Photovoice is a group analysis method combining photography with grassroots social action, and is commonly used in the fields of community development, public health, and education. Participants are asked to represent their communities or express their points of view by photographing scenes that highlight research themes. Common research themes may include community concerns, community assets, or health barriers and facilitators. These photographs are collaboratively interpreted, and narratives can be developed that explain how the photos highlight a particular research theme. These narratives are used to better understand the community and help plan health or social programs that address community needs.
Photovoice is often used by marginalized groups to provide insight into how they conceptualize their circumstances and their hopes for the future. As a form of community consultation, photovoice attempts to bring the perspectives of those "who lead lives that are totally different from those traditionally in control of the means of imaging the world" into the policy-making process.
Also known as "participatory photography", photovoice was developed by Caroline C. Wang of the University of Michigan, and Mary Ann Burris, Program Officer for Women's Health at the Ford Foundation, headquartered in Beijing, China. In 1992, Wang and Burris created "photo novella," now known as photovoice, as a way to empower rural women in Yunnan Province, China to influence the policies and programs affecting them. They report being strongly influenced by the efforts of Nina Wallerstein and Edward Bernstein, who had adapted the ideas of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed to promote health education. Since then, Photovoice has been used by refugees in San Diego seeking in–person medical interpretation options and by homeless adults in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as by Dr. Claudia Mitchell to support community health workers and teachers in rural South Africa, and by Dr. Laura S. Lorenz of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in her work with brain injury survivors. Photovoice can be used as a tool to engage children and youth, giving them an opportunity to communicate their concerns and coping strategies to policy makers and service providers.
The concept has similarities with ideas propagated by Paulo Freire regarding critical consciousness, feminist theory and empowerment.
In the 21st century, some university professors have used the photovoice model to teach social work students. Photovoice has also been used in conjunction with collaging, drawing, and mapping in participatory studies which focus the voice of participants and aim to make the familiar strange.
Photovoice is considered a sub–type of "participatory visual methods," also known as picturevoice, which includes techniques such as photo-elicitation and digital storytelling. These techniques allow research participants to create visuals that capture their individual perspectives as part of the research process. An example of this is found in Project Lives, a participatory photography project used to create a new image of project housing dwellers, published in April 2015. Two other forms of picturevoice include paintvoice, stemming from the work of Michael Yonas, and comicvoice, which has been pioneered by John Baird's Create a Comic Project since 2008, and to a lesser extent by Michael Bitz's Comic Book Project.
In international research, photovoice has been seen to allow participants from the developing world to define how they want to be represented to the international community. Facilitating individuals to tell their stories—giving them control over the process—empowers them to maintain a firm sense of authorship over their representations and helps to convey a stereotype-free picture of what it means to live in a developing country.