In an increasingly technological world, it is important to consider how NGOs can support the voice of communities whose decisions are often neglected, which in turn affects their individual empowerment. Photovoice, a process of social action whereby individuals are empowered by taking photographs used as stimuli to create dialogues used to address community issues, is just one example of how innovation and technology are being considered in unique and beneficial ways within ethnic minority communities across Vietnam.

The project Voice & Rights (funded by the European Union, co-implemented by CARE, iSEE and Bac Kan Women’s Union) aims to counter common top-down decision making practices through applying co-research methodology in which taking photographs acts as a tool to empower ethnic minority women at the grassroots level. Supporting remote and ethnic minority women to define and advocate for their issues not only encourages women to engage in the development of their own local communities, but also ensures agendas remain relevant. Using community-based research, ethnic minority women and their communities collaborate in documenting, analysing and raising issues that are powerfully placed at the forefront of local and national government concerns.

Photo: A learning session by school children in Ba Be district, Bac Kan province – @2017 Linh Oanh /People’s Army Newspaper

The goal of the project is to “contribute to securing the rights of ethnic minority women in Vietnam by enhancing their voice and ensuring that government agencies and civil society value respect and respond to it”.

The use of photographs as powerful ways to portray key issues amongst ethnic minority communities has been popularised through the research method ‘Photovoice’. It is compelling how mutually beneficial this type of research has proven to be within often hard to reach ethnic minority communities.
Photovoice “make[s] visible our everyday life: surroundings, work, politics, interests and institutional context.”(What Can a Woman Do with a Camera? Spence & Solomon in: Wang 2009).

In ethnic minority communities where many women do not speak, read and write Vietnamese well, recording information and stimulating other community members to discuss their concerns can prove particularly challenging. Complex research issues can create cultural and political barriers between researchers and minority communities, contributing to research that potentially loses key meanings. Photovoice as an inspiring and innovative research method alternatively uses photography to identify, represent, and enhance communities as well as to empower women both through the process of taking photographs and through using their photos as powerful voices for change.

These photographs, alongside co-research have provided an organic snapshot of real life scenarios and have contributed to richer and sometimes overlooked areas of co-research within ethnic minority communities. Since November 2015 through project V&R, a total of 65 collaborative researchers (who are H’Mong, Dao and Tay ethnic women in Phuc Loc and Banh Trach communes, Ba Be district, in the northern province of Bac Kan) have been trained in culture diversity and stigma phenomenon; co-research concepts and process; ‘we know what we know’ reflection methods; key research skills; how to use and function best a camera; story telling message prepared through photos and other skills such as information analysis, presentation and advocacy. Research topics focused on issues concerning the community such as water pollution; household waste; local swine; child school drop-out rates; husbandry of indigenous animals and folk costumes of the Tay and the Dao communities.

Photo: Information sharing in Khuoi Tau village facilitated by Dao women – @2017 Linh Oanh/People’s Army Newspaper

Taking and using photographs through storytelling has therefore become an active and significant process in contributing to positive social change.

Edited by Hannah Stephenson, based on Co-research Manual by CARE and iSEE, 2017