Photography as Visual Narrative

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Photography as Visual Narrative

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

If you could pass only one piece of wisdom along to a human rights practitioner / organization wanting to utilize photography as a tactic for creating change, what would it be?

How does photo selection and editing impact the story that it tells? For example, Should photographs be framed differently when used as a tool for documenting abuse? If yes, how so? Who should ultimately make these decisions?

What examples can you share that illustrate the successful use of photography to advance human rights? Stories of Success.

Utilizing photography best practices

In my work with the Caesar torture evidence file we have found that the most important element of using photography is the integrity of the images, the metadata, and the hardware used to take the pictures. Any international or domestic investigative body will do extensive checks on these elements. If any semblance of tampering is found, the entire set of photos may be compromised.  With Caesar, even brightening the images in an editing program like Microsoft Paint so that key details can be seen posed problems for those specific images. 

Image toning and Evidence

This is a very interesting point, Tyler, and one I'd not considered in the human rights context. 

Perhaps you're familiar with the major controversies at the annual World Press Photo contest in recent years? Two years in a row, large numbers of professional photographers were disqualified from the contest after reviews of RAW files revealed material additions or subtractions from images. This is, of course, a major offense in press photography. 

The World Press controversies opened larger discussions on the issue of so-called "toning," a term that in my mind pertains to adjustments in brightness, contrast, saturation, burning, dodging, etc. The tactics I just listed are all accepted forms of digital adjustment according to current industry standards. Any addition or substraction of material, however, is strictly forbidden. By this, I mean cloning out unwanted elements of a picture, a beer can, a cigarette butt, a person, etc. 

If I were hired by a major human rights organization to create a visual narrative, I would undoubtedly tone my images to present the visual aesthetic that I prefer. Your point is very valid, though, in that even accepted photographic adjustments may undermine the integrity of the image in the eyes of those who seek to invalidate it. Perhaps, when working with human rights groups, photographers ought to note that any images of torture marks or other purely evidentiary images ought to be presented in their completely RAW, untouched version in addition to the toned version that the photographer might prefer. 

Narrative building vs. evidence collection

I think this brings up a very interesting point.  The issue of narrative building vs. evidence collection and preservation.  The Caesar file will one day be used as evidence in a legal proceeding, and today the photographs are the most compelling peice of proof of these widespread crimes. Because the photos are essentially stolen from Syrian government custody, their power eminates from purity and a lack of alterations.  There have been many other photographs from the Syria conflict that have woven very powerful stories about the war (from several political vantage points), and in that case I think toning is appropriate, if not necessary. 

Different purpose different treatment

For evidence that can withstand challenge in a court RAW files would be critical.  For images intended for publicaton adjustments are common. I believe many publications are requiring photographers to submit RAW files with any toned files.

"Toning" to best replicate reality

Sometimes "toning" is necessary not to create an image that fits a particular visual aesthetic but simply to best replicate reality.  The camera does not see as the eye does.  It records light and contrast differently than the eye does. So, if the goal is to present an image that captures a scene as the eye would, sometimes color correcting a RAW file is necessary in order to, say, lighten shadows so that they appear as your eye saw them when the photograph was taken.  

Advice to HR Practioner/Org wanting to team up with a photograph

Find a professional.   They know what’s involved in building a visual narrative.  Too often in this day of billions of images from millions of cameras, and because occasionally one or a few of these capture something historic, people imagine everybody is a photographer. it’s important to remember that photography is a craft. Knowing what to shoot to create a strong visual narrative is a skill that experienced photographers develop.  Of course, some may come by it naturally.

The Unanswerable Question

This question was particularly interesting to me: How does photo selection and editing impact the story that it tells? For example, should photographs be framed differently when used as a tool for documenting abuse?

Each photographer, publisher, printer, etc. will have a different answer to these questions, and each will be valid. Depending on one's aim and discipline, there are various standards to abide by and objectives to follow. Amar Kanwar, for example, uses much more artistic license than a photographer like Michelle Frankfurter (winner of the 2012 FotoEvidence book award; we loved working with her!). Kanwar and Frankfurter have separate approaches that feature different elements of accuracy, truth, authenticity, or whatever you want to call it. Either method could be useful for a human rights organization depending on their motives.

