Using Photovoice as Participatory Needs Assessment with Youth at a Latino Youth Action Center

Joan Scacciaferro
Samantha Goode
Deirdra Frausto

Truman State University


The photovoice method allowed the youth participants (females attending programs at a Latino/Hispanic Center), as ‘experts’ on their own lives, to freely display their thoughts, needs, and concerns in an artistic manner. Through photography, this project not only promoted creativity but also offered a non-threatening platform for participants to convey true emotion and information about difficult subjects. After comparative analysis between all four participants’ pictures and responses, three common themes arose: the importance of family in their lives, the importance of technology in their lives, and the importance of the Center in their lives.


The photovoice process, as a community-based, participatory needs assessment technique, lets community members document their community’s needs and assets, discuss the importance of those issues, and communicate concerns to those in power. Participants are assigned cameras to record visual images of what they perceive as their community’s strengths and weaknesses. The use of cameras can be empowering and exciting and does not require participants to be able to read or write. Discussion and explanation of the pictures within the group of participants and then with those in power may bring about concrete solutions or action (Wang & Burris, 1997).

Youth as well as adult community members have participated in the photovoice process as participatory-action research (Strack, Magill, & McDonagh, 2004; Wang, Morris-Sammuels, Hutchinson, & Pestronk, 2004; Wang, 2006). The photovoice process empowers youth to become active participants in their community and to advocate for community change, especially in the areas of health and health promotion (Wang, 2006). At-risk youth served at the Latino Youth Action Center of the Milan Latino Center in rural, Northeast Missouri are offered after-school programming, tutoring, and language assistance. The Center is located in a town of 1,786 residents with approximately 21.9 percent identifying as Hispanic/Latino (Milan, Missouri, 2009). The Center offers many other programs including: GED classes, arthritis exercise classes, immigration information, translation services that include anything from translation of a utility bill to assistance in the hospital or court setting, and orientation for new residents to get acquainted with the town.

The purpose of this study, therefore, was to use photovoice as a participatory needs assessment with youth in a Latino Youth Action Center setting. The process would empower the youth in documenting the major aspects of their lives and their impressions of their time spent at the Center, critically discussing the results, and then sharing those issues with the Center’s administration and Board of Directors.


The recommended photovoice research methodology was used in this study. The steps included (a) recruiting Center policy-makers and Hispanic/Latino youth participants for the study, (b) instructing participants in the photovoice methodology, (c) obtaining informed consent from parents and Center administration, selecting the research theme/question, distributing the cameras, (d) scheduling time for taking the pictures, and (e) sharing the pictures’ meanings and identified concerns with Center policy-makers and administrators (Wang, 2006; Wang & Burris, 1997). The Center provides programs and outreach to the Hispanic/Latino community in the area, especially for the youth. The majority of the youth served are Hispanic/Latino teens and pre-teens in the afterschool setting. Few studies have been carried-out with the Hispanic/Latino youth population in the area. Of those that were conducted, though, no findings were ever discussed with community leaders or community members. The Center’s administration, however, perceived that many improvements needed to be made in the areas of language assistance/translation and basic computer skills for both youth and adults.

Recruiting Center policy-makers and Hispanic/Latino youth participants for the study

The researchers, experienced in community health work and health education programming with the youth at the Center, recruited the two administrators of the Center, Center paid staff, as well as Board members that had decision-making powers as the audience for the participants’ presentation of ideas and concerns. The youth participants were recruited by word-of-mouth and fliers posted during the afterschool program activities, and potential volunteers were encouraged to come to the first project meeting. The initial meeting was held at the Center on a Friday late in the afternoon so that the youth could attend their afterschool meetings and practices beforehand. Although the ideal number of participants should be a little larger, six youth initially volunteered, and four eventually completed the project (two had to decline because their parents did not want them to be responsible for the cameras). Project participants were four Hispanic/Latino females ranging in age from 13-15 years old; these young women were representative of the demographic that frequents the Center after school hours.

