by Ruth Smith, University of Leeds
April 3, 2024

How many words is a photo worth? In Tanzania, FoSTA-Health is exploring gender and agricultural livelihood dynamics in the East Usambara Mountains in Tanga Region through the use of photos.

Photovoice is a creative participatory action and visual storytelling method that puts cameras into the hands of ‘participants’ - enabling community members to document and discuss their life conditions as they see them. Collective knowledge, and then action, can arise from a group sharing experiences and understanding the institutions and norms that shape their lives.

“I have learned a lot - especially the challenges that I face. But I have got an experience of communicating and talking with people”

Why are we using photovoice?

The aim of photovoice within FoSTA-Health is threefold: to visualise a) gender roles across emerging commodity value chains, b) individual and community aspirations of change in regard to food system transformation, and c) different understandings and experiences of empowerment. The latter will be approached not just through the photos and associated meaning-making, but also by discussing each individual’s experience of participation. In the Photovoice process, the methods are also part of the findings – where the process of documenting and sharing one’s life and experiences can be an educational and ‘empowering’ process in itself.

photo voice tz 1Photo from the FoSTA-Health Photovoice pilot in Tanzania in October-November 2023.

In Tanzania, FoSTA-Health is working with 10 farmers across two groups – five women and five men – who we have provided with smartphones to document their everyday lives. After a photovoice pilot and consultation with local stakeholders during the FoSTA-Health Tanzania scoping visit in October/November 2023, smartphones were chosen as the best means of photography as they also enable communication both between the FoSTA-Health research team and the group, but also amongst the group themselves.

Phase II of FoSTA-Health data collection began in January 2024. Participants in the photovoice activity were sampled across different villages in Muheza District, Tanga Region, to represent varied gender and agricultural livelihood dynamics. The activity will run over a full year, enabling the group to document aspects of their lives so as to illustrate the intricacies of their experiences, relationships, and challenges across seasons.

After inviting the group to participate and co-produce* a plan forwards, the next step was to meet up in the two groups to share and discuss the photos. We used the ‘PHOTO’ technique to guide discussions: describe your Photo. What is Happening in your photo? Why did you take a photo Of this? What does this Tell us about your life? How can this photo provide Opportunities for us to improve life? Together we then reflected on the key themes and issues that came up for each member – from representation of feelings like love, happiness and pride, to challenges such as poor travel infrastructure and access to health facilities.

photo voice tz 2
Photo from the first group meeting to share photographs in Phase II of FoSTA-Health data collection in Tanzania, March 2024.

At the end of this session, we informed the group that the following week there would be a group of Masters students visiting from the University of Leeds, UK, and that we would like to hold a mini exhibition where the photovoice group can showcase some of their photos to the students. For this, the group selected five key themes from the discussion that they would like to represent through their photos. In order to give them the opportunity to take new photos for each theme if they so wished, photos were printed after two weeks.

photo voice tz 3Key themes from the first photovoice group meetings in Tanzania, March 2024


This first exhibition was held at the end of March, where the group had the opportunity to showcase their photos and lives to a group of Masters students visiting from the University of Leeds, UK. The photos exhibited included images of the groups homes, relationships and loved ones, businesses and sources of income. Leeds Masters students rotated around the exhibit to interact with each photovoice member – discussing what the photos represented and why they were selected. The stories told not just through the photos, but each person’s narration of their photos, enabled the photovoice group to take an active role in how their lives are represented and understood.

photo voice tz 4Photovoice exhibition, March 2024

As well as an important learning experience for the Masters students, this exhibition was also embedded into the photovoice activity as an opportunity for the group to reflect on how their photos can be used to action change within their communities. The aim is that we will hold a further exhibition at the end of the photovoice process, which the group would be in control of designing. For this, we are encouraging the group to imagine the photos are stories – asking them to think which stories from their lives they want to share - and, importantly, with whom they want to share them with. Photos can convey powerful meanings – and opening up an interaction space between those with lived experience and those in positions of power, such as village leaders, development workers and policymakers, can facilitate discussion on where change is needed. 

“The photos that I have taken, they have many stories to tell, so I would like to show them to the village leaders and after village leaders another one can be the ward councillor and others like if it is possible to be reached to the District leaders, if they see them they can work on them… Because they are the leaders, they can help us with the challenges explained by the photos”

Within FoSTA-Health, one of the goals of using photovoice is to raise awareness of the lived experiences and challenges of farmers and to reach those who have the ability to affect positive change. The educative and transformative potential of photovoice project exhibitions is therefore significant – and is where the participatory action research component of photovoice is perhaps most evident. Such exhibitions offer an important opportunity for interaction and shared learning across different stakeholders in order to find effective solutions to everyday lives and problems. The assumption is that impact will be realised through changes in policy and practice.

photo voice tz 5
Photovoice exhibition, March 2024.

This assumed impact is often a key component of participatory research, and yet is often surprisingly under-researched and under-theorised within photovoice studies. Questioning whether photovoice exhibitions do indeed lead to any positive change for the communities involved is crucial. In FoSTA-Health, we also view the exhibition itself as a site of inquiry – where exploring how the attendees experience and perceive the exhibit will help to understand if and how this essential outcome of action research has been met. The endline exhibitions will therefore not only be a culminating event through which to celebrate the photovoice groups participation and display of photos and results - but they will also be used as a spring board to explore how participatory action research methodologies such as photovoice can lead to positive social change.

*How participatory has the process been?

A crucial component of participatory action research is critically reflecting on how do we, as researchers, actually know if we are doing ‘participatory’ research – and doing it well. In photovoice, participation shouldn’t only mean engaging individuals within the methods – i.e. the taking of photographs. The group should actively participate throughout the research process – from initial design through to dissemination and discussions of their action implications.

In FoSTA-Health, we have aimed to embed participation throughout the photovoice process. An important part of this was co-producing a plan together between researcher and ‘participants’ within the first meetings. This involved asking the group for a) their expectations of participation, b) their expected benefits in engaging, c) what photos they would like to take and d) who they would like to show them to, and e) exploring their concerns related to engagement and together thinking through ways to work through these. We also together considered the ethics and safety of photography, and co-produced ‘rules’ and a plan forwards.

photo voice tz plans women and man
Co-produced photovoice plans for the female and male group in Tanzania, February 2024.

Together with the photovoice pilot, participatory analysis of photos and also plans for dissemination outlined above, we have tried to embed active participation across the photovoice process. But how effective is this, and what does it look like in reality? We encourage the group to see themselves as leading this process through being in control of what to photograph and who to share their photos with, with us FoSTA-Health researchers representing the ‘participants’ within their study. But these power dynamics and hierarchies are difficult to break down, and have legacies from previous more extractive forms of engagement in research and development projects. Critically interrogating the process and procedures with regards to active and effective participation will continue to be a central component of the FoSTA-Health approach to research going forwards.

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