Participatory Photography Projects with Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers: A Critical Overview

In a short time, Finland has received a record number of asylum seekers as well as a significant number of unaccompanied asylum seekers.

According to the Finnish Immigration Service, in 2014 the number of unaccompanied asylum-seekers arriving in Finland was only 196. Last year in 2015, a total of 3024 unaccompanied minors (2832 boys, girls 188) sought refuge in Finland, the majority (1915 persons) of which originate from Afghanistan.

The public debate on unaccompanied asylum seekers, however, often focuses on the numbers of asylum seekers, is sceptical about their age and argues about their access to children’s benefits in Finland. This rhetoric has diverted the public attention from the welfare of children arriving in Finland, their experiences, their interests and views (Alanko et al., 2011, 11). This has created a need for more participatory approach to discuss the issue of young asylum seekers.

From December 2015 until May 2016, we have been running a participatory photography project in a reception centre for young asylum seekers in Espoo.  The project promotes agency of young asylum seekers to express their voice using media pedagogy, in this case through photographing.

Around 10 Afghan boys (aged 16-17) have participated in weekly workshops on basic techniques of taking photographs, visual representation and self-expression, and in between the workshops they have taken pictures of their everyday lives. The aim of the project is to broaden the boys’ understanding of photography and provide photographing opportunities, as well as to create participatory experiences through self-expression.

The tradition of Participatory photography has been largely influenced by Paolo Freire’s “education for critical consciousness” in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. According to Freire, marginalized groups need to be empowered in order to change their surroundings. At first, they are helpless, then they understand the unfairness and corruption around them and then become aware of their own choices: either to accept or to try to change their reality. (Freire, 2005). This view is reflected in the participatory photography technique where participants take pictures of themselves, choose, share and reflect on their own perspectives in order to explore their surroundings, foster debate and consequently introduce change in their own communities. Often the photographing has been a way for participants to tell their stories and share them with the public, for example in an exhibition or a jointly produced book.

Why photography? According to a British Association, Photovoice, the photographs have significant advantages in a participatory project:

  • the power of the still image to communicate and leave a lasting impression
  • the power of photography to shed light on and raise awareness of important social and global issues
  • the power of photojournalism to galvanise a call for action and impel change
  • the fun and magic of photography
  • the relative simplicity of taking a photo as opposed to some other art forms
  • the accessibility of photography to all ages, cultures and skillsets > the increasing technical and digital access to photography worldwide
  • the ability of photography to cross cultural and linguistic barriers
  • the ease of sharing images and their potential to generate open dialogue and discussion
  • the relatively low cost of photography compared with, for example, film-making
  • the vast variety of ways in which photographs can be reproduced and disseminated
  • the dual nature of photography as a tool to record fact and as a creative art form

However, participatory visual methods and Photovoice technique have faced criticism over being too idealistic in expecting social change and empowerment of marginalized communities. According to Catalani, despite some youth led initiatives to organize awareness campaigns and petitions, only 11/30 of such initiatives result in immediate action to improve a certain issue and 3/30 of the reviewed Photovoice projects led to policy change or passing of a law (Catalani, p.444) since it is difficult to assess their impact on policies and sustainable social change. In fact, measuring empowerment and ensuring the project will achieve long lasting change are considered the main limitations to the success of such projects.

The fact that participatory visual projects are conducted within marginalized communities has led critics to question whether focus on social justice problems of disadvantaged communities would not further marginalize them by pointing out the problems and setting them apart from more advantaged communities. Yet others are skeptical about the right of participants in choosing photographs, analyzing them and what happens to these photographs once the project ends.

Despite existing criticism, participatory visual methods possess a wealth of advantages. They are fun, engaging and build trust among participants and between them and the researcher. With short, basic training on how to use the camera, participants can use photographing as a flexible tool to capture what they wish to show, to elicit their thoughts and overcome misunderstanding through dialogue.

Another key point in using visual methods is that there is no need for words, especially when working with immigrants whose literacy level and language skills are unknown and who don’t speak the language of the country of settlement. Studies with adolescents with Down Syndrome and individuals with certain diseases have shown that this method functions as means to explore lived experiences, express different perspectives and provides opportunity to communicate them to others and raises awareness about their condition.

Instead of portraying participants as underprivileged, turning their misery into art, participatory visual projects show the world from the inside looking out, focusing on the photos and not the participants. This leads to empowerment, it gives them the ability to express themselves and feel more confident. According to Harper, “Photovoice is based on the assumption that photographing one’s world is empowering because it leads to greater awareness of both assets and problems of communities or research situations. The photographs [in many cases] are not important by themselves, but they are important for their role in the lives of those who make them” (Harper, p202).

Even if the process doesn’t lead to significant social change or adoption of a policy, the transformative effects remain valuable albeit on the individual level, which encourage the existence of such projects than none at all.

As to our project, the Photo Exhibition will be held at Sello library (Leppävaarankatu 9, Espoo)
14–31.6. 2016.

 The authors Pauliina Grönholm and Aline Kalfayan are students of Master’s Degree Program in Media Education and are currently writing their theses on the use of participatory photography in media education.



  • Alanko, Salli, Marttinen, Irma & Mustonen, Henna (toim.) (2011): Lapsen etu ensin: Yksitulleet alaikäiset turvapaikanhakijat Suomessa. Helsinki, Yhteiset lapsemme Ry.
  • Catalani C, Minkler M. Photovoice: a review of the literature in health and public health. Health Education & Behavior. 2010;37 (3):424–452
  • Freire, Paolo (2005): Sorrettujen pedagogiikka. Vastapaino
  • Harper, Douglas. Visual Sociology (London and New York: Routledge, 2012)
  • PhotoVoice Manual for Participatory Photography (referred 18.5.2016)
  • Statistics of the Finnish Immigration Service (referred 18.5.2016)


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