I think having transparent discussions about these practices is key. While we rarely discuss editing and framing with our audiences, we could further activate them as viewers by engaging in a conversation about why a photo might be cropped and levels adjusted, or why an image should not be edited at all. This would help all of us think more critically about issues of representation and constructed narratives, and photographers make enormous contributions to this conversation.

Advice for Organizations

I've worked for a fairly wide array of advocacy and humanitarian organizations over the years

In my experience, only a few understand the most advantageous ways of using photography and photographers. 

I often interact with communications officers who have specific, often cliché images in mind. At times, it feels that some want to construct a unnecessarily controlled visual narrative. 

My advice would be to hire vetted, capable photographers and trust them to document the story according to his or her intuition. As photographers, we spend our time figuring out what works in terms of visually storytelling. 

In my experience, the best NGO projects are born of some informed freedom on the photographer's behalf. The communications team will tell me some themes and locations that they'd like to see and I take it from there. With some room to breath, I take it upon myself to approach the stated themes but also seek the unexpected. We must forget what we expect to find and embrace and follow what's actually there. In my view, this is how strong narrative work is born.

At times, I think that organizations want to closely oversee the creation of materials and while this is somewhat understandable, it can suffocate a photographer's creative energy and cause him/her to switch to auto pilot. I've seen a lot of wasted opportunities between terrific organizations and good photographers because of this dynamic. 

Here is an example of what I saw as highly successful collaboration with Amnesty International. I spent a little over a week traveling with two AI researchers along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. While we moved together, I was under no obligation to remain at their side to make pictures of their activities. While the researcher's work is incredibly important, it is not often interesting to look at. Instead, I explored the environment and found pictures that I don't think either of us were expecting. Because of this freedom, I was able to put together an interesting and somewhat cohesive series on the experience inside the Yida refugee camp. Because the images hung together, I was able to place them in TIME magazine's Lightbox platform. This greatly increased the amount of eyes that saw the work and thus gained some knowledge of the situation.




Pete's advice to organizations

I would second Pete's advice to organizations. You're using a photographer as a resource for her perceptivity and skills. Working from a script isn't likely to develop a strong documentary. Strong dcoumentaries are found in the material.  

There are other resources that an established photographer can bring.  I'm guessing, but I bet It wasn't only Pete's skill with visual narrative that helped him place the story at Time but also his standing as a photographer and his personal network. Placing stories is eqaully important as developing them for people who are trying to bring important stories to the pulbic in a world filled with endless noise and infinite suffering.  

Trusting the photographer and flexibility of a photo shoot

I second Pete’s advice to organizations as well.  Themes and locations are often sufficient for giving me a good idea of what would be useful for the organization, but beyond that, I work best when given the freedom to adapt my technique as each particular situation requires of me.  Life is dynamic and in order to capture it best, the documentary photographer needs the freedom to be flexible in his/her approach. 

In regards to time, for example, I would encourage the organization to be very flexible.  I once worked with a Communications Officer who had an itinerary of locations for us with 30-45 minutes per location.  I know there were good intentions; naturally, one would think that having a schedule allows for time to be used efficiently and provides the photographer with a variety of locations and material, ultimately producing the best product.  As an aid worker in the past, I can understand how this logic makes sense (I regularly thought in terms of log frames, budgets and schedules).  As a documentary photographer, however, this approach doesn’t work for me.

More often than not, photography is about waiting—waiting for something to happen or for a subject to forget that there’s a camera in the room and begin to act more naturally.  Sometimes great photographs are taken when nothing is happening at all, but a certain emotion permeates the scene due to the lighting or an expression that flickers across a subjects face for a mere moment.  In order to capture that mere moment, I need to be able to be flexible in my approach.  As Pete mentioned, intuition plays an important role.  Sometimes, a situation calls for taking multiple photographs quickly. Other times, it’s better to put the camera down and talk to my subject, or step away and do something else nearby, giving them space and time to get used to my presence before the camera appears again.  The amount of time I spend at a particular location and what I do while I’m there varies.  It is rarely possible to be on a schedule if I am to take the best photographs that I can.  Timing must be very flexible.  The Communications Officer asked me how long I thought I would need at each location.  While I know he had good intentions with this question as well, it isn't possible for me to answer it until I see a location, and even then, the amounf of time I need to spend there may later change according to the dynamics of certain elements or subjects in the location.   

