Photovoice: Visualizing Privilege and Interrupting Learned Oppression By Phillip E. Wagner, Ph.D.

In my PhD capstone methods course, I was introduced to photovoice, a visual research methodology that is used to visually capture another’s perspective by commissioning individuals to go out and capture their own lives in a meaningful, visual way. Photovoice is an emancipatory method at its roots, used to help highlight the voices of those who are often silenced in society—victims of domestic violence (Frohmann, 2005), those with a disability (Thoutenhoofd, 1997), people of color (Douglas, 1998), LGBTQ-identified individuals (Santurri, 2014), the elderly (Baker & Wang, 2006), and more. Certainly these works matter—they matter a whole lot. Giving voice to the “voiceless” (or to those whose voice is silenced) is a cornerstone of feminist inquiry and a pillar of emancipatory pedagogy. But what if we only focus on the voiceless? Wouldn’t seeing the world through the eyes of “privilege” also be a worthwhile endeavor?

Visualizing Male Body Culture: But I’m not one of “those guys.”

There aren’t too many spaces where I’m marginalized. To be clear, I don’t go around searching for those spaces—but if I took a critical self-reflection, the only thing that made me stand out is my weight. Two years ago, I weighed in at over 365 pounds. Driven by a host of reasons (some I’m not proud of), I started on a “weight loss journey” (whatever that means). Today, I weigh in around 225 and see weight and bodies through a whole different lens. My experiences within male body culture—that is, male fitness spaces—have shown me that male embodiment becomes empowered, both by self and others, when it meets certain aesthetic criteria. Like many fat people, I often felt uncomfortable in fitness spaces and found myself as the subject of ridicule and patronization, both intentional and sometimes unintentional. As I have crossed over the “weight line” (i.e., I don’t look fat anymore), I see that context as one that I’m now welcomed in but still wary of.

As such, I set out on a journey to see how men—fit men, men with ideal bodies—see that same culture. My goal was to see if they recognized their own power and position in these spaces. I tasked 30 men with going out and visually documenting (via photograph) their experiences of “fitness.” True to my assumptions and experiences about male body culture, the men that volunteered to participate in my study (the only criteria of which was identifying as a man and working out at least 3 times a week) were all cisgender, overwhelmingly white (one identified as Mexican-American), overwhelmingly straight (only one indicated otherwise and refused to put a label on his sexuality but said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I was a little bit bi”), and all from either middle-class or upper-middle class socioeconomic backgrounds.

While I could write an entire dissertation on this (spoiler alert: I did), a brief synopsis reveals that male body culture is intricately imbued with power and is a space for the (re)production of hegemonic masculinities. I asked men—dominant men in a specific oft-overlooked culture/context, to tell me what it meant to be dominant (i.e., “What does it mean to be a man pursuing fitness?”). Their results were interesting. Before talking about how the potentials of photovoice for troubling privilege, here is a quick recap of how men regarded their fit masculinity. In short, men saw their fit, male bodies within the contexts of:

1) Sex:

“The Goal/The Prize”[1]

“This is, like, the…if you set goals for yourself, this is like “THE GOAL” all wrapped up into one package. Trying to get that kind of girl and how do you do that? Money, power, influence, good looks, strong…stuff like that . . . I mean, like, that’s how you, like, why you get in shape, why you do all of this stuff…besides for your own health and your looks and stuff. Major drivers for me and most people I know are probably women and things like that.”


2) Traditional gender roles

“Muscularity is Confidence. Confidence is Success. Success is Money.”

money

“I basically just thought, like, with all the stereotypes and things like . . . the male is supposed to be the head of the household and things like that…bring home the bacon . . . When I took an economics class, there’s something about you are like this…percentage . . . based on factors like your height, which you can’t control, the way you look, which for the most part, you can’t control, and all this stuff. . . all these factors over a broad category of things have proven over the years that you’ll be more successful than someone who is more competent, just on the way you look are perceived. So just, like…with the ability to, like, be, like…as good looking as you can and try to, like, be successful and stuff like that, you’ll have money. All those things—to me—revolve around each other.”