Instructing participants in the photovoice methodology

During the initial project meeting, participants were briefed on the rules, basics of digital camera use, the photovoice concept, and the goal of the project. The rules stated that they could not take pictures of people, they were not to take pictures during school hours, they could only take appropriate pictures for public viewing, and they were to obtain prior permission to take pictures when necessary. The importance of care and respect for the cameras was also emphasized. The basics of taking pictures, viewing them on the digital camera screen, and deleting pictures were reviewed; the youth learned fast, quickly mastered all of the features and modes, and wished to start taking pictures immediately. The photovoice concept and project goal were explained as a very open way for them to express themselves. There were advised to represent major aspects of their lives and that they could use their pictures to convey any issues to Center administrators and policy makers in order to find ways to improve procedures or programming at the Center.

Obtaining informed consent from parents and Center administrators

Institutional Review Board approval was received for the study. Informed consent, any risks, and the ability to withdraw from the project were explained to potential participants. Prior to participation, all participants, their parents/guardians, and Center administrator all signed the written consent forms outlining the voluntary nature of the study.

Selecting the research theme/question

All participants were asked to use their pictures to portray the specific project tasks of describing the major aspects of their lives and their impressions of their time spent at the Center. Because they were involved in the afterschool programs and activities at the Center as well as being newcomers to the area, they were asked to take pictures that documented their lives, their feelings, and their interactions.

Distributing the cameras

Many different types of cameras have been used in photovoice projects, including digital cameras (Wang, 2006). Because the participants had some computer experience and were comfortable with technology, Olympus and Sanyo digital cameras were chosen for the project. Digital cameras allow for taking (and even immediately deleting) numerous pictures. With features such as optical zoom lens, red eye remover, and special settings for different types of shots, the cameras provided the participants maximum creativity. All of the features, modes, and settings were explained and demonstrated to the participants who enthusiastically practiced taking pictures using a mix of the features. Camera cases were provided to each participant in order to protect their cameras when they were not being used. In addition, each participant received a battery charger and cable so they could keep their cameras constantly charged and ready for use.

Scheduling time for taking the picture:

After the initial meeting and practice with the cameras, participants took as many pictures as they wished over the next week. They were also reminded that the pictures should fulfill the assigned tasks and that they were to meet back at the Center again at the end of the next week. At that next meeting, they were to present their most important pictures and discuss their meanings with the researchers and Center administration and staff. All participants met the deadline and were ready to present and explain their most important pictures.

Sharing the pictures’ meanings and identified concerns with Center policy-makers and administrators

During the presentation meeting back at the Center, each participant took all the time they needed to display their pictures in a slide show format on a computer screen for all to see. Researchers assisted them ahead of time with transfer to the computer. Participants, administrators, and staff gathered around the computer as participants took their turn. Each participant described the pictures (mainly in story form), explained their meanings, voiced any concerns, and allowed time at the end of their presentation for any comments or questions. Researchers took detailed notes during the presentations as the participants expressed the positive and negative aspects of their lives and what they liked and disliked about their time spent at the Center. Underlying themes, patterns, and issues were identified by the researchers in the analysis to uncover perceived strengths and needs.


The photovoice process was a unique and insightful approach to conducting a participatory needs and assets assessment with a small group of Hispanic/Latino youth attending programming at a youth center. The participants shared their feelings and concerns through describing of their pictures as they responded to a broad prompt to describe the major aspects of their lives and their impressions of their time spent at the Center. This process allowed participants the freedom to explain their pictures’ meanings and determine what they wished to share, prompting extremely open conversation that resulted in three prominent themes among the four adolescent female participants in this study.

Theme 1: The importance of family in their lives

The one theme that appeared in every participant’s photos was family. Whether it was brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, or grandparents, every participant presented at least one picture that represented an aspect of their family life. For example, the picture shown above is of a television in the house of one of the participants. She described the picture and explained that she “loved watching television with her sisters and parents,” and that they “made time to watch movies and play video games together.” Two of the four participants reported only positive aspects about their family life, using pictures of a television, a computer, a football goal, and pasta to detail their good relationships with their siblings and parents and what they did together for fun.

One of the participants, however, shared that she and her mother did not get along. Her mother was not happy with the person she had become and was trying to “trap her inside her own house so she could not get into trouble” as portrayed by a black and white picture of a single flower located inside a gate. Another participant told of the death of her brother and how she coped with the loss. This participant took a picture of the sky to represent her brother always looking down upon her. Clearly, whether positive or negative, family life has a major impact on the lives of these youth.

