Matt Daw, PhotoVoice

Describe your role

As Projects manager for PhotoVoice, I am responsible for designing and delivering participatory photography projects that engage marginalised and issue-affected people in decision-making or advocacy.

We do not work around one specific issue or beneficiary group, but rather partner with other organisations who work in a particular area, finding the best way to engage their beneficiaries through photography so that they can explore and reveal issues that are important to them, and start playing an active role in changing things for the better. It’s amazing how much more people can say about their experiences and opinions when they have a photo they’ve taken to talk about.

This is partially because the photo acts as an external object for them to describe and discuss without feeling self conscious and under pressure, but also because the process of considering what to photograph and exploring with the camera to find an image that illustrates what one wants to say is a powerful way of forming a clear message and realising what is important. Putting a frame on the world involves analysing what you want to include, what you want to leave out, and how you want people to see the thing you are photographing. We do it instinctively when we take a photograph so it isn’t difficult, but become aware of the process and it’s like a short-cut to a pretty complex explanation of what you think and why!

Over half of our projects are with children and young people. Photography is a particularly good tool to engage young people as it is fun and creative while still focusing on real life. Sometimes young people who find it very hard to speak about things that matter to them because of communication barriers or a lack of confidence find that photography gives them a way to do this in a friendly and safe environment and at their own pace, and then the photographs and accompanying captions can take their voice to whoever needs to be aware of what they think to improve things.

Photographs are a wonderfully efficient way to communicate, and they have the bonus of having an immediate impact on those who see them, rather than relying on someone taking time to read or listen to a testimony.

What makes a good participation worker?

A good participation worker is someone who can let go of any expectations they might have about what someone might want to say, and simply play the role of supporting them to discover and express what they think. It is too easy to influence someone, even if you don’t mean to, and those who don’t have that much confidence can easily be led to say what they think you want to hear as if it is the ‘right’ answer. The right answer is the truth – however inconvenient it might be!

To be a good participation worker you also need patience – children need to be able to choose the pace or they won’t be themselves and it won’t be real participation. You can’t hurry participation!

What are the barriers to involving children and young people?

In my experience, the biggest barrier is often the expectations of adults in the lives of young people. There will either be assumptions about what they want or what they are capable of, and although they may have been true at one point they have become restrictions that the young people are not given the opportunity to break. Sometimes it helps just to change everything about the way you are working with a young person, so they feel free of any expectations of how to act and how much to engage. Other than that, I suppose attention is the most limiting factor – so you have to find a fun way to cover information and get feedback.

What are the benefits?

Where to begin?! The confidence that young people gain when they realise that not only are adults listening to them, but that what they say or do can make a difference, is fantastic. Children love to create, and to have something to show for their efforts at the end of an activity. If what they create is change in their own lives and those of their peers it is exciting and inspiring. Involvement in decision-making and advocacy helps young people realise the work that goes into making life comfortable and happy, and teaches them that the more they put into something the more they can get out.

It makes for motivated, ambitious and socially responsible young people, who will hopefully carry those qualities through to adulthood.

What tips do you have for effective participation of children and young people?

Make it fun, and ensure that the young people know exactly what they are working towards and why. If you engage young people in a consultation or a participation activity to inform a larger campaign or decision, they should know what this is otherwise they won’t have any investment in the process. The more you treat children as responsible adults, the more they will act like them. That said, the information needs to be appropriate for them to understand, otherwise it is as if you haven’t given it to them.

Likewise, if you have involved young people in a process, keep them informed about what happens next – otherwise they won’t know what difference their contribution made.

What is effective participation? 

Effective participation is when young people choose to contribute to something they completely understand, and then know what happens as a result of their input. It isn’t complicated, but it’s easy to get wrong!

Participation Works is a partnership of…
British Youth CouncilChildren's Rights Alliance for EnglandKIDSNational Council for Voluntary Youth ServicesNational Youth AgencyNCB