3) Upper class status

“Rise to Power”

upper-class status

“I just saw this when I was downtown. Masculinity for me is more than physical fitness….but the attainment of a higher social status. That’s an encapsulation of somebody who has most likely worked very hard to have enough money to be able to just throw $60,000 or $70,000 at a car.”


 

4) Social Dominance

“Goldman Sachs”

“Masculinity is more about…it isn’t necessarily only physical fitness or only life . . . When I think of masculinity, I think of being the best. Like I said, being your best and being the best or however close you can get to being the best among others. When I have the guys with their shirts off with the undies or whatever, and he has the 8-pack and the perfect symmetrical chest, arms, and legs…that’s the physical aspect. When I see guys on the New York Stock Exchange who are getting paid $10 million a year to manage $500 to $600 billion of assets, you know, I think that, in itself, is masculinity in that you’ve achieved…you’ve worked hard to achieve.”


5) Violence

“Better Safe Than Sorry” 

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 6.47.21 PM.png

“It’s something satisfying about feeling the recoil when you’re shooting and stuff like that. The second thing is, like…should I ever need to use one, I’d like to think I’ll know how . . . I think people label those things as masculine in society.”


6) And an overall “boys will be boys” type of hegemonic masculinity:

“Red Knuckles”

red knuckles

“I box usually three to four times a week . . . it…looks badass, but it’s kinda’ symbolic of the effort and work I put into my physical fitness more than anything . . . I mean, it fucks my knuckles up . . . Of course, um…well, you know, well, what initially did it was when some girls made a mistake of telling me that finding guys that fought other guys were hot . . . It’s totally sexual to a girl to ask me, ‘Hey, why are your knuckles f***ed up?’ I would…I would f***ing ROLL with telling her, ‘Oh, it’s because I box a lot and then get fucked up—I do hardcore stuff like that’.”


While these images are certainly interesting in their own way, perhaps the biggest advantage of using photovoice was not the integration of images into the research process, but rather, the fact that the images themselves were a mechanism of self-research—a way for participants to recognize their own positionality. There is a common saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Quite honestly, I think men hear the story about their privilege regularly, but maybe they just needed a picture book to recognize that privilege firsthand. Photovoice, then, provides a platform for making visible power and privilege and bringing to the surface the way in which that power and privilege emerge in men’s lived experiences.

Participant after participant voiced their dismay at their own assumptions about masculinity.

 

“Some [images] were awkward because it was like, I’d have a moment like I think this would be good…but then I was like, ‘this is weird.’ Like, I took a creeper photo of some girl at the gym. . . It made me question stuff, like….’why does this make me feel masculine?’ I don’t’ know...”

 

 

“I’ve got a lot to say on the subject of men and women and the 21st century society rules and gender rules and the stereotypes that are put on us. . . Men are supposed to be super masculine. We’re supposed to be super masculine and super fit—look at animals and stuff. . . blah, blah, blah, hunters and that sort of stuff. The woman is the more subordinate, not as muscular, slim, big butts to survive the winters and so on and so forth.”

 

 

“I want to be seen as sexually intimidating to women and physically intimidating to males. . . [I then asked him if he was making a connection between “sex” and “violence”] Wow! I never actually thought of it that way before. That’s very thought provoking. I don’t know…I guess this is just another stereotype of males kind of put inside my head ever since I was a little kid---males just being the sexually aggressive ones and I mean, everyone does that and knows that and thinks that that’s the stereotype male…being the sexually aggressive ones and women being the passive ones. But yeah—there’s definitely an overlap.”

 

 

“[These images] just reminded me having control. Like, being a man—it’s not like letting an emotion getting the best of you; not suppressing them, but you’re not supposed to let them control you. You’re supposed to have a grasp of what you’re feeling. You don’t want to act out something irrationally. You want to keep a rational head.”

