12 by PhotoVoice

Posted on November 3, 2015

PhotoVoice use participatory photography to bring about positive social change in the UK and across the world. Chief Executive Tom Elkins shares his thoughts on how photography can help those who are often the subjects of photographs to become the photographers and tell their own story. If you decided to become a 12 by 12 Supporting Member half of any amount given is donated to PhotoVoice.

What is PhotoVoice’s main aim?

PhotoVoice’s main aim is for a world in which nobody is denied the opportunity to speak out and be heard. We use photography as a mechanism to achieve social change, by building photography, communications and advocacy skills in underrepresented communities. This enables individuals to provide their own perspective, and this can be to their community, organisations working with them, and policy makers, Through this, we aim to create meaningful dialogue between them, which leads to positive improvements.

© Tom Elkins© Tom Elkins

What project would you say has been the most successful and why?

There have been many projects that have been successful, but one example that springs to mind is ‘Having Our Say’, mainly because of the longer term impact that it had. Initially a pilot in 2010, the project looked at the insights and experiences of young people at risk of, or affected by sexual exploitation in the UK. It led to a second larger scale project, which developed unique resources that can be used to help young people work with support workers. We’re just embarking on a third iteration of the project, addressing gaps identified during the last project, so it feels like we’re comprehensively addressing an important issue in a way that looks at need on many different levels.

Do you maintain long-term engagement with the same communities?

Sometimes, but it isn’t always easy, as there can be a number of logistical challenges in working with the communities in the first place. Ideally, the most successful projects are those where local organisations, such as charities or grass roots groups, maintain engagement with the communities we have worked with, continuing to build on the skills we’ve developed together. That can help maintain the ongoing impact of a project, without us having to remain engaged after a project has been completed, though where we can, we try to.

© Akugre A Cletus 2014 / YHFG / Christian Aid / PhotoVoice©Areej Mustafa Abu Sarah / Side-by-Side / Parents’ Circle / PhotoVoice
“This picture was taken in Al Wade street in the old city of Jerusalem, where we can see Muslims and Jewish in the same street – though not walking together.”

What happens to the photographs that people take? How do you or they use them?

It depends on the project – with most of our projects, there is an exhibition following the workshops. That can take place locally to the project, which has meant we’ve exhibited in some interesting places! The local exhibition is an important way for project participants to celebrate their work, and can also help others in their community understand their perspectives and insights into issues that they too might be affected by.

Sometimes the images are used to help evaluate the impact of something that is happening, such as a new international development programme. So the photographs can be a tool for creative or personal expression, awareness raising, issue analysis and evaluation, and advocacy and campaigning.

How does this differ in the developing world from the developed world?

The difference in their use is less to do with location but with the aims and intentions of the project. Importantly, we never agree use of images with participants until the end of the project, so they all have full control over which images are used, and how they are seen by others.

© Akugre A Cletus 2014 / YHFG / Christian Aid / PhotoVoice© Akugre A Cletus 2014 / YHFG / Christian Aid / PhotoVoice
“Local rice for parboiling. Local rice is nutritious, let’s eat what we grow.”

Would you like to see all young people introduced to photography as a means of self-expression? Is this happening anyway with smartphones and social media?

I think we’re in a very interesting time for photography. It’s more accessible to people than it ever was, and we are saturated with images from many different sources, and this is true all over the world. People are using photography to document and record their lives, and share that with others. So many of our projects are building on this, adding some structure, exploring visual literacy, suggesting or developing aims and goals.

Being a big supporter of photography, this is very exciting, and it’s great to see how available photography has become. The trick is how to make photographs, projects or self-expression stand out in what might be a crowded environment, and I think we’ve got a number of good ways to achieve that which we’ve developed over the years.

Do you think there a way to harness young people’s desire to document and share their lives into something more self-empowering?

I think a key way will be to give young people a clear reason for contributing, and offering support to help them use their photographs to reach people in different ways. Our projects can span a spectrum from individual expression to international policy change. If a project is asking people to share their insight, I think we have a responsibility to ensure that people, institutions, and decision makers are able and receptive to hearing and understanding that insight. Through that process, young people will hopefully feel that they have a legitimate voice and are being listened to.

© /New Londoners/Dost/PhotoVoice© Qasim / New Londoners / Dost / PhotoVoice
“This is near St Paul’s Cathedral. Their shadows have stretched under the sun and they look like very big people.”

How do you see PhotoVoice developing/evolving in the next few years?

I hope that we will grow, expand our capacity and reach, and work more closely with organisations who are helping to bring about social change. This will help us create stronger links and dialogue between decision makers and the communities that are affected by what is happening. I think we can work more closely with campaigning organisations – if we can provide insight and experience that will help with their efforts and activities, we can lead to a demonstrable impact as a result of our projects. But we’re a very small team, so could basically do with a dozen more full time people!

What kind of projects do PhotoVoice support in the UK? Do they differ from the projects you work on worldwide?

I think all our projects differ from each other, often quite significantly, because we’re not issue specific. The thing that unites all our projects, both in the UK and internationally, is the use of the camera as our chosen tool for social change. There is a difference in terms of travelling far and wide with our international work, and often working with translators and other logistical issues. But the heart of them remains true to our values and core vision and mission.

© MND 2014 / International HIV/AIDS Alliance / PhotoVoice© MND 2014 / International HIV/AIDS Alliance / PhotoVoice
“When clients refuse to use condoms, sex workers will try and convince them. Sometimes secretly they put condoms on a client with their mouth.”

Has there been a particular project that has affected you in a way that you wouldn’t have thought possible?

I’ve tried to visit or contribute to as many projects as possible since starting, and they’ve had a major impact on me personally, as I’m sure the projects have had for other members of the team. It’s always a great way to gain insight (and often perspective) on the work that we’re doing, and really inspires me to do the best I can for the organisation. The more projects I visit, the more I feel that the partnerships we develop with organisations, participants on our projects, and those who support us, can have an active and significant role to play in making a positive contribution.

What drew you to join PV as CEO?

I actually applied to be a trustee of PhotoVoice. My background is in political campaigning, having worked for a number of charities during my career. I’d been an admirer of PhotoVoice and wanted to offer something to support them, so when I saw that they were advertising for trustees, I applied. I was a trustee for about five minutes before my predecessor told me that he was stepping down, and suggested I take a look at the job description. It’s safe to say it’s a very different experience than I was expecting to have (a lot more spreadsheets for one!), but I’m really pleased to be here. I’m committed to social change and photography, so this is the perfect role!

Supporting members of 12 by 12 will see half their donation used to support PhotoVoice. How will this be used?

As a small organisation in what is quite a difficult time for charities, any and all financial support is vital for us. Donations like this cover the costs of running a small team of five, and while we are able to secure funding for most of our projects, it takes many weeks to get them to a place where we can apply for it. We always want to make sure the projects are ethically responsible, working with the right partners, and reaching the right people. That takes time, which is often unfunded. We’ve launched a membership scheme which provides incentives for our supporters, and this is growing (as well as helping us keep a roof over our heads), but all donations make a major difference. So we’re incredibly grateful for the support that 12 by 12 and its members is providing.



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David GillettInterview by David Gillett
– 12 by 12 team