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What is participatory media?

What is participatory media
© University of East Anglia

A key feature of community media is participation or the active and inclusive involvement of the community.

What is participatory media?

But the concept of ‘participatory media’ refers to more than just the active involvement of local people within local media initiatives.

It also highlights several other important ideas, including self-determination, dialogue and a focus on the process – rather than just the outcome – of communication.


‘Development’ means different things in different contexts, and it should therefore be up to the people in those communities to define their needs and the scope, pace and nature of change. This is the basic premise of participatory approaches to using media for development. As Jan Servaes (1990) explains,

Each society must attempt to delineate its own strategy to development, based on its own ecology and culture. Therefore, it should not attempt to blindly imitate program and strategies of other countries with a totally different historical and cultural background.


In this context-specific, ‘bottom-up’, the vision of development, the role of media and communication is to facilitate the inclusive expression of communities’ needs.
This can only be achieved by treating communication as an ongoing, inclusive and multidirectional exchange between equals, rather than as a one-way system for delivering information.
Thus, promoting dialogue is key to most participatory media projects.


Finally, in a participatory approach, communication is not seen simply as a tool for achieving a particular objective, but as a means of empowering all members of the community to have their voices heard.
Who gets to speak, about which issues, and under what conditions, are all questions that need to be considered. If communication is to play a part in enabling communities to express their own needs, then it is vital that it doesn’t reinforce existing power relations. In short, the process of communicating can be as important as its outcomes.
Although there is a range of participatory media initiatives, one of the most common is participatory photography. Such initiatives generally involve providing cameras and training to help people to document their lives and to express themselves.


Photovoice is a UK charity that uses participatory photography to promote positive social change. It argues that,
A photograph is the quickest and easiest way for somebody to document the realities of their circumstances. Most people are familiar with photography to some degree, and it can be picked up relatively quickly by all abilities and ages. Photography also crosses cultural and linguistic barriers, with its power lying in its dual role as both a form of creative expression and a way to document facts. It provides an accessible way to describe realities, communicate perspectives, and raise awareness of social and global issues to different audiences. Its relatively low cost and ease of dissemination encourages sharing, facilitating dialogue and discussion, even for those who have never picked up a camera before.

Follow this link to a ‘picture essay’ in The Guardian about a participatory photography project by Save the Children in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp called, ‘My Own Account’. Zaatari’s children: life in a refugee camp – a picture essay


Servaes, J. (1990) ‘Rethinking development communication: one world, multiple cultures’, Journal of Development Communication, 1(2): 35–45.

© University of East Anglia
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