As photographers, we’re constantly dealing with the challenges presented when trying to take a good photograph, varying from lighting and composition to dealing with camera-shy or even camera-adverse subjects.  All this is part of a photographer’s job and, for the sake of time, it is not possible to explain it all. So, in sum, I would encourage organizations to pick a photographer that they think has experience in dealing with the sensitive topics that are central to human rights narratives, and give that photographer the freedom to rely on his intuition and to adapt his approach as he believes the dynamics of a situation requires. 

In the end, better pictures will result, and as Pete mentioned, there is then a greater chance that media outlets will publish them as well, increasing visibility for the organization’s work.  

Photographs can be a significant factor in social change

FotoEvidence and the photographer Vlad Sokhin can count a rare instance where we can almost directly relate photographs to legislative action to protect the rights of women in Papua New Guinea.  Like many of the stories FotoEvidence has published, Sokhin’s story, “Crying Meri: Violence Against Women in Papua New Guinea,” had no takers among the many mainstream media outlets that he submitted to.

He gave up hoping to sell his story and submitted to the FotoEvidence Book Award for potential publication as a book.  He was a finalist and we published a selection of the work on our website and distributed it, as we do all our publications, to organizations, editors and activists focused on human rights and social justice.

Within a few weeks, Vlad was contacted by the UN Office of Human Rights (UNOHCHR) to request use of his images for public education.  As the campaign developed, it grew to include UN Women, UNICEF, Amnesty Australia-New Zealand, ChildFund Australia and several smaller activist organizations.  In addition to being used in exhibits, posters, and public service announcements, his images were carried by demonstrators during a large -scale protest organized by Amnesty.  Subsequently, many media outlets picked up the story and published images from “Crying Meri.”

Within a year of the campaign, Papua New Guinea enacted its first law making domestic violence a crime.   This was followed by the removal of a 1971 “Sorcery Law” that allowed that violence directed at sorcery was justified.  Sokhin’s book tells a disturbing and powerful story of sorcery violence.

 Of course, cultural change will be slow to follow but Sokhin’s work on the plight of women in Papua New Guinea acted as a spark that galvanized collective action. Now, what was once taboo is daily fodder in newspapers and among Facebook friends.  It wasn’t the photographs alone that brought change. The breadth of the collective action was also critical but the photographs provided organizers with documented cases, undeniable evidence of the danger women in PNG live with every day.

Sokhin, like many other documentary photographers we have worked with at FotoEvidence, undertook this project with his own resources. We're proud to have collaborated with him and many of the organizatons involved in the campaign to publish his book, "Crying Meri: Violence Against Wome in Papua New Guinea."

Great example of impact

David -

Thank you for sharing this great example of impact. This highlights your comment earlier, that the combination of outstanding photography combined with distribution that made the material visible and accessible played pivotal roles in connecting the photographs to the eventual legislation.

I thought it is also worth pointing out the list of organizations that you mentioned - particularly the connections and links among the organizations. The ability for organizations to work together and share the outstanding photographs for building community support to leverage and push for legislation is very inspiring to learn about.

Greg Constantine and Stateless People

I was grateful to read David's example about Vlad Sokhin who does very powerful and important work. 

I also greatly respect the work of photographer Greg Constantine who has dedicated much of his photographic career to documenting stateless communities. His ongoing and evolving project, Nowhere People, has been exhibited in dozens of countries all over the world. Greg is a terrific example of a photographer who made an early commitment to a particular human rights issue and stuck with it, through thick and thin, for many years. His work is advocacy based and highly educational and he promotes it as such. I'm sure that he has created the largest body of work on stateless people in recent memory. 

You can see some of Greg's work here:

#1 Photography as Visual narrative

I would advise any human rights practitioner/organization to be vigilantly mindful of the purposes images are meant to serve and the agenda of those using them.

