Chapter 6. Focusing on Community: Photovoice, Local Action, and Global Public Engagement

Gregory P. Spira

Gregory P. Spira is passionate about using participatory media to amplifying the voices of marginalized communities. He aims to ensure their insights shape the programs delivered to them by international development organizations. He has brought his drive to Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation and Communication for Development projects in Africa and North and South America. Previously, as a communication consultant in Canada he specialized in using participatory communication methods to increase public engagement and realize social change. He holds an MA in Professional Communication from Royal Roads University where he received the Governor General’s Gold Medal for his thesis research, on which this chapter is based. He has also authored articles in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals (both in English and in Spanish) dealing with international development-related issues.


People often say that a picture is worth a thousand words. However, in Chaicuriri—a small community located at 14,000 feet elevation in the Bolivian Andes—the photographic image was not meant to replace words. The photographs taken there were never intended to somehow stand on their own and tell the tale of a community. Instead their real usefulness was in the verbal descriptions of photographs taken, oral explanations, and critical discussions that flowed from the sharing of each image. Using a community-based research method known as "photovoice" (Wang & Burris, 1997), 92 percent of Chaicuriri’s residents over age nine took more than 2,000 photographs and, through them, spent dozens of hours discussing community development priorities. Their photographs, whether shared in a schoolroom in the Bolivian highlands or in a downtown Vancouver coffee shop, generated thousands of words.


The research and communication methods used show a fundamental respect for community-based research where both the process and results belong to and benefit the local communities involved. Within Chaicuriri, the primary objective of the Chaicuriri Through the Lens photovoice project lay in supporting the efforts of residents drafting their own locally-relevant blueprint for community development. Conducting this kind of community-wide participatory needs assessment (or Participatory Rural Appraisal—PRA) means getting local actors to actively participate in identifying issues of concern to them and to come up with locally inspired solutions. Focusing attention initially on the photographs helped further popularize this participatory research process and involve often-excluded groups of women and children as community planners.


Further popularizing the research, the Chaicuriri Through the Lens photovoice project also sought to take local understandings and concerns to wider audiences. This process began within the community itself through exhibitions. It continued by targeting specific audiences of NGO leaders and youth and social activists in Canada, the United States, and Latin America who attended multimedia presentations and discussion groups exploring both the issues and how to promote the inclusion and participation of diverse groups of people in shaping community development projects.