by Laura Pryor and Savannah Rae
As the evaluators for an anti-eviction and displacement initiative in Oakland, Social Policy Research Associates (SPR) and program partners recognized the importance of community participation in the evaluation process. The program’s anti-eviction and displacement services include legal representation, emergency financial assistance, and supportive services for community members experiencing a housing crisis. Program clients therefore have unique expertise into the effectiveness of services for themselves and their communities. Too often, evaluators and decision makers do not share the same frame of reference as their subjects and fail to clearly understand their perspective. SPR, therefore, centered client expertise in the evaluation process through conducting a Photovoice project.
In 1992, Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris developed the Photovoice method, which gives subjects cameras to help them document, reflect upon, and communicate issues of concern to researchers. Photovoice is a participatory research method that “utilizes photographs taken by program stakeholders to enhance need assessments, discussions and reflection, gather data, promote dialogue, conduct participatory evaluations and communicate results with various audiences, including policymakers.”
Photovoice in the Context of Anti-Eviction and Displacement Services
For SPR, Photovoice was used as a way for clients to share their perspective on service provision as it related to the following:
- The impact of assistance in clients’ own lives
- The impact of assistance in the Oakland community
- Eviction and displacement issues in Oakland that clients continue to observe and experience
The goal of the Photovoice project in this context was for clients to produce a set of recommendations to help inform the ongoing development of the anti-eviction and displacement services they received.
The Photovoice Process
SPR partnered with Reflex Design Collective (RDC) to carry out the Photovoice process which consisted of two focus groups and participant photography. The overall process included the following steps:
- Recruitment: With the help of direct services providers, 12 participants were recruited across all organizations participating in the anti-eviction and displacement initiative. Furthermore, to ensure accessibility, participants received child care, dinner, and a gift card for each focus group they attended.
- Focus Group One – Theme Building: The first focus group provided an opportunity for the participants, the researchers, and the facilitators to get to know one another and develop key themes for the photography activity. First, the facilitators grounded the community members in the current design of the anti-eviction and displacement program and how Photovoice would be used to capture feedback. The facilitators then guided the participants in a conversation around housing issues in the community and the impact of anti-eviction and displacement services on supporting them and the broader community with becoming stably housed.
- Participant Photography: Using the key themes generated in the first focus group, participants took photos using their phones or disposable cameras provided by SPR. Participants then sent their photos to SPR, and SPR printed each photo for participants to keep and discuss at the second focus group. Examples of participant photos and corresponding quotations are shown throughout this narrative.
- Focus Group Two – Sharing Photos: During the second focus group, seven of the original 12 participants, plus one additional community member shared their photos with the rest of the group and described how they saw their photo fit into one of the six previously generated themes. Using this reflection process and discussion, participants came up with key recommendations for improving program services.
- Sharing Back: SPR and RDC summarized the focus groups into a memo shared with program stakeholders. This memo shared participants’ photos, quotes, and recommendations to help inform the evolution of the program’s services.
Participants engaged in the Photovoice process described feeling empowered by having a space to voice their concerns and tell the evaluators and service providers what was important to them (something that, historically, has not always been the case). As exemplified in the quotation below, engaging community members using the medium of photography allowed participants to share their stories in a more tangible, visual way that could then be translated to actionable recommendations. Different from traditional focus groups, this method of participatory research can give evaluators “the possibility of perceiving the world from the viewpoint of the people who lead lives that are different from those traditionally in control of the means for imagining the world.”
“You guys [SPR/RDC] were the first ones to reach out and consider what it’s like to need assistance and… to even try to better understand. So I took this photo of you guys from the first time we met. So that was my number five because like I said, we need advocates like you guys to come out and see what’s wrong and how you can make things better.”
– Photovoice Participant
Examples of the recommendations coming from this process were:
- Clarify guidelines and send out communication on program changes to clients
- Increase the speed in which people are notified if they can or cannot be helped through the program
- Create a funding stream for household supplies
- Host incentivized housing and financial workshops
- Increase the amount of program resources for disabled people
Overall, the Photovoice process produced actionable recommendations grounded in community members’ perspective and experience. Using the Photovoice method was an engaging and fresh way for participants to reflect on and communicate their experience with a variety of stakeholders. Furthermore, the level of investment the process required from participants facilitated deep discussion and provided the research team with rich lived experience to refer back to throughout the evaluation. While this blog highlights one example, SPR hopes to apply this process to several future projects.
 Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health education & behavior, 24(3), 369-387.
 Sukov, S. (2007). Storytelling Approaches to Program Evaluation: An Introduction. Retrieved from https://www.racialequitytools.
 Ruby, J. (1991). Speaking For, Speaking About, Speaking With, or Speaking Alongside An Anthropological and Documentary Dilemma. Visual Anthropology Review, 7(2), 50-67.
Laura Pryor is a Senior Associate in the Philanthropy, Equity, and Youth division. At SPR, she leads and supports projects that center equity, spanning the contexts of housing, early childhood education, and field building. During her free time, she enjoys FaceTiming with her human nephew and three dog nephews.
Savannah Rae is an Associate in the Philanthropy, Equity, and Youth division. At SPR, she supports program evaluation and learning on a variety of projects including those focused on youth development, housing, community power building, and socioeconomic equity. Outside of work she enjoys hanging out with her friends and family in the Bay Area.