Center on Psychiatric Disability and Co-Occurring Medical Conditions

Research Projects / Empowerment Photography Project

Principal Investigator, Judith A. Cook, Ph.D.
Co-Investigator, Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D.
Co-Investigator, Jessica A. Jonikas, M.A.

There are many ways to obtain people’s unique perspectives in research, such as interviews, focus groups, surveys, and participatory dialogues. An increasingly popular method, called Empowerment Photography, uses photographs or videos to help people tell their own stories for research and educational purposes. Via this methodology, people use film to represent their thoughts, feelings, or experiences, usually about an intervention, problem, or policy being studied.

Empowerment photography has been used to show policymakers the harsh working conditions of lower-income laborers, to motivate support for changes in labor policies. Others have used it to show administrators of an institution the stressful conditions under which the staff are working, such as in an emergency department or operating room. Still others are using the method as an empowerment intervention by helping people use photographs to show others the meaning of hope and recovery in their lives.

For our project, we asked research participants in our randomized controlled trial studies of Wellness Recovery Action Planning (WRAP) in Illinois and Ohio to voluntarily enroll in the photography study. We loaned them cameras to take pictures of the people, places, and things that portray their use of WRAP to promote wellness and recovery. Each person received training about photography, how to use digital cameras, research methods, and the ethics of taking pictures for research purposes.

The group took pictures for a month and then met with UIC researchers to download and discuss their first set of pictures, along with any problems or questions they had. They went on to take additional photographs for another month. At a final meeting, we interviewed them about why they took each picture and how it represents the use of WRAP in their recovery and ongoing wellness. Everyone received $30 and a set of their photographs for participating.

Research shows that using pictures helps people to identify and describe information that they might not otherwise remember or be able to discuss freely. Photographs also help people think about their motivation for taking each picture, and ideas or emotions that surround it. Research also shows that people find it easier to discuss abstract concepts such as “hope,” “mental health recovery,” or “peer support” when using their own photographs during interviews. Finally, for people at lower literacy levels or non-English speakers, photography can allow them to share their thoughts and experiences with researchers.

This research was made possible by the National Institute of Mental Health (Grant # R34MH085051), the National Institute on Disability & Rehabilitation Research, and the Center for Mental Health Services (Cooperative Agreements H133B050028 and H133B050003).

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