom door and having them walk to school and transport water with an adult. At the conference, Mitchell did not say whether any action was taken against the soccer star.

The next step was to raise awareness in the community about child safety. The girls' photos were posted at a central location on market day to ensure that a large number of local residents would see the pictures. At the conference, we had the opportunity to see all these photos and even a picture of the photos posted in the village.

Not only did these girls have the opportunity to learn how to work with technology, they were also given an opportunity to voice their fears without actually having to find the words. This meant that the girls were able to raise awareness about their own safety amongst themselves and the community as a whole.

This was the first time that I had ever heard of the concept of photo-voice. After some research, I learned that both photo-voice and participatory video were often used with marginalized people in order to see how they viewed the world. The information culled from the photos and video are often used to develop policies to help better integrate these groups into society.

I can easily see a number of applications for photo-voice here in North America. Investigating racism, discrimination and sexual harassment immediately come to mind. But specifically with respect to girls, I think getting them behind a camera has many educational benefits. First of all, it affords them the opportunity to use a new technology and gain confidence in using it. Secondly, producing their own videos and photos is very empowering, particularly if they learn about perspective and bias in the media. And finally, photo-voice allows young girls to become active participants in media by producing content from their perspective rather than being passive consumers and accepting the views of others.

What about you reader? Can you think of any other applications?

For further information on Claudia Mitchell and her research projects click here.


John_Ward Leighton | September 22, 2009 at 8:23 AM

Great idea, several times a year in the DTES of Vancouver we have a program to allow homeless people to use cameras to document their lives.

From a personal point of view I never go anywhere without a camera, either film or digita,l as you know from my blog. It frames my world although I don't know anyone who would describe me as lost for words.


C. McKane | October 4, 2009 at 7:00 PM

I had never heard of this concept before Heather but it really shows that images can make powerful statements when voices can't or won't be heard.

I find it very revealing that this local star was featured as a "not so safe" aspect of their lives and have to wonder if the program gave them courage to open up about it or if it was ever mentioned before.

I'm really intrigued about the the homeless program the last commenter mentioned I'll have to google that one.

I've slowly begun to think of my camera as a way to capture the essence of something in a tangible way. Not that my pictures are anything above snap shots but the story they impart is what inspires me.

Heather | October 4, 2009 at 8:18 PM

I loved your idea of taking a picture a day. I found your pictures in your photography section of Opinionated Ant really inspiring(see blogroll for link). There are so many things in our everyday lives that are both funny and beautiful.

I loved looking at your pictures. It gives insight into someone else's perspective. I find that we are so saturated with images in the media that we quickly lose our own photo-voice or perspective. I would love to do a project with several women to see the things that they see every day.

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