As my fellow conversation leaders have noted, photography is used to numerous effects in human Rights practice, so it’s difficult to establish an overarching set of criteria for establishing narrative. And, as David said, there are millions of images being made and distributed out there in this already media-saturated time and culture. So, I think that aesthetic – as well as contextual – values are imperative if an image is going to have great impact and to last both in the viewer’s mind and for in history. This in no way means beautifying the image, but rather, insuring that it be memorable and resonant.


Narrative building, evidence collection,and "toning"

It has been said that the best art/imagery is that which strikes the viewer visaually, viscerally and intellectually all at once. i can name few examples that achieve all that in one fell swoop. And, very often, one shot - unless the photographer has the opportunity, resources and venues to present more - is all the photographer gets. So, how to make that imapct, how to present the fullest narrative possible?

In 1996 I accompanied a forensic team assembled by  Physicians for Human Rights and the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. As an illustrator, my role was to provide reference in those areas where photography wasn't possible and to provide non- graphic evidence fot he families of the victims. Gilles Peress was the mission photographer who worked to document the exhumation process in the interest of evidence of war crimes but also to create a record of the methods and technology used in the process. His work later appeared in many venues and was effective.  Not too afterwards, Peress  both published and exhibited many of these photos, a number combined to create one, consecutive image. For the time, unconventional , but I think a great example of establishing a very compellling and complex  narrative.




Advice to NGOs/Organisations

The usage of photographs by organisations to make presentations and introduce new programs is a common practice. Statitistics and numbers dont build empathy but stories definitely do. It is therefore the photographers job to bring those stories to light and the process involves developing it with time and engaging with people or the community - wherether it is a case of environmental disaster or a social/cultural issue. 

I agree with the factors Pete earlier pointed out. I have experienced it and so have some of my colleagues. While they were on the field, they were asked to hurry up. In some of my trips, I have been accompanied by some grassroot level workers of the NGOs. Having them was an advantage to break the ice while talking to the victims, and in some cases, they even acted as translators. But the problem arises when they dont give space to the photographer and often act as a hindrance in their creative development. This is frustrating.

There is a very fine balance and for any successful working relationship between the NGO and the photographer, there needs to be trust and space. Many NGOs dont understand this.

Photography as a platform

ART WORKS aims to promote the work of our photographers as well as the causes they're passionate about. With photographers' help, we've been able to create many platforms for humanitiarian and agency groups to represent the issues they work on and form new partnerships. Here are a few examples, which I think were successful by raising awareness and/or leading to direct aid for various human rights topics.

Children of Syria: This exhibit launched in our Chicago gallery, where we held two public events with experts in the region. The exhibit went on to frame a symposium held by Northwestern and Loyola University, allowing students and the public to learn from their professors. Then we had a small tour in Washington, DC where John McCain spoke at an event in the Senate building with the exhibit sponsored by UNHCR, USAID then hosted an exhibit, and the photos subsequently went to the Department of Defense in the Pentagon where they were viewed by 81,000 DoD employees. Through these images, we were able to reach a diverse audience across key demographics: students, advocates, researchers, politicians, and so on.

Two other Chicago-based exhibits are House of Cards: Rebuilding and Sustenance: Chicago and the Food Chain, which document local responses to the housing crisis and food access. These exhibits featured commissioned work, and had 3-4 public programs inviting local experts to discuss their work, concerns, and possibilities for future success, with hundreds in attendance. These exhibits allowed practitioners to make new connections and share ideas, and we are now gearing up for national and international tours to increase their impact. One of my favorite outcomes was a series of workshops led by a local meal provider for Chicago Public School students, where students learned about nutritional requirements and developed their own lunch meal that will be on the school's lunch menu during the next academic year. They also prepared and served this meal to our guests during a symposium.

A third Chicago-based exhibit, The Price of Precious, documenting conflict minerals and mining in Congo, led to future collaborations between humanitarian groups working in Congo and providers of medical supplies. 

UNHCR also supported our multimedia exhibit Sanctuary and Sustenance, which launced in 11 cities on World Refugee Day. The project collaborates with local hosting organizations and immigrant communities, who celebrated their music and culture with the public before the installation. The exhibit was recently shown in Croatia by the Jesuit Refugee Service, and we are now working on expanding to other US cities. This new US project will provide commissions and mentoring for young photographers from immigrant communities and will help local aid and advocacy organizations illustrate their work to help immigrant and refugee communities.