 

In short, using photovoice or participant-directed autoethnographic photography, gave dominant men a platform to see the world differently. The images they produced exemplified themes of hegemonic masculinity, that is, the most sacred form of masculinity (Gesualdi, 2012). Many men first regarded these as “stereotypes” of masculinity, but began to question the problematic assumptions embedded therein. Its important to note that the purpose of my project was not necessarily to involve self-recognition of oppression. I approached it through a very grounded, very interpretivist angle and the men’s unpacking of their privilege emerged only during deeper analysis. As such, I must admit I was not the best facilitator and could have likely produced more rich results had I interrogated them more.

Still, photovoice methodology emerged as a method with such great potential for helping interrupt oppression that I’ve used it again recently. To extend it further, I recently tasked students in my junior-level small-group communication course with a similar project. In the course, students spend the semester working with a local sexual violence advocacy organization. Like any other service learning course, students first complained about the work. This semester, I tasked each student with documenting their volunteer efforts throughout the semester and turning in a final portfolio with those images and what those images meant. Here, photovoice emerged again as a method by[WP1]  which privilege and power come to light. My students wrote pages and pages about the need for sexual violence advocacy, the importance of their work in the community, and the way they can use their education (arguably a form of privilege) to support such services. .[2] One student, a white student from a wealthy suburb near our university, captured an image of flowers growing on campus. His explanation was simple yet powerful: Those flowers symbolize victims of sexual violence. There is a whole field of them yet sometimes, people come along and step on them. When you step back, you don’t notice—you just see a field of flowers, not knowing that some have been severely damaged. Another student captured an image of himself in a mirror, simply noting: Its guys like me. These images sparked many deeper conversations; ultimately, they at least bring to light elements of power, privilege, and invisibility that most students would likely never ponder.

In short, I believe photovoice is valuable as a pedagogical technique for un/learning oppression. First, it helps those in power learn (i.e., realize) that it even exists—a necessary first step in dismantling that power. Once they recognize it, it can help facilitate a conversation about how to unlearn that behavior and re-direct the same energy toward social justice efforts, be the individual- or community-directed. This endeavor is a self-reflexive journey of mindfulness, whereby dominant individuals become aware of their own power, privilege, and positionality. If pictures are really worth a thousand words, I have found that the thousand words that emerge from these photovoice endeavors tell a story that most have never heard before.


References

Baker, T. A., & Wang, C. C. (2006). Photovoice: Use of a participatory action research method to explore the chronic pain experience in older adults. Qualitative Health Research, 16, 1405-1413.

 

Douglas, K. B. (1998). Impressions: African American first-year students’ perceptions of a predominately White university. Journal of Negro Education, 67, 416-431.

 

Frohmann, L. (2005). The framing safety project: Photographs and narratives by battered women. Violence against Women, 11, 1396-1419.

 

Santurri, L. (2014, November). Do you see what I see? A photovoice assessment of LGBT student life at Weber State University. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, New Orleans, LA.

 

Thoutenhoofd, E. (1998). Method in photographic enquiry of being deaf. Sociological Research Online, 3. Retrieved 14 Dec. 2014 from http://www.socresonline.org.uk/3/2/2.html.

 

[1] All images used with permission and protected under the University of Kansas Institutional Review Board, Study 00002021.

[2] Because images were produced within my course and have not been submitted for research, I have not included them here.

[WP1] I tried to be careful here, since I don’t have IRB approval. I’ve edited words (not direct quotes) and I think the addition is good here as it helps extend it.


Bio

Phillip E. Wagner (Ph.D., University of Kansas) is the director of the Core Curriculum and a member of the teaching faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. Phil’s research focuses on communicative and pedagogical practices for enhancing social justice and civic engagement, specifically in regard to healthcare and victim advocacy. Phil is an award-winning teacher and researcher, a passionate activist, and a darn good cook. You can find out more about him here: www.pewagner.com