Interpretative phenomenological analysis and photovoice methods in participatory therapeutic contexts

PIF 19 November 2020

Julia Johnson is Lecturer and Course Leader in Photography with Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University. She started by asking how art – and particularly participatory photography – can be a catalyst for supporting recovery in mental health, given the lack of mental health services in the UK. Julia introduced her research using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) and photovoice methods to assess this. The research is being conducted with people accessing NHS mental health services, in collaboration with the NHS and University of the Arts London, funded by the London Doctoral Design Centre. The research objectives were:

  • To involve those accessing mental health services in the design and evaluation of a toolkit of activities and staff training for delivering mental health support.
  • To analyse the potential of participatory photography as a sustainable therapeutic tool.
  • To assess the potential for online platforms to enhance and sustain peer-led networks.

Photovoice methodology

Photovoice methodology intends to enhance participants’ wellbeing through community engagement as well as generate social action. It was developed by Wang and Burris in the 1990s, who argue that images are a more direct pathway to expressing our inner world and help us get to the words to describe our experiences in a more meaningful way.

“Photovoice is a process by which people can identify, represent, and enhance their community through a specific photographic technique. As a practice based in the production of knowledge, photovoice has three main goals: (1) to enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns, (2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues through large and small group discussion of photographs, and (3) to reach policymakers.”

Wang and Burris (1997, p.369)

In addition to these foundations from Wang and Burris, Julia’s approach to photovoice methodology also draws on ideas from the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, feminist theory and practice around oppression and empowerment, and community-based photographic work from photographer Jo Spence.

One aspect of her research involved anonymised self-portraits, which encouraged participants to think about how they could convey the self without the usual identifiers. This raises a number of ethical considerations, for example are participants credited for their work or do they use a pseudonym? Indeed, Wang and Burris state that in participatory photographic research participants cannot give fully informed consent at the start as they don’t know what will be developed through the project; so informed consent should also be sought at the end. In Julia’s research there were three stages of consent: initial informed consent, consent at the end of the project (including deciding which photos participants consent to sharing), and third element of consent from others depicted in the photography.

Interpretative phenomenological analysis

Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) often has a psychological emphasis, but Julia looks at how it can be used in participatory arts. The process involves individualising analyses of interviews and then looking thematically across interviews. It is important to pay attention to the meaning associated with opposing themes, polarised themes, and what is not being said. If this is not attended to, these aspects may be characterised by your own subjectivity, assumptions, and perceptions. In IPA, it is suggested that you ‘bracket your subjectivity’ in order to connect with the life world of the participant. Photovoice can be an interesting addition to the IPA process.

In Julia’s research, participants were interviewed about their experiences of the mental health service, and about their photography. Each interview transcript was analysed to identify emergent themes before looking across the interviews and collating themes.

Value and challenges

This research aimed to recognise and build on the strengths and resources of the participants, promote co-learning through sharing positive experiences, find a balance between research and action, and facilitate a productive critique of the process. However, there were many challenges to undertaking the research and achieving this aim.

  • Tensions between the participatory approach and NHS ethics. Any amendments to the research should go back through ethics, but if you can’t be responsive to what participants want then they are not at the forefront of the research. Julia decided she would respond to what the participants wanted, but anything that came from it could not be used as part of the research.
  • Photography helped as a therapeutic tool and participants benefitted from the relational value of sharing with others. However, some participants were only interested in the photography and not in the research, which meant there was a disparity between the action and the research.
  • The process of anonymising the self-portrait was challenged as not all participants want to be anonymised. It doesn’t necessarily protect people and could even be damaging and perpetuate stigma. For example, discourse from mental health movements suggest that people should have the right to claim their identity; but this is not possible within research frameworks.
  • Tensions between the co-learning and community approach and the bracketing of researcher subjectivity in IPA. There was a dialogue between researcher and participants about the photography within the interviews and it is not always possible to bracket subjectivity when you are researching something you are interested in or have personal experience of. There are other ways of being reflexive within IPA without bracketing subjectivity.


Wang, C. and Burris, M.A., 1994. Empowerment through photo novella: Portraits of participation. Health education quarterly21(2), pp.171-186.

Wang, C. and Burris, M.A., 1997. Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health education & behavior24(3), pp.369-387.

Author: annadadswell

As a Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at Anglia Ruskin University, I manage the Participatory Research Blog. Please feel free to contact me with questions and suggestions at

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