On Editing

It took me many years to understand the importance and delicacy of editing and sequencing. Like many photographers, I have a way to go in terms of honing that aspect of the craft. It truly is a skill unto itself and one that is far too often underappreciated. It is so important, in fact, that I believe that half of successful photography lies in editing. 

The edit and sequence greatly affect not only the structure of the story but the feeling that it conveys. The inclusion and omission of certain images, and their placement in the sequence, heavily impacts the viewer. While bias is inherently imprinted on our work due to the choices we make when constructing images, editing provides a significant opportunity to shape the story for better or worse.  

A great set of pictures can be devalued through poor editing and sequencing. Pace and narrative development is critical, as is giving images room to breath. When dealing with issues such as human rights violations, which are inherently intense, it is important to create a type of crescendo dynamic wherein tension builds and releases as it would in reality. This allows for more honest and complete story telling and creates allows viewers to remain engaged without becoming overwhelmed. 

As far as advocacy considerations, I suppose that editing can be employed as a means of galvanizing viewers. In such cases, certain ambiguous images, while perhaps of sociological significance, might not add value to the advocacy message that an organization seeks to impart. This is when lines get blurry. 

Regardless of intent, the edit should always be taken very seriously. Each image ought to be discussed and its inclusion or omission argued candidly. 




Hello there, 

Not sure this fits into this discussion and how, but working in China and other parts of Asia, I'm often wondering about strategies of getting the message out. I discuss some of those difficulties in this interview with Robert Godden of the Rights Exposure Project:

I was wondering if we could see some discussion on how to work in relatively closed societies which don't understand -- or outright reject -- the vocabulary of human rights (as a "western" imposition) and where there is weak civil society and no / few NGOs with the capacity to use visual communication effectively? Any thoughts on how strategies might differ from working in places with more capacity, and where societies are more familiar with, accepting of the social justice/human rights messaging? 

Many thanks. 

Chi Yin

VII Photo Agency





An important point and something that in my experience is always not fully appreciated. The advocacy strategies used by many international NGOs are more often than not based on a liberal democratic political model that just doesn't work in many countries. They also often rely on an outside constituency that usually has less political leverage than that of the local population. Although international mobilisation has its place it tends to be over used - particularly nowadays via online campaigns - in that it is not the most effective tactic available. 

For me this is related to another point I made in this forum about having the right people on board to build projects (and comms and advocacy strategies). Some of the conversation here has rightly focused on NGOs needing to recognise the skills of photographers and allowing those to be effectively harnessed. Equally, the skills of the NGO staff in understanding how to frame issues for their target audience and adovate for them is also vital. This is in part why I have a preference for local NGOs and local photographers working together as they generally have a better understanding of the cultural and political terrain (I know, not always the case, and these things can be learned, but it generally holds true).

I don't think there is one definitive answer to your question Chi Yin, rather each project needs to be based in a situation analysis that appreciates issues such as the strength and role of civil society, current understanding of the issue by your target audience, mechanisms for public participation, trust values regarding NGOs, government relationships with NGOs, censorship, and of course platforms for getting your message (and photos) out. For me one of the most imporant elements - and the photographer can play a key role here - is how you frame an issue. I know I've bored you with this example before but I think the approach I took with the work I did on the abuse of agricultural migrants in South Korea is useful. Rather than frame the campaign around labour rights (instant turn-off for our target audience) our comms strategy focussed on food (in a family setting) and its provenance. With ethical consumption taking off in South Korea this really resonated with our audience and attracted far more attention than our previous campaigns. The campaign materials really reflected local tastes - another lesson that many ignore. I have seen hundreds of great photo essays which I love, but I wonder from a communication point of view who they are aimed at? Again, really understanding your audience is key. 

measure of success as an advocacy tool

PROOF’s exhibition entitled the legacy of rape

has traveled around the world with partners in each country. It tells the story of women survivors of rape as a result of conflict. The goals of this exhibition were to give voice to these women in order to bring it to the attention of lawmakers, policy makers and civil society.  There have been numerous measures of success. We use many markers to measure this – how many people have come to the exhibits, how many conference and people attending, number of places it has traveled and as you will see below:


Pete’s photos in the DRC were used in law clinics in Eastern Congo to encourage women to testify at the roaming rape travels.


