– What is the World? Participatory Photography in the Documentary Tradition

Imbued with a sense of authenticity that pleases old-fashioned tendencies and the post-modern discomfort with anything that claims more than an outsider’s political correctness, participatory photography teases the edges of documentary practice and poses some unique challenges and opportunities to photographers in the tradition.

In 1992, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its "genius grants" to a photographer who pioneered this practice of putting the camera in the hands of people previously deemed subjects. The photographer, Wendy Ewald , used this method in disparate locations around the world, allowing each collection of images to construct a local, organic narrative. And in a further compelling move, she elected to put the cameras into the hands of marginalized classes, often women and children.

In her 2002 book "I Wanna Take Me A Picture ," Ewald explains the basics of teaching photography and writing to children through a collection of anecdotes from her experiences around the world. While much of the text is devoted to pedagogical instructions and examples of success, the undergirding philosophy of her audacious technique pivots on a central tenet of documentary practice: everything is presented for a reason.

She argues that, even in images made by non-professional photographers, "we are forced to notice the edges of the pictures. … it’s fair to assume that if something is off to one side, the photographer must have a reason for including it."

Thus emerge the broad strokes of this technique. As the age of digital photography and flashy Web design encroach on the principles serious photographers hold sacred, the product and experience of participatory photography grounds the debate: images, no matter who takes them, tell stories.

Participatory photography – letting people make images that tell their own life stories – pushes our understanding of the human condition beyond what communications scholars have called "textocentrism ." The visual method admits us into a world of people for whom literacy may not be possible. And stories, the integral element of documentary practice and tradition, are necessarily inflected with the immediate voice and politics of the tellers.

Throughout history, narratives of human experience have catalyzed broad social change. In an oft-cited passage , social anthropologist Lakshmi Krishnamurty suggests that empowerment comes from making public something that used to be kept private and transforming what was a private indignity into a public social problem.

The subsequent prolific developments in participatory photography projects have reflected the immense array of human potential – the stories and their formatting are as broad as the subjects themselves. The method, often dubbed "photovoice," has been used around the world, mapping the power of collective narrative and expression onto marginalized or misunderstood communities. From public health initiatives in rural China to an effort to erase the stigma against mental illness in Connecticut, participatory photography – its subjects, objects, and methods – has come to reflect the breadth of human creativity as well as an alternative angle on the widespread triumphs and suffering of the human condition.

So while controversy over photographic quality, cultural sensitivity, and the potential erosion of a professional photographic ethos swirls around those who hand over cameras, it is important to remember what tenets of the documentary tradition fuel the desire to establish the subject-participant. If documentary photo essays are an attempt to freeze moments, to create cultural artifacts, or to tell stories through a series of images, it is immensely powerful to engage the very characters of these stories, the people who are living the moments. Much as any journalist or anthropologist will pepper his or her written work with quotations, handing over the camera reflects the humility of the observer, the acknowledgement by a photographer that documentary is a practice of asking questions and furthermore, giving an opportunity for firsthand perspectives.

Perhaps all Ewald did was challenge us to remember what to craft a documentary project really is: to listen, to observe, to collect, and to freeze in image and text the reality we experience. And so why not expand the number of lenses? Why not invite the mosaic of perspectives that this wildly diverse world affords us?

To hand a camera to someone you once saw as the subject of your photograph is not only an invitation for that individual to capture his or her reality. It is increasing the ways in which those in power receive and respect human stories. "Photovoice" may never replace statistics on rural health disparities or well-written legal development beliefs. Nor will it strive to. Its grounding is in the immediate experience of people otherwise silenced, in their agency, and in their desire to tell the world their stories.

As the Internet rapidly reforms the way information is shared around the world, visual media will undoubtedly play an important role in communicating to a wide audience the subtle realities of a variety of cultures and lives. Visual narratives born from participatory photography differ from all other forms of story telling in that they show not only the lived experience of the photographer but the scope of the craft of photography itself. Speaking volumes to the power of the image, participatory photography may be transformative not only for the participants, but for the entire trade.