The Universal Challenge

Fred Rune Rahm, participant in a PhotoVoice training programme in Norway in December, describes the impact of the using participatory photography in designing new programmes.

PhotoVoice was a new concept for us when we first heard about it at a conference in Cape Town back in 2012. With growing interest we were told about communication through photography, about empowerment, social change, and development of both consciousness and self-consciouness.

Participatory photography seemed to be a strong social language for those who did not have the formal channels to express their views and hopes. We decided to take a closer look at this method, and see if we could use it in a Norwegian setting, in our work with youth at risk of marginalisation.

We were well aware of the different social conditions between South Africa and the rich and developed welfare society in Norway, but despite these differences, PhotoVoice’s methodology seemed to address the universal challenge of giving means for empowerment to those who were in danger of falling outside society.

© Pål Heimdal

KoRus is a governmental funded organization which aims to prevent alcohol and drug abuse, as well as mental disorders, with a special focus on children and youth. We work to communicate knowledge and research to community services dealing practically with these problems, both prophylactic, through early intervention, and with clients in treatment. Drop-out from society, in one way or another, is one of several risk factors we focus on. And it is this setting we thought of using photovoice, a method seemingly with evidence for good results.

We started preparations in 2013, identified possible targets for interventions with participatory photography, invited services and allocated internal recourses, human and material. Three main targets were chosen:

  • A project for creating a better bonding between mother and child, targeting drug-addicted pregnant women in forced treatment.
  • Drop-out from school
  • A community project for a better interaction between youth and politicians

We invited college teachers, a psychologist, and the community services in the Hurum community addressing the drop-out project, and they accepted the invitation almost immediately.

We invited a school in the Drangedal community to cooperate about the interaction between youngsters and the politicians. They accepted the invitation, and through cooperation with a High School, three students  decided to use this project as a part of a masters degree.

The third invitation went to our own clinic, Borgestadklinikken. The clinic was more than happy to get involved in this project, and the patients expressed both interest and engagement.

So far, so good. But we soon realized that both we, and those involved in all projects, needed more education and training in the method before we actually could start. We turned to PhotoVoice in London for advice and assistance. The response was overwhelming positive. While we first thought we had to go to London for training, PhotoVoice offered to come to Norway and deliver the training on our own home ground. We were able to financially support such a solution, and the projects participants were happy with this opportunity for information, education and training.

Tom Elkins visited us last autumn, and during three days we got a better understanding of PhotoVoice; of planning projects, what to do, what to expect, and of the possible pitfalls. Through creative and exciting education, with the picture at the heart, we had some very interesting and stimulating days together with Tom.

What I remember was him answering: “that depends”, underlining that this is a creative process where the journey is also part of the results. Situations unfold, and with a basis in good planning and participant involvement, we were told to rely on the process itself. We also learnt from Tom different educational methods that could contribute to other parts of our activities. We are truly grateful to Tom and PhotoVoice for their contribution, and if Tom ever should need a recommendation, he could safely point to us.

A short report from the projects:

1) The drop-out project ran into recruitment problems, and they are in a process of evaluation, rethinking and remodeling, aiming at a fresh start after the summer holiday. What has happened is still of value, and we consider it all to be a lesson regarding promotion of the project in the best possible way.

2) In Drangedal, photovoice was used to influence the revision of the municipality plan for the period of 2015 – 2026. Youngsters used photographs to communicate to local politicians what they thought made the municipality a good place to live in, and they used participatory photography to suggest areas of improvement. The resulting photo exhibition triggered a fruitful communication with the politicians. The coverage of the project in local and national media made the impact even greater. In the draft of the municipal plan, the messages from the young photographers have been incorporated, so we can conclude that the project made a beneficial difference in Drangedal, primarily for the involved participants, but also for the local community.

3) Our third project is in cooperation with pregnant women who are in treatment in a special unit for expectant mothers who have are drug or alcohol addicted. Some of them are held in this unit against their own will according to decision made by a special family court. This project has two aims. One is to explore how they can use photography to strengthen the bonding to the unborn child, and here they make scrapbooks of their experiences throughout their pregnancy. The second aim is to “give them a voice” in seminars, and discussions with leaders. The leader of this project shares their pictures and short-stories through her lectures. They have also taken part in writing a blog.

With good support from London, we have made our first experiences with participatory photography in a Norwegian setting, targeting different aspects of our mission. And while we still are learning this method, we already know that it has become an important part of our tool-box.

We have seen the impact photographs can have, we have experienced that this is a way of empowering those in need to be heard, and we believe that the participants not only benefit from this themselves, but also that it can inform decision makers about topics that could otherwise have been overlooked. We have learned that planning and preparations are of vital importance, but also that creative processes produce situations that could not be foreseen. As a working model, the PhotoVoice methodology demands flexibility, but within agreed upon structures. And we feel sure that we always can turn to PhotoVoice for advice if needed.

Read more about the Drangedal project here (in Norwegian) or see a Google translation of the same article here.