Six things we learnt from our photovoice groups

Are you writing a proposal for a photovoice or participatory photography research project with people with learning disabilities? Or just about to begin data collection? We have now come to end of our photovoice focus groups. It has been a wonderful but, without a doubt, challenging experience…

Through the photovoice groups, our participants explored what helped them feel at home where they live, and what got in the way of that. You can read more about the background of the project on  our website. We ran three groups, two in London and one Brighton, for 9 weeks. After the third session, we had a break of two weeks in which the group leaders visited each participant in their home and supported them to take photos. Each group had a group leader who was an expert by experience.

Participant and facilitator in photovoice group using communication aid, laughing.

What did we learn about the process of collecting data for a photovoice project? We put our heads together and came up with the following key tips. We hope they are of use!

1. Think about how to make the project accessible to your participants and experts by experience from the beginning

Running the Groups

Working with our Expert by Experience group leaders was key to understanding how our groups could be structured and how the information we shared could be presented accessibly. This included checking what kind of activities people find interesting and gauging how long each activity should last.


For one group, we produced an Easy Read PowerPoint presentation for each session. This was as much for group leaders to remember and follow what we had planned, as it was for the participants. This group had access to a large TV which each participant could easily see, so participants followed and engaged well with what we presented. It was particularly useful for one participant who had limited sight. We used these Easy Read PowerPoints particularly in the earlier sessions to talk about language we use to talk about images, and do group work around photo dialogue.


The other groups were happier using printed-out resources. For each group we had a set of colour A4 photos of a whole range of subjects, which we used to explain some key words we use to talk about images. These photos were collected from online photo banks such as We were keen to reflect the diversity of the groups, so we also sourced photos from In the later sessions, we also printed the participants’ photos in this large format, which they seemed to really appreciate.


We spent some time thinking about how some of the words we used to describe images (visual literacy) could be explained in an easier way, and compiled a glossary with images for each group. This was not meant to act as a strict definition, but rather be useful for participants who could read but also useful for group leaders to be able to explain easily and quickly what each term meant.



When it came to introducing the cameras to participants, we produced a simple Easy Read A5 pamphlet with key information about the camera. We chose a simple ‘point and click’ camera with a large viewing screen on the back. This was one of the simplest cameras on the market that we could find at the time. However, it still proved challenging for some participants. The ‘reviewing mode’ of the camera where participants could view the photos they had taken on their camera, seemed quite difficult for some participants to access. We spent some time going over this with people but sourced some bumpons from RNIB to make this button stand out on the camera and easier for people to press. Bumpons are small plastic adhesive buttons. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to bring some sample cameras (including iPad and phone) to the first meeting with the participant where we could explore which one might be the easiest to use.


To reduce any work for participants and save time, we had already charged each camera, put in the memory card, added the hand strap, and changed the setting to ‘Simple Mode’. This setting was very helpful as it omitted all the extra text on the screen, which could be confusing. Although we spent some time getting used to the camera in the groups, it did take a few weeks for participants to feel comfortable taking photos, and some participants always needed support when using the camera. We gave each participant an Easy Read pamphlet to take home, where they could refer to the simplified instructions and images, perhaps with staff or family support.

2. Introduce the idea of the exhibition at the beginning

Although not all photovoice studies include an exhibition, for us, it was important to treat our participants’ work as art. As such, a key aspect of our project is the Feeling at Home exhibition, launched in Brighton in September, and then touring other venues culminating in a show in London. We see this as a fundamental way to engage the public, policymakers, housing organisations and others with the issue of homeliness in care homes and supported living accommodation – an issue which is often overlooked.

Although we lightly introduced the idea of the exhibition at the beginning, if we ran the project again, we would choose to spend longer exploring with participants what it means to exhibit work, what the goals are, and what we want exhibition visitors to think about. Many of our participants had never attended an exhibition before – something which had surprised us – and some participants were perhaps not sure by the end of the groups what an exhibition would entail. Having since spoken to other photovoice researchers about exhibitions, it seems a lack of familiarity with galleries, exhibitions, public displays is not unusual in participants. One approach to dealing with this is to have a trial exhibition within the group setting, or in a familiar environment. This allows participants to become familiar with the discourses and the cultural norms of exhibitions before faced with the real thing. And perhaps while doing so, it would provide an opportunity to think about how to make the exhibition accessible from the outset – for both visitors and the exhibitors. Producing accessible captions (this could be Braille, large print, Easy Read, audio for a combination of these), audio descriptions of images, images/works hung at a height that is accessible for wheelchair users, accessible exhibition introductory texts and images, and an array of accessible feedback mechanisms can take time and thought. Our co-facilitators, participants and advisory group members have been helpful in shaping these ideas through a continuous dialogue about what may be needed.  Shape Arts have written a very useful guide to give you ideas and resources in this area.