In Nepal, Nayan Tara Gurang’s photos and 2 of the testimonies were brought to the UN Human Rights commission as evidence against the perpetrators by our partner, Trial, a Swiss ngo that fights against impunity. The exhibit was supposed to travel around Nepal with UNFPA the week the earthquake happened


Blake Fitch and I worked in Colombia with 11 women survivors. Today with the help UNFPA, UNHCR, University of Los Andres and the University of Santa Marta, the exhibit has traveled all over Colombia accompanied by workshops with college and high school students and conference that include policy makers and other leaders that can make change. The women group has grown from 11 to over 100 with the women taking the testimonies and photographing each other. Recently the mayor of Santa Marta has agreed to publish the book of their work. 


Great connection!

Thanks for sharing this work, Leora. We are in the process of filming a documentary about legal prosecution of sexual violence in conflict ( with case studies in BiH, Colombia, and DRC. The preliminary footage has already been an effective tool for raising awareness among law practitioners in the US and Europe, but our ultimate plan is to circulate the completed film as an educational tool for schools and NGOs in the three case study countries and beyond, much like how your exhibit was shared. I look forward to spending some time on the website to learn more!

Robert brings up very good

Robert brings up very good points and I'd just like to add examples that complement his ideas.

I agree that it is always better to work with local NGOs, and when possible, local photographers are a great asset. To start, we usually get in touch with an international body that is already familiar with us, and then they make connections with their contacts in a given area. This opens up a very wide network and helps ensure an exhibit is used meaningfully.

The idea of re-framing human rights issues as more "appealing" topics is also an effective strategy, for better or worse. We did this when exhibiting photography by Christian Holst about political tension in Myanmar/Burma. Rather than directly reference politics and human rights violations in the exhibit title, we used the unethical mining and processing of rubies as a framing device that would capture the attention of wider audiences. The title Blood/Stones was effective in that way.

To my knowledge, ART WORKS has not exhibited work in any location between Istanbul and Syndey. We of course would like to change that, so I look forward to reading other responses. 

Robert brings up very good

Robert brings up very good points and I'd just like to add examples that complement his ideas.

I agree that it is always better to work with local NGOs, and when possible, local photographers are a great asset. To start, we usually get in touch with an international body that is already familiar with us, and then they make connections with their contacts in a given area. This opens up a very wide network and helps ensure an exhibit is used meaningfully.

The idea of re-framing human rights issues as more "appealing" topics is also an effective strategy, for better or worse. We did this when exhibiting photography by Christian Holst about political tension in Myanmar/Burma. Rather than directly reference politics and human rights violations in the exhibit title, we used the unethical mining and processing of rubies as a framing device that would capture the attention of wider audiences. The title Blood/Stones was effective in that way.

To my knowledge, ART WORKS has not exhibited work in any location between Istanbul and Syndey. We of course would like to change that, so I look forward to reading other responses. 

Using Photovoices/ Photostories for community empowerment &advan

Photovoice methodology is recognized as an emerging methodology to measure change and empowerment of communities in demanding quality health care. It is being accepted as an effective tool in citizen engagement for monitoring, evidence gathering, gap analysis and action in health service delivery. Community of Practitioners on Accountability and Social Action in Health (COPASAH) ( is a global community platform of practitioners in the field of health and human rights. The community uses tools of community monitoring for accountability and health rights. COPASAH has pursued the mission of nurturing, strengthening and promoting collective knowledge, skills and capacity of community-oriented organisations and health activists working in the field of accountability and social action in health, for promoting active citizenship to make health systems responsive, equitable and people-centered. COPASAH has ventured for innovative use of ICTs for evidence gathering for advocacy and demanding quality health services using Photovoice methodology.
In one such initiative in South Asia (India) capacity building of 30 community level practitioners from six different states was done using accessible technology like cameras in cellphones, basic cameras on how to take videos, photographs, make photostories and record voices for identifying gaps in health care services and generate evidence for advocacy of health rights. The practitioners developed an action plan to generate evidence using accessible technology in 18 districts on selected themes of women’s and those of marginalised communites for accessing free maternal health services under Janani Sishu Suraksha Karyakram, quality of postpartum care, provision of antenatal services through Village and Health Nutrition Day, functioning of Anganwadi committees and health rights of manual scavengers. Photo documented evidence on gaps and situation in the health facilities and services were collated, reviewed and shortlisted in collaboration with community members and were used for advocating with concerned health officials and committees related to grievance redresses through public health dialogues at Primary Health Centre(PHC), block and district levels.
The findings indicate the authorities have taken note of audio- visual documented testimonies and the cases with grievances, with promises to provide redressal. It has led to building skills of the community with low literacy rates on identification of an issue, strategically gathering evidence with accessible technology and communicating it at various levels of health system. It led to building greater visibility of issues related to maternal and child health through social media/ press releases and women and marginalized community members demanding quality health care services.
Excerpts of the initiative are available at
COPASAH has also encouraged practitioners to use the medium of photovocies and photostories to advance rights. In its 10th newsletter COPASAH has showcased the innovative experiment of sharing accountability practices through the hybrid medium of photostories, articles and films. It can be accessed on


