How organizing a Photo Walk can build community and engage your audience


Clifford Menife photographed at his Syracuse home as part of the South Side Newspaper Project’s 2018 Photo Walk. (Photo: Jordan Larson)

A Photo Walk is a social photo event where photographers come together to explore a neighborhood, take photos, and practice their skills. The concept is simple: grab a camera, walk around and snap some pictures for a few hours.

The hyperlocal media project I lead has been organizing an annual photo walk for the past 12 years. Honestly, we don’t know why more outlets aren’t doing it. As a non-profit organization, we want to educate residents to tell their own stories, in addition to our mission to educate the community. To do this, we offered sessions on interviewing, the inverted pyramid, and message writing. While these sessions were well attended and engaging, they resulted in few full article submissions. On the other hand, our photo walks result in hundreds, if not thousands, of images.

The Photo Walk does not exist in isolation. It is a centerpiece and companion to the South Side Newspaper Project, a hyper-local outlet with a mission to serve Syracuse’s South Side community. The project delivers news online and in the bootha quarterly newspaper.

Images captured during the annual Photo Walks make for amazing content, reinforcing neighborhood identity and pride for residents who typically feel unrepresented in mainstream media.

how it started

When I organized the first Photo Walk in 2010, it reflected a global walk created to bring together communities of photographers around the world. The worldwide walk enabled “trail leaders” to register meetings in their communities. Thus, our offer was one of many organized on the same day in cities around the world.

After three years of coordination with the global march, ours split when the global event was moved to the fall. We continued in July each year, photographing a Saturday in our target area year after year.

Hikers meet at a specific location and then spend a few hours socializing, snapping pictures, and chatting with like-minded people. The event allows people to truly stop and engage with their physical surroundings together.

Participants crowdsource content around a unified mission. It is meaning-making that transcends individual perspectives and allows audiences and participants to reconsider their own perspectives. The offer is really mutually beneficial.

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For residents, the Photo Walk generates community conversations, creates allies, develops skills, and inspires renewed pride in the community they call home. For participants from outside the neighborhood and our journalists, the walk is a direct way to engage with the community because we meet people where they are – sometimes literally in their front yards. It provides an amazing opportunity to casually connect with residents — in low-income housing complexes, neighborhood parks, local businesses and right on the street — and hear their stories.

plan details

The first requirement for a Photo Walk is to recruit a professional photographer to take participants on a guided trail through the neighborhood. This person may be an outlet employee, a retired photographer, or a professional interested in volunteering.

Next, plan a route that’s less than two miles long but can hit many of the neighborhood landmarks. The best photo walks in the city last 1.5 to 2 hours. Keep in mind that people with cameras move much more slowly due to the heavy equipment and frequent stops to explore and take photos.

Photo Walks often start in a park so participants can easily gather. In line with our nonprofit mission to educate the community, our event begins with a short photo session. Participation in the opening hour later became optional, allowing participants to do both the workout and the walk, or just take the walk.

For us, hosting the training required the event to be held in a large common room. You should take this into account when planning your event. A central location allowed attendees to park, come to the center to meet others, attend classes, and have a vantage point where they could leave items, go to the bathroom, and enjoy water and light snacks.

After the walk we were able to meet again and exchange pictures. For this option, we recommend participants leave memory cards for a coordinator to upload while they go out for lunch. Next, everyone returns to eat together while looking at each other’s photos in a slideshow. For a year, a grant enabled us to offer a catering menu from a local chef. For other organized hikes we have reserved a spot at a nearby restaurant where a setup can wait for image sharing. COVID has taught us that photos can also be shared virtually. So there are many options to consider.

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The share-back gives attendees an opportunity to reflect, voice their thoughts and complete a short survey about the event, which has proven to be useful data when we apply for future scholarships.

Why it works

The Photo Walk works so well because taking photos is something everyone has done before. Asking someone to take a picture isn’t intimidating, while asking them to contribute an article can seem daunting.

Walks, by nature, bring different parts of the Syracuse community together to celebrate the often unseen corners of our city. Attendees include current residents and photo enthusiasts from the surrounding suburbs and even the wider region. People from a wide range of ages, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds also participate. Regardless of their ability – from professional to amateur – everyone is able to expand their skills by trying new things and learning from others.

The end result is countless images from multiple perspectives that reflect the neighborhood back on itself. The images are both examples of everyday life and tell larger stories, particularly of people who are often marginalized in mainstream media. Walks have generated a database of around 11,000 images. Most recently, a small portion of this portfolio – 51 photos – was exhibited in a retrospective exhibition at the ArtRage Gallery in Syracuse.

An image of Syracuse’s Wilson Park swimming pool, taken as part of the 2019 Photo Walk, emphasizes how Interstate 81 separates it from the SUNY Upstate Medical University campus. (Photo: Jenn Grzywinskj)

Every aspect of this collaborative endeavor helps fulfill the mission of our nonprofit organization. The hikes are becoming increasingly popular because they are not only exciting for everyone involved, but also fun.

“It’s become a landmark event for The Stand,” said Steve Davis, founder of the community paper. “It really turned out to be a lot more than I ever imagined.”

Cover of the 2021 Photo Walk edition of The Stand.

According to Davis, the Photo Walk helped the South Side Newspaper Project discover the many shades of character in the community and discover just how beautiful a neighborhood can be.

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For our branch, the interactions inform about future reporting. Participants are encouraged to engage in conversations, learn more about residents and record information to add to captions, as well as brainstorm story ideas.

Participants say they met community members they wouldn’t normally meet. Some participants from outside the community sought volunteer opportunities to meet or support needs they learned about during the walks.

The Stand publishes the best shots in a special edition of the print newspaper and features them on our social media. All images are stored in one online archive. Participants are not required to share photos, but almost 90% did.

Trust also creates the consequence of visiting the neighborhood with a clear mission. According to a University of Minnesota study, engaging an audience repeatedly over time helps develop more trust, connection, and social capital.

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Clifford Ryan, a well-known anti-violence activist in the community, said he’s happy to have his home shared through the lens of others, emphasizing it as he knows it: a place of love, strength and caring.

“Community means everything to me,” said Ryan, who has also served as a paid community guide for several Photo Walks. “And there can be no unity without fellowship.”

The power of photography is that it captures a moment that is left for later reflection.

“We all know we face some adversity in the community,” Ryan concluded. “But [the Photo Walk] is a great way to show that community is a place of love.”

Ashley Kang is director of the South Side Newspaper Project, which is operated in partnership with Syracuse University and residents of Syracuse’s South Side. She started the Photo Walk in 2010 and has grown and expanded the community engagement initiative over the past decade. She also serves as an advisor for the Syracuse City School District’s media program. Email her at [email protected].





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