Related to this, is the need to consider the venue for the exhibition. Again, it was important the venue was accessible, could accommodate wheelchair users, was central and close to public transport. We also wanted to hold the exhibition in a place that already had a high footfall as encouraging people to attend an exhibition on a theme they are not already familiar with can be challenging. We are lucky enough to count Quiet Down There as creative partners, who, since the inception of the project, have been able to guide us expertly through the key issues of putting on an exhibition. This has included when, where and how to promote the exhibition, how to co-curate the exhibition (a whole new blog), how to work with local disability arts organisations and how to translate the exhibition into a travelling show to display at other venues.


3. Allow more time than you think!

We knew that many of our participants were putting other activities and interest groups on hold to join our Feeling at Home groups, and we were keen to retain participants’ enthusiasm for the project, so we planned the groups to be no longer than 10 sessions. We were conscious however that there was a lot to cover in sharing the photovoice method, including talking about what ‘home’ can mean, introducing visual grammar, practising camera skills, taking photos, and writing captions. I think all our group leaders felt that the groups could have gone on for longer, that participants were still keen to be involved, and that we could have facilitated further discussions around what a ‘homely’ place means.


Furthermore, some sessions were cancelled due to illness, train strikes, and travel disruption. Participants also missed the odd session due to GP appointments, forgetting, staffing issues. This put pressure on us to cover more in some sessions than we would have preferred to. So, our advice here would be to simply allow more weeks than you think is needed. This will also mean you have more time to build trust and get to know people’s communicative styles and access needs more. If you feel the group sessions are going well and to time, you could then have a break and spend time visiting people individually in their homes, if appropriate.


 4. Building trust 

We found that modelling the photovoice activities was helpful. For example, by bringing in photos of our own homes, displaying them to the groups and explaining how these photos showed things that helped us to feel at home and how they stopped us from feeling ‘at home’, in doing so expanding on what feeling at home meant to us as individuals. For example, a full shelf of cookbooks meant to one group leader that (finally) having space to cook from scratch meant that she had control over her food and nutrition, something she enjoyed. Home here meant agency and space to and time to do enjoyable activities.  Another image showed a sofa in front of a window looking onto a residential street. The facilitator explained that she was unable to fully relax as she felt exposed to onlookers unless the curtains were closed. Thus ‘home’ in this case meant being able to relax.

The group were then encouraged to respond to questions based on the SHoWed method. We had printed out some large print questions (which we had tried to simplify into an easier to read format) to prompt participants if they needed it. We then spent some time considering ‘what could we do about this situation?’. This proved effective, as participants made useful suggestions to the facilitator to make it more homely (get some nets up!). Sharing images of our homes – warts and all – enabled us to feel (to a certain extent) how it was to be a photovoice participant and to open up our home lives for inspection.

We tried to spend about ten minutes at the beginning of each session doing an ice breaker to build trust. These took a variety of different forms, from asking participants to pick a photo which told other group members how they felt that day, to simply saying what we did at the weekend, to choosing a song from Spotify – a particularly popular choice! Our sessions were then broken up into short 10–15-minute activities which helped everyone keep focused. We found that participants sometimes needed more prompting than we anticipated, perhaps due to feeling uncomfortable, so we explored working in different ways – in small groups, in pairs for example, and mixing up the groups and support staff. We also explored using written prompt question and breaking up tasks into smaller ones – so people could really focus. We tried to let people know what was planned for the group (sometimes this was shared in as an Easy Read agenda). This was helpful for both participants and group leaders and seemed to help people feel more at ease as they knew what was coming up. 

5. Good admin!

A few key administrative tasks were helpful to increase participation and avoid confusion. We found that people would sometimes forget to attend (perhaps because it was a temporary group or because breaks in the sessions understandably confused people). Group leaders got into the habit of reminding participants the evening before group sessions. We also tried to print out all the meeting dates and times on a flyer to take home, although these did change.

It is helpful to keep a record of how participants travel to the group and explore what support they will need, if any, from the facilitators. We found that some participants were independent travellers, and after a couple of sessions of travelling to the group with someone, were able to later travel on their own. Other participants had their own vehicles, while others were reliant on day service transport, which was sometimes delayed due to staff shortages, a particular issue for us due to Covid.

Often people need reminders that the group is on, will need support with taxis, directions for new staff etc.

It was also helpful to get into the habit of dealing with all data immediately after the group finished – uploading video or audio recordings, filing away any consent forms, uploading any images. Having three groups meant that we have a lot of data and information so keeping all the data together, safe, and findable has been key.


6. Making roles clear

We realised that spending some time at the beginning clearly explaining what role support staff should take would have been helpful. Some participants brought support staff with them, and we think initially support staff were confused by how they should interact in the group. The goal of the research is to hear from participants about their experiences: unfortunately, sometimes support staff became too involved and gave their opinion on how they thought the participant felt about home. Although that is of course also helpful to know (we also interviewed staff for the project), it was not the aim of these group sessions.

Therefore, we suggest really spending some time talking about this as group at the beginning, and perhaps adding this to the ground rules.

We hope our experiences have been helpful. It would be great to connect and hear how your research goes – feel free to get in touch!