Theme 2: The importance of technology in their lives

A second theme revealed by all of the participants was technology in their daily lives. The participant who took the photo above stated, “I love texting and talking to my friends when I can’t see them.” Two of the participants took pictures of their telephones and commented on how much they “loved them.” Other items of technology that were pictured and described fondly were a videogame using a guitar, a television, a computer, websites Myspace.com and Myyearbook.com, a videogame console, and a stereo. One participant mentioned that her parents “monitored her internet usage.” However, the other participants never indicated their parents’ or guardians’ role in monitoring their use of technology. Thus, technology, whether used for communication, fun or learning, was an important aspect of the participants’ lives.

Theme 3: The importance of the Youth Action Center in their lives

The prominent theme of the project was each individual’s need for an escape, and the Youth Action Center as a place that fulfilled that need. The picture above represents how one of the participants was diligently working on her basketball ability so that one day she could receive a scholarship to college. She stated, “My family does not have a lot of money, so I am afraid I cannot go to college unless I have a basketball scholarship.” This same participant also explained how she is on the track team to get out of the house and stay out of trouble. Two of the participants explained how the Youth Action Center was a place they frequent often as indicated by their pictures of the homework room inside the Youth Action Center, the ceiling of the Youth Action Center, and the front of the building. One participant explained that when she was having troubles with her mom there “was always someone to talk to and something to do at the Center.” Another declared, “It [the Center] keeps me out of trouble. It also helps me to have someone to talk to about my feelings, and the doors are always open. It is also my escape, where I can hang out with my friends.” Another participant said that not only did she like talking to the program director at the Youth Action Center, but also, “I like doing my homework in the YAC homework room, because it is easy to be ‘in my own little world.’ I prefer doing homework here, because my house is very stressful. It is hard to get peace at my house because of my brother and his girlfriend, the television, etc. It is hard to concentrate at home. Without the YAC homework area, I probably would not have very good grades.” Another place two of the participants found an escape was in their bedrooms. One explained, “It’s a place for me to relax, and I’m the only one there, and I don’t have to share it.” No matter what the situation, every participant described the need for some kind of escape with the Center serving as the key go to place.


The photovoice needs assessment process allowed the youth participants, as experts on their own lives, to freely display their thoughts, needs, and concerns in an artistic manner. Through photography, this project not only promoted creativity but also offered a non-threatening platform for participants to convey true emotion and information about difficult subjects. Four female adolescents in the Latino Youth Action Center afterschool program were given digital cameras for a week and instructed to take pictures that expressed major aspects of their lives and their impressions of the Center. This sample of young adolescents was ideal because of the many challenges they face, their willingness to share with the researchers and Center administration, and their affinity and excitement for taking digital camera pictures. They had never been approached with this type of research study before and were excited to be participants. The researchers encouraged open conversation as each participant reviewed her pictures and explained why she took the picture and its significance to her life. After comparative analysis of all four participants’ pictures and responses, three common themes arose: the importance of family in their lives, the importance of technology in their lives, and the importance of the Center in their lives.

Although some experiences were positive and some negative, each participant was greatly impacted by the role their family played in their life. Those who had positive experiences with family cherished time spent with family members. This feedback suggests that the Center should consider expanded programming. Intergenerational or family-oriented events and activities could be provided by the Center on a periodic basis to help maintain this bond. Possibly in partnership with other service providers or agencies, family-strengthening events could be held for the whole community. For those participants who had concerns about their family life, the Center may be able to partner with family counselors, school guidance counselors, or other staff from community mental health agencies to offer low-cost or sliding scale family counseling at the Center. Because the Center is a focal point of the Hispanic/Latino community and has an adequate amount of meeting space available, families may feel more comfortable meeting in this setting. In addition, because adolescence is a time of transition, programs at the Center could be offered for parents. Support groups for parents of teens or parenting classes focused on the teenage year could be provided at minimal cost using volunteers or interns from the local college.

