Photovoice Missouri coordinator reflects on the program and teens

By Jennifer Coffman

Related post: Photovoice Missouri honors best of student work

Today, more than ever, teens are overflowing with creativity. What they lack, oftentimes, is an audience. Sometimes they find it through Facebook or the occasional viral Youtube video, but rarely do those audiences contain the types of people who can make real change happen through what they’re offering to the world. The kind of audience a teen needs for his or her ideas isn’t always the audience served up by those free-for-all online social media platforms.

Enter Photovoice.

Photovoice is an approach specifically developed to give a voice to the voiceless. Its leaders give an underserved group a unique opportunity to express their opinion and have their voices heard through photography or video. It’s usually run for a specific period of time for a specific group of people who have something pretty specific to say. A few examples are:

Girls and women living in rural India:, and

Hispanics living with TB:

But what about Missouri’s youth?

The HCRC and Missouri’s Healthy Live Initiative decided to see what would happen if we gave middle and high school students the opportunity to participate in a Photovoice project. Because we are a health communication research organization, we thought giving them the topic of healthy lifestyles would fit the bill for us and them. After all, with teen obesity and diabetes becoming a national epidemic, what better way for us to find out what teens are up against than by asking them to show us?

Eight communities signed up. We gave their teachers training, digital cameras, a moderated Flickr platform and some instructions, “Have your students take photos that show us what they see in their everyday lives about healthy lifestyles. It can be things that are good or bad about your community, but each photo should explain how, with some changes, your community could be healthier. Photovoice is about giving your students the power to create positive change in your community.”

The results were incredibly interesting. Some teens showed us their school bathrooms, run down, shower curtains missing, toilets broken, huge floor tiles missing. Some showed us their parks; graffiti, beer bottles, broken sidewalks and all. Others showed us vending machines with nothing but candy and chips, or streets where children ride their bikes into oncoming traffic because it’s the only place they can ride their bikes at all.

Better than that, though, they started realizing their voices were being heard. As I write this blog post, one group of Photovoice Missouri teens have already presented their photos to their school leaders and city council members. Another group plans to ask their school board to donate new cardio equipment for their gym after seeing photo after photo where there was no place to exercise. When the project began, only about 16 percent of them believed their voices would be heard and real, concrete change would occur as a result of their efforts. Without official year-end survey results yet, I’m going to venture an educated guess and say that percentage will have gone up significantly.

As a part of Photovoice Missouri, I personally visited each participating group. I’ve gotten to talk to those students face to face, and see their eyes light up when I sit down next to them and give each my full attention as they explain their photos and plans. It’s not been all holding hands and singing; this project is tough work and we’re asking a lot of the students. But they’ve shown us what they see, what’s important to them, and how they respond with just the slightest bit of attention and encouragement.

Check out the students’ work in Photovoice Missouri, 2011-2012, at:


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