Hand youth a camera and watch their community come into focus. Photovoice programs are empowering youth to engage in public health advocacy by framing their communities as compositions to capture and enhance.

At Monday’s APHA 2022 session “Youth Roundtable: Youth Leading the Way to Healthier Communities,” photovoice was a popular tool to engage youth. Photovoice was pioneered in the early 1990s by Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris as a community-based participatory research strategy that empowers youth to champion their community’s future. In workshops, participants are given a specific prompt to base their photography on. The process of identifying photographic subjects and discussing them with peers helps kids identify issues within their communities. Teens socialize while wearing masks.

In Ohio, a 15-week afterschool photovoice program called “Science, Camera, Action!” invited children ages 10-12 to make sense of climate change and discuss youth-led local action. Stephanie Lam, who presented the program at the APHA session, noted that most studies position children as “passive recipients of climate change knowledge,” rather than agents of their lived realities. Photovoice allows children to process this knowledge productively, she said. 

“When children learn about the scientific literacy of climate change in the classroom, does it include the social-emotional components of it?” Lam asked. “Children are feeling (that it is) apocalyptic, like ‘oh my gosh, what am I going to do?’...Photovoice is a platform to explore those feelings, especially with peers.”

Climate change education tends to focus on problems rather than solutions. A roundtable attendee said her research showed that youth were first exposed to climate change around age 12 in their environmental science class, but the curriculum leaves no room for discussion of eco-anxiety. 

In the Ohio program, the children were given climate change-related prompts and told to take photos. Many depicted moments out in the natural world. A 12-year-old boy named Bill took a photo of his bicycle helmet to represent his biking for a “carbon footprint contest.” Some children who forgot their cameras during photo-taking sessions were instead told to illustrate what they saw. One child named Cloud, age 10, drew a factory that was polluting the air.

“It’s basically going to mess up our lives,” Cloud wrote. “It’s the worst feeling in the world.”

Other children imagined solutions to climate change, such as a child named Eli, age 11, who illustrated trash in the sea, accompanied by a helicopter picking up that pollution. These photos and illustrations prompted discussion among the kids about fear around climate change and what action could be taken. Aside from the photo gallery, the children have since cultivated a community garden.

Colorado kids focus on community connection

Erin Seedorf and  her daughter, Lydia Seedorf, age 14, have run summer photovoice programs in Broomfield, Colorado, for years. Erin had learned about photovoice directly from Wang while in graduate school and is now a community member of her local Communities That Care Coalition. Lydia is a high school student and member of Broomfield Youth for Youth, a youth advisory group to Communities That Care. 

In Broomfield, photography proved to be an accessible avenue through which youth engaged directly with community leaders to enact change. Youth who were admitted to the photovoice program were hired as Y4Y advisors to the state health department.

The youth themselves, including Lydia Seedorf, are in charge of teaching the photovoice program to other teenagers. Their workshops target teens ages 13-18 and have recently focused on the theme of community connection. Y4Y’s photovoice process entails teaching kids about photography techniques, taking photos based on a prompt, discussing the photos in a group and then writing narratives to accompany the photos.

One example was a photo of a bench, taken by a kid named Milan. His accompanying description discussed benches as a place to watch the world go by and connect with people. 

“It’s crazy that something so simple as a bench on the side of the road has the power to give complete strangers the opportunity to connect with each other,” Milan wrote.

Milan suggested implementing a “buddy-bench program for teens” that would provide a neutral meeting place where “isolated people” could branch out of their comfort zone and connect with others in a safe place.

The Ohio and Colorado photovoice projects followed a framework called “SHOWED” that prompts youth to consider how their photo’s subject relates to their lives, what issue it represents and how the image could educate community policymakers.

Through discussion of their photos and descriptions, youth identified key takeaways woven throughout their stories. They landed on several, including that all youth deserve a place where they feel welcome and safe. Other takeaways were calls to action, suggesting the creation of more trails and open spaces and the provision of free or discounted pricing for youth activities.

The Colorado program culminated in the youth presenting their work to 40 community leaders, creating a sense of accountability for key decision-makers to respond. Outcomes of Y4Y’s work have included the free after-school access for middle schoolers from the city’s parks and recreation department, the local library offering self-care nights for teens, the promotion of free bus rides during the summer and the creation of Broomfield ARTery, a new space for youth art.

One attendee, who was working on a photovoice project at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, asked Lydia Seedorf how her program keeps youth engaged. Seedorf suggested letting kids choose what topics they find important to convey to the public, with adults acting only as facilitators. 

Erin Seedorf offered an example from Broomfield: In a previous year, the state health department had provided funding for a project on tobacco control. But when youth were consulted, they strongly opposed the topic, stating that they were “done with smoking,” she said. From the youth perspective, tobacco control was not their main concern — mental health was. The youth discussed how mental health was connected to substance use, such as the issue of e-cigarettes and vaping. 

“I know there’s a lot of talk at this conference on where we are headed as a community,” Lydia Seedorf said. “And I think it’s really important to be here to have a younger voice and to be able to talk about our own problems.”

Photo by FatCamera, iStockphoto.