In recent years, photovoice has grown in popularity among qualitative researchers. This research method uses an arts-based approach where members of the community share their health-related experiences through photographs and narratives.

“Researchers, myself included, have adopted methods like photovoice to allow for an alternative way for participants to express themselves. Some find it much easier to express an emotion, like sadness, loneliness, or grief, through an image rather than words alone,” said Gen Creighton, a Knowledge Translation Manager at the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and MHR team alumni. “With research areas that may be particularly sensitive, such as depression and suicidality, a standard interview may not always be the best approach to gathering the thoughts and perspectives of those with lived experience,” said Creighton.

While health scholars see the value this method brings to both participants and researchers alike, there has yet to be much discussion on the ethical considerations surrounding photovoice. In hopes of jump-starting the conversation a newly published MHR paper by Creighton and colleagues, Photovoice Ethics: Critical Reflections From Men’s Mental Health Research, sheds some light on this topic.

Why aren’t the ethics of photovoice being discussed?

Creighton points to the relative infancy of photovoice as compared with other qualitative methods. “While, undoubtedly, researchers and research teams may have privately reflected on ethical decisions to be made when using the method, we are only just beginning to have these discussions in more public forums,” said Creighton.

Further, cell phones, apps, and the internet may downplay the need for such conversations. “It’s challenging to keep up with the quickly evolving technologies. Many people take and share photos on social media as a daily practice. Photo sharing is so universal that we may not pay enough attention to the ethical implications of integrating them into the research process” said Creighton.

Individual ethical considerations

In reflecting on her work on the Man-Up Against Suicide project, which collected narratives and photos from men and women affected by male suicidality and/or suicide, Creighton says the ethical considerations may need to be participant specific. “Participants were very diverse in terms of their mental and emotional health regarding depression and suicide. Some participants were more vulnerable and for them the research interview served as a therapeutic engagement. Others had some distance from their own grief process and were interested in discussing systemic changes that might better support those who are suicidal,” said Creighton. “This means that each interview required a flexible and sensitive approach with differential consideration of ethics.”

Key ethical issues with photovoice

The article explored three ethical issues Creighton encountered while working on the Man-Up Against Suicide project. The first, Indelible Images, examined how consent and copyright might be affected when participant-produced images are displayed online or in local exhibitions. The second issue, Representation, looked at the ethical implications of conflicting participant accounts of the deceased. And the third issue, Vicarious Trauma, explored the impact participant-produced images may have on others’ mental health.

Going forward Creighton recommends the development of a framework that is flexible and responsive to participants’ realities. “I think that it’s always important, as researchers, to slow down the process and consider how we might be impacting those who are telling us their story. It is a great honour to be let into the private world of another person and we owe it to them to preserve and protect their dignity and privacy.”