Using Photovoice to Communicate Abuse: A Co-Cultural Analysis of Communication Factors Related to Digital Dating Abuse

Melinda R. Weathers (Clemson University, USA)

Summary of the Project


Young people are using media technology, including cell phones, personal data assistants, and the Internet, to communicate with others on a regular basis. This technology also allows them to make rewarding social connections and to quickly increase their knowledge on a variety of topics. However, the explosion in communication tools and avenues does not come without possible risks. Digital abuse is a health problem of increasing magnitude in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011) define digital abuse as “any type of harassment or bullying that occurs through email, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites [including social networking sites and blogs], or text messaging.” Research suggests that one in four young people report being victims of this type of abuse (Family Violence Prevention Fund, 2009). Given the prevalence of the growing phenomenon, photovoice is used as a qualitative method to identify the co-cultural communication orientations and responses to acts of digital dating abuse in heterosexual romantic relationships. Through photovoice, co-researchers use cameras to take pictures that document various aspects of their daily lives. These photographs then become artifacts around which an in-depth interview is centered. Thus, co-researchers are able to “tell their story straight” in order to help scholars and activists understand the dimensions of social issues such as digital dating abuse.

Research Questions

The following research questions guided this investigation:

RQ1:   What forms of digital dating abuse are experienced by young women in heterosexual romantic relationships?

RQ2:   What are young women’s experiences regarding digital dating abuse in heterosexual romantic relationships?

RQ3:   What co-cultural communication strategies do young women enact in their digitally abusive heterosexual romantic relationship?

RQ4:   How can photovoice be used to give young women voice in digitally abusive heterosexual romantic relationships?

Theoretical Framework

Using a co-cultural theoretical (Orbe, 1996) frame of analysis, this study seeks to better understand communication practices of young women interacting as co-cultural group members within dominant societal structures. Orbe (1998) defines co-cultural theory as “unique in that it originates from the lived experiences of persons usually marginalized in traditional research and theory. The standpoint of co-cultural group members, reflecting their communicative experiences within dominant society, gives scholars a new perspective from which to consider communication processes” (p. 122).

The premises underpinning the current study are derived from this co-cultural framework and assume the following: (1) although representing a widely diverse array of lived experiences, co-cultural group members will share a similar positioning that renders them marginalized within society, and (2) in order to negotiate oppressive dominant forces and achieve any measure of success, co-cultural group members will adopt certain communication orientations and practices in their everyday interactions (Orbe, 1998). As such, the primary practical application of co-cultural theory is its potential to foster dialogue between dominant and nondominant groups (Orbe & Groscurth, 2004). Knowledge and understanding of co-cultural practices may benefit dominant groups because the strategies ultimately give voice to what might be traditionally muted in dominant discourse.


Originally proposed by Wang and Burris (1994), “Photovoice is an innovative [community-based] participatory research method based on health promotion principles and the theoretical literature on education for critical consciousness, critical feminist theories, and nontraditional approaches to documentary photography” (Wang, 1999, p. 185). Photovoice aims at empowering marginalized group members in a community by allowing co-researchers to document and discuss “everyday interaction” in order to help them critically reflect their needs (Tracy, 2007, p. 32). Through photovoice, co-researchers use cameras to take pictures that document various aspects of their daily lives. These photographs then become artifacts around which in-depth interviews and/or focus groups are centered. Thus, co-researchers are able to “tell their story straight” in order to help scholars and activists better understand the dimensions of social issues such as digital dating abuse.

Photovoice involves a series of procedures that include: (1) identifying salient community issue(s), (2) recruiting and training co-researcher, (3) identifying photo assignments, (4) discussing photo assignments, (5) analyzing photo assignments, and occasionally (6) a community forum for policy makers and influential advocates. While all of these aspects are important, the embodiment of photovoice research is the photographs. As such, co-researchers are provided cameras to take photos; the photographs enable co-researchers to record and reflect their strengths and concerns through photographic images. Photo discussions allow co-researchers to share and discuss the photographs they took for each photo assignment and promote critical dialogue about community strengths and concerns. Co-researchers present their photos during a facilitated discussion by contextualizing and often using root-cause questioning known by the mnemonic SHOWeD. The SHOWeD method proposes standard questions as a means of analysis: What do you See here? What’s really Happening here? How does this relate to Our lives? Why does this problem or strength exist? What can we Do about this? The data of photo discussions are analyzed like other qualitative data, through exploring, formulating, and interpreting themes. The themes are often developed in partnership with the co-researchers. At minimum, themes are revised and validated by co-researchers. In some cases, a community forum is organized to reach local community members and policy makers in an attempt to build partnerships for community change.


Co-researchers offered varied descriptions of their experiences with digital dating abuse. These descriptions were clustered largely around five co-cultural orientations aligned with nonassertive and assertive assimilation, accommodation, and separation preferred outcomes. These accounts provide insight into the diverse communicative strategies and standpoints of the digitally abused women who participated in this study, and have implications for women, social science research, medical practice, educators/advocates, and society at large. The findings also give further insight into the utility of photovoice as a visual methodology among co-cultural group members.


