Changing perceptions

April 29th, 2014

Using a photo voice

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I can’t show you any pictures.

Nor can I name any names.

But I’ve just spent a fantastic four weeks teaching formerly homeless folks about photography.

Confidentiality clauses prohibit me from sharing any details that might identify the program or the participants. I CAN say it was a project designed to help marginalized communities build storytelling skills to advocate for themselves. The whole goal is to help them bring about positive social change. That’s saying a whole mouthful for not being able to say anything.

A former bride of mine (CLARIFICATION: A bride I photographed, not one I married) asked me to help teach this program and get the participants up and running with the cameras provided to them by the project.

Funded by and overseen by a local university, I spent several hours down in a very depressed part of the city only to be surprised by how un-depressed the participants were. Though they weren’t blind to the problems around them.

The residents whom I taught, related story after story about seeing their city fall apart and maybe, hopefully, possibly coming back to life — though they say you’d have to be in the “right” part of the city to see the resurgence.

“Our city and the one right next to it are like that TV show, Two Broke Girls,” someone in the program told me, “although they’re two broke cities.”

Another member of the group chimed in, “Businesses leave the city or country and when they’re gone, the jobs go away, the houses degrade and neighborhoods fall right apart.”

Yet another person said, “I don’t go out at night.”

Everyone in the group agreed that taking pictures — making photographs — helped calm and soothe them, as one participant explained.

A woman in our class reported feeling anxious and angry at one point, but upon seeing a sunset and photographing it from a high vantage point overlooking the city, she instantly felt relaxed, “all that other stuff just went away.”

“We need to get together,” said someone in front of the whole group. And it was echoed all around.

For an abandoned, fire-gutted, completely devastated formerly famous business next door they had all sorts of ideas: “clean it up or tear it down, make it into a skating rink or community center, a grocery store would be great, bring some life back down here.”

But they didn’t just tell me that; they showed it to me with pictures. There was the former guard shack all graffitied and knocked down. There was the derelict walls and leaking roof. There was the stark beauty/ugliness of a decade’s worth of neglect.

And there was the glimmer of recognition in their eyes that they can change things.

I’m not saying that this group of a-dozen-and-a-half inner city citizens are going to show the world what’s wrong, what’s right and what can be done to make their town better.

But I’m not saying they aren’t.

Soon there will be a gallery show with their pictures. Soon dignitaries and policy makers will be invited to see what we saw. Soon their photos will be voices.

Hopefully they’ll be seen and heard. Their pictures scream louder than their words.

And I am grateful to be listening in as their chorus rehearses.

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