How can a Picture Speak a Thousand Words in Research? Insights into Photo Voice Method

two people seen from behind
Pictures on a desk

By looking beyond traditional research methodologies, we have the potential to better value participants. In turn, they can become a potent force for community empowerment and social change. An example of a transformative research method is Photo Voice, distinguished by its commitment to inclusivity, data ownership, and the ability to bridge diverse perspectives. 

We spoke with Sophie Buchel to find out how the methodology of Photo Voice can be used in research. Sophie has been a consultant, researcher and teacher at DRIFT since 2015. During this period, she has supported various actors in their work in sustainability transitions, from citizens to policy makers to innovative pioneers. 

What is Photo Voice? It is a participatory action research technique that centers on the narratives of community members. Through the lens of a camera or a smartphone, research participants capture the essence of their daily lives. They take pictures of what matters most to them, whether it is a moment of struggle, a glimpse of hope, or an example of a challenge faced in their community. These photographs become visual narratives, making data collection a relatable and authentic process. 

Picture being stuck on a wall

Empowering Communities and Fostering Inclusivity 

One of the defining characteristics of Photo Voice is its unwavering commitment to community empowerment. It provides a platform for individuals, particularly those from marginalized or underrepresented groups, to share their stories and experiences. Photo Voice recognizes the importance of inclusivity, ensuring that every voice is not only heard but valued.  

Sophie shared an example of how she used Photo Voice in a project focused on youth (age 18-20) at risk of homelessness. As part of that project, she asked the participants via WhatsApp "What home means to them.” The participants were requested to answer with photos that represent the meaning of home for them Photo voice “really Centers the voices of the participants,” says Sophie. She adds that this research method is unique because it “uses a tool that everyone uses day-to-day these days.” Additionally, as this is a visual tool, it “makes it (...) easy for people to report and to participate in research.” Sophie finds that submitting photos is more fun and engaging than participating in surveys, as it is a visual tool. 

What Puts the Voice in Photo Voice? 

Once the participants collected their data by taking their photos to share their stories, what puts the voice in photo voice? Sophie explains the important next step is “a discussion among the participants,” where “the narratives are collected and the responses, associations and personal stories of other people in the group are shared.” Discussions may arise from the photos. For example, the following questions can arise: What should change in their community? What are the important things that they want to address? and What kind of actions could be a first step toward starting that change?”  

Once the stories are obtained, a next action could be to “bring those stories to regime actors or facilitate a conversation between them and incumbents or people in power.” Sophie points to the potential Photo Voice as a “really powerful tool for change and also a really interesting way to collect data about these two different discourses.” 

The next step is the action phase where some of these actions are used and experimented with. Importantly, “you don't decide as a researcher what happens with the data; the data is the peoples.” In practice this “can mean that the people who contributed the data to you, use it to actually drive change or as an instrument to drive their own change.” 

Who carries out the actions varies with this method. “People can go out into their communities and do things themselves,” but Sophie points out that “as a researcher, you can also bring in other actors, such as policymakers and/or city planners.” 

Data Ownership and the Power of Action 

According to Sophie, Photo Voice is not just about documenting issues—it is about taking action. A fundamental principle of this method is that it enables agency of the participants: the data collected belongs to the community members themselves.  The participants decide on “the types of things that are being addressed, the types of stories that are being told about their lives, their environment and their spaces.” 

Furthermore, the narratives and insights captured through Photo Voice do not end up in dusty reports on a shelf. They are actionable. Community members discuss the data they have collected and decide what actions should be taken to address the challenges they face. Sophie makes a critical point, “the power is in their hands, and Photo Voice provides them with the means to drive change and improve their communities.” 

Bridging Different Discourses and Stakeholder Involvement 

Photo Voice does not stop at community engagement; it goes a step further by bridging different discourses. It has the unique ability to facilitate conversations between community members and those in positions of power, such as policymakers and city planners. This bridge is where change is born. 

By bringing different perspectives to the table, Photo Voice enables effective and inclusive solutions to emerge. When community members share their experiences and insights and further decide what to do with that data and with whom to share with policymakers and/or other stakeholders, a deeper understanding of the issues can be achieved. This collaborative approach can lead to more impactful and sustainable solutions. 

Sophie thinks Photo Voice “could be a really powerful tool for change and also a really interesting way to collect data about these two different discourses.” Moreover, the project highlighted the potential for Photo Voice to facilitate conversations between the youth participants and those in positions of power, such as policymakers and city planners. A barrier faced in this method was the reluctance of people to share their private stories with people in power. Sophie encourages “consideration towards building positive relationships with nontraditional research participants” should take precedence. The Photo Voice method allows us to bridge different perspectives, which can lead to more effective and inclusive solutions.  


Photo Voice is more than just a research method; it is a catalyst for change. By empowering communities and promoting inclusivity, ensuring data ownership, and bridging different discourses, it provides a platform for communities to not only share their experiences but also take meaningful action. Photo Voice is a reminder that the most transformative insights often come from those whose voices have been less heard. It is a beacon of hope and a powerful tool for building a brighter future, one photograph at a time. 


About the interviewee 

Sophie is a researcher, advisor and teacher at the Dutch Research Institute of Societal Transitions. She is an expert in the fields of justice and the transition to sustainable mobility. In recent years, Sophie has supported various actors in their work on a multitude of transitions, such as food and agriculture, climate mitigation and adaptation, sustainable fashion and the social welfare system. She works with methods like transition governance, reflexive monitoring and action research. Currently, she is mostly preoccupied with justice and inclusion in transitions, and specifically the livelihoods of marginalized young people. 

Sophie is an activist, creative storyteller and coach. She brings that energy with her into work, where she is always looking for the people in the transition. Sophie hopes to inspire others to take creative action and to collaborate for a better future. 

Some of her favorite project from recent years include Het Bouwdepot, NEON, Voedselfamilies and Rotterdamse Fietskoers 2025. She also wrote the book ‘Ondernemer voor Transitie’ (Entrepreneurship for Transition) with Michiel van Yperen and Chris Roorda. She has a MSc in environmental science from Wageningen University & Research. 

About the author 

Rachel is a MSc student in Climate Studies and Environmental Economics at Wageningen University and Research and a research assistant at DIT. She is passionate about social and environmental justice in research and practice.  

For DIT, Rachel focuses her research on how institutional design can enable transdisciplinary and transformative research.  She also organizes activities that foster an institutional environment more conducive for transformative research through a monthly Action-Oriented Research Study Group. 

About the editor 

At DIT, Anna aims to mobilise the academic community and inspire sustainable change. Anna is involved in developing and executing communications and marketing strategies, as well as in the organisation of various events. 

She graduated from Erasmus University Rotterdam with a BSc in Management of International Social Challenges. Now, Anna is pursuing a MSc in Global Business and Sustainability at the Rotterdam School of Management. 

More information

About the Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform   

The Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform is a strategic initiative that creates infrastructures for transformative academic work at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). If you want to learn more about similar initiatives organised by the Design Impact Transition Platform, or if you would like to get involved in transforming education and academia, please send an email to   




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