In a new study published in Ecology & Society, researchers invited members of communities in Kenya and South Africa to take pictures of changes in the environment around them and how this affected their lives. The simplicity of photographing daily lives meant that members of the communities could be part of coproducing new research insights. Photo: V. Masterson

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Research methods

Capturing life through a different lens

Scientific method using photographs helps capture local expressions of human wellbeing among vulnerable communities in Kenya and South Africa

Story highlights

  • Researchers present reflections on the use of photovoice, a method where members of a community are invited to take photographs to actively represent their own perspectives and experiences.
  • They invited members of a community-based marine protected area in Kenya and an agricultural area in rapid decline in South Africa to capture changes in the environment around them and how this affected their lives
  • The method revealed several benefits, including engaging members of the local communities, but also numerous ethical dilemmas

Having a voice and being seen are two fundamental aspects of human well-being. In science, participatory methods help mobilize people who otherwise may be marginalized or silent to provide their views and insights, ultimately contributing to a more inclusive knowledge generation. But more can still be done.

In a study recently published in Ecology & Society, centre researchers Vanessa Masterson, Maria Tengö and Shauna Mahajan, a former centre Master’s student now with the World Wildlife Fund, present reflections on the use of photovoice, a method where members of a community are invited to take photographs to actively represent their own perspectives and experiences.

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Understanding the effects of change

Photovice as a method has been used in public health research to encourage self-representation and expression of issues from people who may otherwise be overlooked. In this study, the researchers wanted to examine how this method could help understand how complex social and ecological changes affect people’s lives. This is important because impoverished local communities are often passive or left out of news stories and research about environmental changes.

In Kenya, there has been a shift away from top-down management of marine resources and towards community-based approaches. This has resulted in a network of community-managed reserves called tengefus. Understanding how this change has affected both the environment as well as the community has been a source of scientific interest for years but researchers have struggled to properly document important aspects of people’s lives.

In the South African case, specifically the former Transkei homeland of South Africa, researchers have worked to document the agricultural decline and circular migration to urban areas. The region has witnessed a long-term decline in cultivation and animal husbandry so it was important to understand what these areas offer those who remain in the rural hinterlands.

Handing out cameras

Masterson and her colleagues invited members of the area in Kenya and South Africa to capture changes in the environment around them and how this affected their lives.

In the Kenyan case, individuals were given cameras and asked to photograph “what in nature/the marine ecosystem contributes to your wellbeing” and “show through your photographs how/if your wellbeing has changed”.

In South Africa, participants were asked to photograph “what the rural place and landscape means to you”.

With a camera in their hands, a research participant can be an active story teller. Photovoice can provide a forum for learning between participants and researchers.

Vanessa Masterson, lead author

Power imbalances and conflicts revealed

In Kenya, participants produced photographs documenting daily practices and their access to fish and other marine resources. This revealed the continuing use of illegal and unsustainable fishing practices, the latter believed by local scientists to be no longer existent.

In the South Africa case, participants took photographs that depicted a range of tacit and culturally specific knowledge about material benefits from ecosystems such as crops, livestock, firewood and medicinal plants. But it also revealed the critical importance of intangible aspects of wellbeing such as sense of place and belonging associated with an eroding agricultural lifestyle, depicted by abandoned fields, and empty cattle corrals.

The method of photovoice relies on photographs to catalyse meaningful discussions amongst the participants. In Kenya, discussions around the photographs revealed that customary cultural ceremonial practices related to marine resource use remained active, contrary to prior research. The photographs showed indirect benefits from conservation, and also revealed power imbalances and conflicts, including visual evidence that one tengefu site was more supported by outside actors and NGOs compared to another site being studied.

Furthermore, unequal access between men and women to fish and equipment was also revealed through the photos. The gender imbalance was evident in South Africa, where women are often marginalised in the patriarchal culture of community affairs. The women used pictures to reveal the challenges of accessing ecosystem services such as firewood and medicinal plants, but also to argue for the legitimacy of their roles and practices of their own roles and practices.

“By uncovering divergent perspectives, photovoice can unsettle or enrich dominant environmental narratives by revealing the different motivations and agency of individuals in communities,” lead author Vanessa Masterson explains.

Kenya case study photographs and captions.

Use with caution

The use of the photovoice method in these contexts revealed several benefits but also shortcomings. The simplicity of photographing daily lives made it possible to engage members of the local communities while also visually explaining what would otherwise get lost in scientific wording.

Using images with familiar scenes and places also provided a shared point of reference which helped facilitate the discussions. “Participants were able to reflect and respond with a significant amount of clarity and depth, thanks to the use of their own pictures,” says co-author Maria Tengö.

The use of pictures also helped overcome cultural and social barriers for individuals who otherwise might have not participated. In Kenya, where female fish traders are often excluded from decision making, the use of photovoice helped them document their views and perceptions alongside the typically dominant male traders and fishermen.

“With a camera in their hands, a research participant can be an active story teller. The two cases [Kenya and South Africa] demonstrate that photovoice can provide a forum for engagement and learning between participants and researchers,” says lead author Vanessa Masterson.

But the study also highlighted several methodological limitations. Although the photographers captured local and personal experiences, they were snapshots in time, unable to explore how they fit with life on a larger scale. Additionally, the researchers encountered numerous ethical dilemmas. Examples include when photographs revealed illegal or socially undesirable practices.

“We see potential for alternative applications of photovoice that can address different ethical and practical concerns with the method e.g. the use of camera phones in future applications could broaden the method further, ” co-author Shauna Mahajan says.

“The photovoice process encouraged deep reflection among researchers on the process of knowledge production and ownership of data, and our hope is that our insights can inspire continued reflections,” the three authors conclude.


The authors expand the application of photovoice in adapting the tool to include two modes: as a scoping tool for the Kenyan case study and as a deep learning tool in South Africa. In both cases the text and photographs were analysed through qualitative thematic coding.

In Kenya: Participants were given a 27-exposure disposable camera. After approximately one week when photographs had been printed in 4 x 6 format, focus group discussions were held during which photos were redistributed and discussed. After having time to review all images, participants were asked to select three that best represented how the marine ecosystem contributed to well-being and provide either a verbal or written caption for each image, and share their photos with the group.

In South Africa: an in-depth process with repeated photovoice exercises was undertaken, with four demographic groups, using small “point and shoot” digital cameras. Each group convened multiple times over five weeks. For each session, the group discussed the theme, and then individuals went out to take photographs of this theme on their own for a few hours. Each participant then selected the 10 to 12 most significant images from the day and these were printed and distributed to participants at the next session. Photographers displayed and described their photographs which catalysed discussions in the groups.

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Published: 2018-08-30


Masterson, V. A., S. L. Mahajan, and M. Tengö. 2018. Photovoice for mobilizing insights on human well-being in complex social-ecological systems: case studies from Kenya and South Africa. Ecology and Society 23(3):13.

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Vanessa Masterson is a PhD student at the centre. Her research focuses on understanding aspects of stewardship of ecosystem services (such as local knowledge, institutions and bio-cultural diversity) in the Eastern Cape, South Africa

Maria Tengö looks at how positive connections between people and nature matter for moving towards trajectories of ecosystem-based management for human well-being. In particular, she is interested in in-tangible aspects such as local knowledge, sense of place, and biocultural connections.


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