Thanks everyone for your thoughts, examples and comments. And as Rob said, glad to see some discussion of strategies outside of the well-understood frame of rights. I've used Photovoice methodology in the past and yes it works well with some communities, as did subtly framing the work as art and not advocacy. Using the vocabulary of social justice and fairness instead of rights. And of course working with local photographers and NGOs who know the ground and the audience is key, as is touring the work to other victims and through education institutions. All of which I have done in the past, in Southeast Asia and here in China where I am the local person / photographer /advocate. Not all places in Asia (or the "Third World") are closed societies, of course. Carefully understanding the audience and how it might receive a message is the crux, as Rob points out. Just still thinking through how to work in places like here where there 1. is a tight political climate and effective censorship -- tighter than it's been in a decade if not longer -- and most advocacy-related work, even with the best plans, seems to draw risks (for locals) 2. there are no local NGOs with the capacity to be effective on the issue. 

I've been thinking broadly about strategies that work in this part of the world / societies like here for some time. Photovoice methods worked well on migrant worker rights issues in Singapore when I was still active there.

My more specific conundrum is a China-specific one: 

The only thing I've managed to do with a 4year project on silicosis and China's leading occupational disease here is to a charity fundraiser (  and put out a tiny advocacy / education video for miners ( We were unable to even get a video open letter from the miner to the Chinese president up into Chinese cyberspace. (

All other extensive plans made (with OSF help) on hold so far. 

The story:

Just for reference on the civil society climate here:

Will keep thinking and trying. cheers!

Chi Yin

Editing & Sequencing: Does the text or do the photos lead?

In terms of editing and image sequencing, I’d like to make a comment about choosing whether to allow the images to lead a narrative or to allow the story/text to lead a narrative.  I don’t believe that one is better than the other but I do think the decision needs to be made before attempting to sequence images. 


The nature of the subject, the breadth of the information that needs to be conveyed, and the types of images and how they relate to one another all need to be considered before deciding on whether words or images should lead a narrative.  


For example, in a narrative that is very complex and detailed to a degree in which a photo essay alone would fail to impart the majority of the necessary information, it would make sense to allow the text to lead and use the photos to add intermittent visuals to the text.  On the other hand, if the narrative is such that a series photos alone could convey the majority of the necessary messages, it would be best to sequence the images according to the photographs, giving greater attention to varying perspective, head size, emotional magnitude, landscape/portrait/still-life, etc., from one photo to the next.  Text would then simply serve to add a bit more detail to the greater message already imparted by the image. 


I believe the decision should be made after the photos have been submitted, when it is possible to assess the information that needs to be imparted and the photos that are available.  Without this assessment, you risk making the wrong decision which could result in a product where either (1) the photos are not used to their full potential and the impact on the viewer is not as high as it could be, or (2) the information that needs to be imparted is not adequately or effectively communicated (ex. the sequence of information may be confusing to a reader if you have chosen to let the photographs lead a story that is too complex and detailed for the images available to be able to communicate).  I think both the photographer and organization need to be honest about which works best, and allow the text or the photographs to follow the lead of the other as the situation dictates, always keeping in mind that the main goal is to communicate a narrative in the most clear and impactful manner as possible.