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Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

Photovoice has the potential to contribute to the field of communication in various ways.

Photographs are important tools for the impact of communication research as the visual provides an alternative to “textocentrism” (Singhal & Rattine-Flaherty, 2006). According to Wang (1999), images teach and “contribute to how we see ourselves, how we define and relate to the world and what we perceive as significant or different” (p. 186). In short, images influence how we see the world. Wang (1999) argues that pictures can set agendas and show what the media and public do not want to talk about or are unable to talk about. As such, photovoice “empowers the interviewees to teach the researcher about aspects of their social world otherwise ignored or taken for granted” (Clark-Ibanez, 2004, p. 1524). With this method, however, people do not only take pictures of important people, places, and interactions in their daily lives, but get to tell the story of those pictures as well. Photographs can serve as a beginning point for a dialogue among those with a traditionally limited amount of voice and those in positions of power.

Significant evidence suggests that using visual forms of communication (e.g., pictures) in combination with textual forms of communication to deliver information increases involvement and comprehension of information for participants. For example, Catalani and Minkler (2009) found that photovoice projects improved the understanding of community needs and assets among photovoice partners, service providers, local policy makers, other influential community members, and the broader community. Additionally, increased access to visual formats such as digital photographs offers the potential to increase researchers’ attention, recall, and comprehension of complex social issues “because participants who collect visual evidence on a topic can offer these data to researchers to supplement written survey data or interview data” (Villagran, 2011, p. 296). Thus, understanding of a topic may be increased when the participants themselves help frame the types of information gathered on any given topic. By providing cameras to individuals who might otherwise not have access to such a tool, researchers gain the ability to record communicative behaviors, and design interventions based on the contextual information drawn from the resulting photographs (Hergenrather, Rhodes, Cowan, Bardhoshi, & Pula, 2009).

Paulo Freire’s (1970) idea of empowerment education feeds photovoice principles via his contention that “every human being, no matter how ‘ignorant’ or submerged in the ‘culture of silence,’ is capable of looking critically at the world” (Wang & Redwood-Jones, 2001, p. 561). Empowerment education manifests itself in photovoice practices by using images as a means by which participants can call attention to elements of their individual worlds that are worthy of celebration and derision (Novak, 2008). That is, the participants are able to act as the empowerment agents. For example, Carlson, Engebretson, and Chamberlain (2006) used a retrospective ethnographic analysis to evaluate the impact of a photovoice project in a lower income, African American urban community. The researchers analyzed dozens of photographs, participant stories, group discussion transcripts, and facilitator journals. They found that the photovoice project was able to generate a social process of critical consciousness and active grassroots participation, thereby facilitating empowerment by providing multiple opportunities for reflection, critical thinking, and then active engagement. The authors identified these opportunities as “deciding what to photograph, developing a story of why it was important, experiencing the entirety of the group’s creation, and, finally, participating in a group dialogue of introspection” (p. 842).

Methodological Challenges/Limitations

Photovoice is an ideal methodological technique through which participants can document, critically analyze, and improve contexts, such as digital dating abuse. However, because photovoice is not a widely used method, many researchers learn how to do photovoice “on the fly” and problems and unforeseen issues are common (Booth & Booth, 2003).

IRB Constraints. Training of participants poses some unique issues. Photovoice training is not particularly long or difficult, and the procedure for training co-researchers is generally approved by IRB. However, convincing some of the co-researchers to follow and execute the appropriate IRB-approved procedures may prove to be difficult and could cause a great deal of frustration. Per IRB regulations, because the participants will be taking photographs of other persons, they are considered co-investigators. As such, they must follow informed consent procedures and go through the informed consent process with any identifiable person in their photographs. As a result, a researcher may collect a large number of pictures that are unsuitable for presentation because co-researchers did not meet IRB standards. A consequence of this reality is the lack of people that may be presented in the images. Those that are presented are typically public images that lack identifiable persons; and can therefore be presented without cause for concern. Ultimately, this issue limits what the researcher can present in his/her findings, but also limits the type of photographs that can be taken by co-researchers who fail to (or simply do not want to) adhere to IRB guidelines.

Public/Private Issues and Camera Ethics. Another issue that a researcher may come across is staged photographs. This is a common issue and is difficult to deal with, as the researcher is not in control of taking the photographs, nor is the researcher present when they are being taken. In order to protect this type of photograph, the researcher should maintained sole control over this and any other image that is of a questionable nature. A staged photograph can be used to talk to co-researchers about camera ethics as well as participant involvement in research. Researchers employing photovoice methodology should plan on informing participants not to stage photographs, especially with persons they do not know.

Marginalized Populations. Historically, photovoice has been used with marginalized populations (e.g., rural, learning disabled, impoverished). Working with populations such as these provides the possibility for great reward and insight, but it comes with some risk, particularly if the researcher is unfamiliar with that group. For example, one may overestimate the extent to which participants will follow the guidelines that are laid out for them (e.g., how to return cameras, when to sign up for interviews, keeping appointments, etc.). While it is likely that these challenges can be easily overcome, researchers who use this method should be aware of situated concerns that may happen with particular participant groups.

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