MSFHR-funded research: The ethical implications of photovoice

I really do think he thought of himself as a terrible screw up and loser - which is funny because no one else thought of him that way... (Photo shared as part of the Man-Up Against Suicide project)

Photovoice is a research method where community members are encouraged to document and share their experiences of illness and wellness through photographs and narrative.

MSFHR Knowledge Translation Manager, and former MSFHR Trainee, Dr. Gen Creighton has recently published a paper on the ethical implications of photovoice, based on her post-doctoral work on Man-Up Against Suicide, a research project to raise public awareness and destigmatize men’s depression.

“Using images can give depth and richness to conversations, particularly around sensitive issues,” said Creighton. “In this research, which explored grief after loss, participants said that the images provided the opportunity to bring their loved ones into the room. When words were insufficient to describe an experience or a feeling, they were able to show a picture or symbol that portrayed that meaning.”

Although photovoice is increasingly being used and written about, the ethical considerations surrounding this research methodology have received little attention. In their Qualitative Health Research paper, Creighton and team critically reflect on the emerging issues in photovoice research, highlighting three key issues in and how the research team addressed these challenges.

Ethical issues in photovoice research on depression and suicide

  • Indelible images: Whether shown at exhibitions or online, images can be easily be copied, disseminated and repurposed beyond the original scope of the research. This is particularly challenging given the sensitive subject matter and potential for participant perspectives to change over time.
  • Representation: There is the potential for emotional distress and conflict when participants have discordant views about a shared loved one, particularly around factors that contributed to a suicide and the consequences.
  • Vicarious trauma: Participant-produced photographs have the potential to trigger mental health issues in researchers and viewers.

“In our rush to embrace technological innovations and creative approaches to research we must be careful to spend adequate time considering the ethical complexities. We owe that to participants who take an emotional risk by sharing their stories,” stresses Creighton.

“In the Man-Up study, participants stepped forward with images and narratives in the hopes that their reflections might play a small role in preventing future suicides. As a research community, it is our responsibility to consider how we create safe spaces for both participants and researchers to engage in this type of research and how we can best support participants, protect their dignity and uphold their rights when the interviews are over.”

Knowledge translation is an important element of all MSFHR programs. MSFHR’s specialist KT team runs a blog series, webinars and events to support the practice of KT in British Columbia.