In the ‘Community Aanpak Middels visualisatie Eetomgeving jongeRen in Aandachtswijken’  (CAMERA) project the Visual Methodologies Collective worked together with the  Health and Environment Research Group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Science, Eigenwijks Foundation, Van EesterenMuseum, and RIVM. In this project, we developed a ‘citizen science’ approach using visual and participatory research techniques together with young people to explore their so-called ‘food environment’. 

CAMERA focused on adolescents between 16 and 20 in Amsterdam Nieuw West, where overweight-related health problems occur more often than in the rest of Amsterdam. Young people and adolescents in the chosen age group are increasingly making independent food choices, and these are often unhealthier than their diet in early childhood. This is partly related to the food supply in the living environment and how this is experienced by the target group. In the CAMERA-project we developed and tested a photovoice method together with these young people in their own living environment. We invited them to take pictures of their eating habits-such as pictures of food they eat during the week and of the settings of such eating habits- and discussed the results during group workshops and one-on-one interviews.

To make the project engaging for the participants, we included a photography lesson in the first workshop. We explained some key photography techniques that could help them take better photos in general, but also explain to them the importance of showing the context in which a certain event takes place, in this case the eating of food. Where, why and with whom was the photo taken?  Additionally, we gave to each participant a toolkit for smartphones with a ring light and different lenses to take pictures, as a sort of recognition of the time they spent working with us and with the hope of sparking their curiosity and engagement in the project. We decided to set up a WhatsApp group for the participants to share the pictures taken. The assumption behind the choice for the group chat was that when some participants were more active in sharing pictures, other participants would also be more inclined to take more pictures.

The project started in early 2020 (see figure 1), right at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The periods of lockdowns, with restaurants and public spaces shutting down, evening curfews and the ever-changing regulations for social distancing, made it hard to plan photovoice sessions and in-person workshops, which were a crucial aspect of the proposed methodology. We originally planned to do the workshops in Fall 2020, but due to the lockdown restrictions had our first encounter with the group of participants in October of 2021. Despite the Covid-19 regulations, we decided to do everything in person, postponing the workshops, instead of going online. We also decided to work with a group of participants that were already meeting each other at DOCK, a neighborhood youth center: they already knew each other, and they were already familiar with the location.

The first workshop consisted of a general introduction of the project, a round of introductions and a 45 minute interactive photography techniques lesson. In the final part of the workshop, the photovoice exercise was explained which was focused on general prompts regarding food habits and environments. For example the participants were asked to take photos about what food they can buy in their living environment and what the food and the places that sell them look like. 

In the weeks following the workshop, the participants were invited to share pictures taken in their neighbourhood through a Whatsapp Group. The pictures were explored together during the second workshop. See the result of the photos taken in figure 2. Because we were interested in the food choices made in their daily lives, it was decided to ask the participants to take photos in between the workshops, instead of an exercise during the workshop under the supervision of the researchers.

During the second workshop we asked the participants to look at the images and discuss recurring themes in the collection, and what they thought was instead missing from it. Even though we tried to explain the relevance of showing the context in which they are eating food, we noticed that the pictures were very homogeneous, showing mostly plates of food taken from above. No pictures of people or the setting of the food were taken, and no pictures of food prepared at home.  So overall, we missed context in the pictures.

Following this first group moment, the participants split into pairs and interviewed each other based on prompts provided by us: 

  • Where do you get food? 
  • Why there? 
  • What food do you like to get there? 
  • What other type of food can you get there? 
  • How do you usually get there?  
  • With whom do you usually go there?

The interviews in duos were followed by another group discussion, where participants explained to the rest of the group the things they discussed in the interviews.

After the workshop, an assignment was given to the group via WhatsApp in which they were asked to take pictures of the place where they like to eat, for example at home, the school cafeteria or a restaurant. Later, another prompt was given to them during Ramadan asking them to take pictures of where they get their food during Ramadan and, if still needed, how and where they prepare this. 

We noticed in the workshop that the group dynamics made it hard to have a collective conversation. We decided to try to engage the participants in one-on-one interviews to discuss their eating habits. The main reason for this was to provide them a safe and more intimate space to share their thoughts, without being criticised or pointed out as ‘different’ by the other members of the group. Unfortunately, none of the participants accepted the invitation to do an interview. While we had initially planned to organise a final workshop to propose a design of an exhibition of their pictures and of the reflections that emerged during the workshops, due to the lack of participation from the group we decided to wrap up the project with a one-on-one conversation with the youth worker at DOCK instead.

In the reflection with the DOCK youth worker, we gained insight in how the workshops and research process was perceived. The role of the community platform DOCK to connect to young adults was important to find participants for the project and facilitate a place already familiar to the participants. One of the key points was that there was too much time between the workshops. While partly forced because of the COVID lockdowns, we had planned a break of several weeks between each workshop so that the participants had some time to take photos. To retain the focus of the topic of the participants, having a session, or at least a contact moment every week and shortening the overall project time would be better. Now there were multiple projects running for the participants at the same time, which could cause confusion when to work on each project and reduce engagement. 

In conclusion, due to the corona regulations we were not able to implement the photovoice method the way we would have liked. We were not able to have continuous contact to build up trust and keep the focus and engagement. It would have been best to fully postpone the project. While we might not have been able to achieve all the goals we set beforehand, many valuable lessons were learned and the participants showed a high interest in the topic and liked the way we interactively set up the workshops. 

The project was supported by the Urban Vitality programme at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

By Maarten Groene