Zoom-In Manual

What is Zoom-In?

Detail of an ice cream stand in Windham County, Vt., where young people and their families go in summer. From a youth photovoice project.

Simply put, Zoom-In is a process for gathering data with and from young people. The aim and subject matter of the project can vary considerably, of course; in our case, we were interested in helping young people think about, and then illustrate through photos and captions, what they liked and didn’t like about their communities.

Though we have conducted five photovoice projects, this brief manual focuses on our first experience with photovoice, reviewing both the process and the lessons we learned.

During the first half of 2008, Youth Catalytics (then NEN) launched Youth ImPact Windham County, a collaborative effort that brought youth services providers and the local faith community together to improve opportunities for young people in the county. The initiative was federally funded and was one of three such county-wide projects Youth Catalytics led in New England.

In order to inform the coalition partners about needs of young people in the county, we set out to find out the people, places, and activities that youth found helpful or encouraging in their communities; the people, places and activities that troubled or upset them; and what youth thought their communities could do to improve life for them and their peers. We first administered an online survey to 213 young people between the ages of 15 and 21 in the four regions of the county. To augment the survey, Youth Catalytics then coordinated a photography project that asked youth to express their thoughts about the community through pictures.

This two-pronged project, called Zoom-In, aimed not only to guide coalition partners but to raise community awareness of the issues young people faced in their community. The information below reflects our experience launching the first of our Zoom-In projects; subsequent projects were structured somewhat similarly, but in one case took place in a middle school afterschool photography club and was supervised by a faculty advisor. Other projects have taken place in community youth centers and been partially run by youthworkers, who helped oversee youth photographers as they went out into the community to take photos.


For our first photovoice project, we recruited young people from different areas of the county to consider and then reveal through pictures the everyday realities that both support youth in the community and discourage or drag them down. Called ‘photovoice,’ this technique of gathering information and expressing opinion has been used all over the world, by many different groups, usually as a way of raising community awareness and promoting positive change. By entrusting cameras to young people to enable them to act as recorders, we hoped that young people themselves would directly relate their own reality, informing the community around them about what the world looks like through their eyes.

Gathering a Team

To begin the process, we hired a photography teacher at a local charter school who had both an interest in the project and access to cameras and photo-editing equipment. We then gathered a group of area youth-serving professionals and volunteers to serve as adult sponsors of the project. Each adult represented a geographic area of the county, and was asked to select 3-5 young people for participation in the project. Specifically, they were asked to invite youth they personally knew; who seemed fairly representative of other youth people in the community; who felt motivated to communicate with others about our overall question; and who could attend two workshops and care for expensive equipment. Each adult sponsor would be loaned a camera and expected to coordinate the use of the camera for each of the participants he or she sponsored, as well as offer support for problems or questions that might arise.

The Workshops

The group would attend an initial training workshop, break for two weeks to take the photos, then meet again for a photo selection and editing session.

From a photovoice project in Worcester, Mass.

Workshop I was two hours long, though it probably should have been at least an hour longer. With the help of an adult facilitator, the group focused on four goals: understanding the goals of the project; brainstorming the kind of messages that each person and regional team might want to communicate; learning how to use the equipment; and honing the art of visually capturing ideas through photographs.

Workshop II took four hours, and in it we selected, edited, and wrote captions for the photos that would appear in the final exhibit. Each participant sorted through the 10-20 pictures he or she had brought to the workshop, and selected the 3-5 that best told their story. We left the second workshop with about 500 pictures total to be used for various projects, 30 captioned photos which could be printed for gallery use or other displays, and 4 display boards with the captioned photos that represented each region.

Taking the Photos

We sent the teams out with a set of basic ground rules and instructions. Each team had one camera that was rotated among its members. The adult team leaders were given their own list of tips. They provided general supervision, made sure each young person got at least two days with the camera, and tried to ensure (with only partial success) that each team member made it back to the all-important editing workshop. Some youth went out alone with their cameras; others went in groups. PhotoVoice projects in urban areas would want to think carefully about youth safety issues.

Displaying the Photos

We used the photos in several ways. They illustrated Lots More Positive Attitude, the final report of the survey findings; a select group of photos became a travelling exhibit at galleries and other public spaces in the county; that core group of photos and a few extras were posted in a slideshow on the Youth ImPact website; and a multimedia presentation featuring the photos and the survey findings was delivered to groups around the county. Groups included the regional planning board, a local homeless shelter, and a local prevention coalition. These audiences have not only been thoughtful in how to use this data to guide their work, but have given our coalition some great suggestions on what projects are needed.

Online Youth Survey

Concurrent with the photo project, an online survey was administered to young people in high schools, teen centers and community settings throughout the local area. While technically not a random sample, a broad array of young people were recruited from across high schools, and, more narrowly,  at agencies that work with youth in need of specialized services. Young people who responded were promised anonymity and paid $5 each for participating. Stipends were handed out by youth workers or teachers on-the-spot or youth were able to provide an address to which the cash was mailed.The survey asked questions focusing on three overarching themes: the people, places and things that young people found helpful or encouraging in their communities; the people, places or activities that troubled or upset them; and what they thought their communities could do to improve life for them and their peers. Surveys were tailored to the specific needs of the community and also asked about teens’ current job status and perceptions of the local job market; whether transportation was a problem for them; whether they knew people their age who lacked a permanent place to live; and whether they planned to stay in the area or leave as they approached adulthood. We also asked them for ideas about how conditions could be improved for them and their peers.

Our goal, as much as possible, was to limit our own interpretations of the survey data and to let young people speak for themselves, which they were eminently capable of doing. As such, many questions included open comment areas for youth to elaborate on their answers or make suggestions in their own words. Final Zoom-In reports included charts of tabulated data and a narrative analysis of results, as well as pages upon pages of graphically-displayed youth comments. This survey data allowed for input from a much larger group of youth than could realistically participate in photo sessions and coupled with the photos, enriched our understanding of the environment young people lived in and how it affected them.

Since this first photovoice project, we have conducted four more, deepening our understanding of the process, its strengths and its challenges. Read more about lessons learned.