It was also apparent that the role of technology was extremely important to these participants. All enthusiastically described some kind of electronic device. However, all too often, technology, such as the Internet or video games, may be misused or overused by youth and can be harmful. Here, too, was a potential for programming by the Center. To ensure the safety of youth when using the computer and when in cyberspace, the Center may need to expand their computing curriculum to include cyber-safety activities that would address the fun programs and websites participants would like to know more about as well as the dangers they may face while on-line. Adults attending Center programs, especially parents and Center staff in charge of the computer lab, may also need to be updated on cyber-safety and safe computer use. Improving the computer and cyber-safety knowledge of adults and parents should also be considered. Recommendations include computer classes for adults that provide some basic and intermediate skills, as well as information on how to monitor children’s Internet activity.

Each participant expressed a need for an escape from everyday life. All of them did find an escape ranging from sports and the Center, to simply having their own bedroom. Half of the participants directly referenced the Center as their place for escape, and many more youth may be benefit from having the Center as their retreat. Because the Center made such positive impact in the lives of the participants, it is suggested that the administrators and Board use free media, speaking engagements, and other forms of free publicity to raise awareness of the Center in the schools and town. Because the youth are looking for stress-free environments, more programming aimed at adolescents such as recreational sports, personal stress management activities, and presentations about the importance of alone or down time could be provided. The tutoring and homework space that is provided seems to be of great benefit according to the participants. This Center clearly makes a positive impact on the youth and should be maintained and expanded to meet more needs.

Although the photovoice process can document the perceptions of community members in order to generate actions by those with decision-making power, there are some limitations to be considered. As the participants discussed their pictures, the researchers noted their conversation but may have misinterpreted what was said and how it was said. The researchers in this case, although novices at the photovoice process were young adults and may have been able to more accurately portray what the youth meant when using any slang terms or tech-speech than older adult researchers. Next, the youth self-selected the pictures they wanted to present to the researchers and administrators. Although the adults were trusted and very familiar people in their lives, participants may not have shared completely with the adults. Only four females, all from the same town and attending this Center’s programs, comprised the sample; therefore findings cannot be generalized to a larger population.

It usually takes time and funding to make any changes in organizations; and the Center in this study is no exception. The process was used to help move the Center to action by using feedback from the participants, similar to other youth-oriented photovoice projects in the literature (Wang & Burris, 1997; Wang, 2006). The Center administration will take the participants’ concerns into consideration at each of their next Board meetings. Although funding is limited, the administration will investigate expanding programming to meet the unique needs of adolescents who attend the Center. Outreach to community organizations, specifically social service agencies, will be attempted in order to provide family-based mental health support services at the Center. This partnership could also raise awareness of and advertise and promote the Center as a place for all families. Lastly, the administration will ask for assistance from the local university’s computer science department as well as local law enforcement/cyber crimes unit to provide computer classes for adults and cyber-safety programs for youth and adults.

Overall, the project produced findings that could be used to improve the lives of the youth attending the Center. With new insights into the influence of family, technology, and the Center, as well as the need for teens to escape to someplace, Center administration and staff can attempt to meet these needs through cost-effective means such as new partnerships and continuing to use volunteers from the area to raise awareness of the Center, expand activities for teens, and improve computer skills and computer safety for families. In addition to discovering the needs of the participants, this project demonstrated the contributions to the community already provided by the Center. The researchers were also impressed with this special group of resilient, enthusiastic youth.


"Milan, Missouri." City Data. (2009). Retrieved June 16, 2009 from: http://www.city-data.com/city/Milan- Missouri.html

Strack, R., Magill, C., & McDonagh, K. (2004). Engaging youth through photovoice. Health Promotion Practice, 5(1), 49-58.

Wang, C. C. (2006). Youth participation in photovoice as a strategy for community change. Journal of Community Practice, 14, 147-161.

Wang, C.C., & Burris, M.A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education and Behavior, 23, 369-387.

Wang, C. C., Morrel-Samuels, S., Hutchison, P. M., & Pestronk, R. M. (2004). Flint photovoice: community building among youths, adults, and policymakers. American Journal of Public Health, 94, Retrieved November 11, 2008, from http://www.aiph.org/cgi/content/abstract/94/6/911.


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