Photovoice as a Research Method for Urban Community Development

Luke Hanna

Luke Hanna

December 2019 | US

Photovoice as a Research Method for Urban Community Development

Why are Local Governments Concerned with Neighborhood Vitality?

As people continue to migrate away from rural America to urban areas, scholars and  policy-makers alike, continue to confront the question of how to maintain “community vitality.” News media, non-profit organizations, and community-based researchers have all demonstrated interest in this concern, but as I have witnessed in my own work, local governments also have a strong interest in the vitality of their neighborhoods.

The reason for interest in "neighborhood vitality" during periods of urbanization is the popular belief that as cities grow, neighborhoods experience "decay" characterized by symptoms such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness, violent crime, racial segregation, or high infant mortality rates.

Municipal governments across the country have begun to experiment with different plans to build community and reduce their risk of urban decay. You can check out the Southeastern San Diego Community Plan as an example, but cities have used a wide variety of plans and programs to address the needs of their neighborhoods.

The general concern for neighborhood vitality has led researchers to work toward the best solutions. For instance, the non-profit Center for Community Progress, established strategic approaches for building strong neighborhoodswhich include; 1. building up the value of amenities such as parks and greenspaces, 2. Providing desirable housing, and 3. Creating neighborhood stability. The Center for Community Progress also offers a conference and assorted other materials for maintaining or improving neighborhoods.

Overall, though the point remains, a demand exists for information about building community within neighborhoods.

Using Photovoice to Inform Projects in Community Vitality

As applied sociologists, we understand there is no single answer that can be used by all cities across this diverse nation. Communities will likely have different priorities when it comes to the meaning of “vitality.” For instance, a neighborhood with food security concerns will require a different approach than a neighborhood looking for more appealing art displays. This is why as we continue to address the needs of our seemingly ever-growing cities, we must remain diligent in hearing the needs of residents prior to implementing programs designed to improve “vitality.”

Urban sociologists and urban planners have used methods such as quality of life surveys, but one of my favorite methods for collecting information from community members is photovoice. In 1992, Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris developed photovoice as a research methodology with an understanding that “people can identify, represent, and enhance their community,” through photography. Additionally, photovoice was created as a way for those often excluded from social action to have a greater voice in policy and development decisions that impact their communities. In other words, photovoice was created to give voice to those with little decision-making power.

The process of photovoice involves allowing members of a community to photograph the most significant aspects of their lived experiences and share those images with an audience of decision-makers with direct influence over the community.

The website displays a variety of projects using photovoice. As an example, a large-scale photovoice project was implemented in London to allow residents a voice in the development of a public transportation system. In this London case, the government had already initiated the transportation development and the photovoice project was organized by a third party, but when the images were presented to those in charge of the transportation project, decision makers decided to reconceptualize the system to fit the needs of residents. Overall, photovoice is a practical method for any governing body to receive feedback from the populations they impact.

The University of Kansas has created a collaborative project known as the Community Tool Box that allows practitioners such as city planners and community organizers to publish resources for other practitioners. In an entry contributed by Phil Rabinowitz titled Implementing Photovoice in your Community, the author outlines three goals of photovoice in greater detail:

  1. To help those who are often unheard gain a voice, enabling them to record and reflect on their experiences and their communities’ conditions, both positive and negative.

  2. To bring about change that will improve conditions and enhance lives by reaching and influencing policy-makers.

  3. To encourage critical consciousness. Through choosing, discussing, and reflecting on the subjects of their photographs, the photographers can come to a clearer understanding of their circumstances and the economic, social, psychological, and political forces that shape them.

As sociologists, we could likely point to many existing vitality projects and suggest areas in which the program is failing to serve the needs of all those in the community. As stated above, photovoice is designed to explicitly hear from those who have a history of systematic underrepresentation. Photovoice can be used as a form of assessment to assist the city planners and others in evaluating the health of its neighborhoods and proposing solutions that work for the members of the community.

The second goal of photovoice is for members of a community to reach policy-makers. It is important that decision-makers hear from the city’s residents prior to implementing vitality projects that impact the lives of community members so that resources are not spent reconceptualizing projects once they have begun to be implemented, such as the case in London. Photovoice can provide an effective and efficient method for collecting information about neighborhoods and promoting civic engagement.

The final goal of photovoice is to empower community members to see their environment from a perspective of critical consciousness. The idea is to turn neighborhoods into destinations rather than spaces that people occupy, by helping people to see underlying economic, social, and political forces that have shaped their neighborhoods, in an attempt to build a sense of place amongst residents.

Concluding Thoughts

Sociologists research a wide variety of topics and social problems, but as applied sociologists we must learn to collect and use data in a way that contributes to the well-being of society. When it comes to urbanization and the resulting policy decisions, we should be mindful of assisting those with power in a way that represents the needs of those with voices that may otherwise go unheard in the rapidly changing social landscape of urban areas. Photovoice is one way in which we, as sociologists, can use our skills to impact positive social change.


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