I can smell a LAYN & PhotoVoice Partnership, can you…?

11 12 2011

I thought I’d make Kevin McCullough’s job a bit easier and choose an organization that would be great to work with for the first LA based PhotoVoice project.

LAYN (Los Angeles Youth Network) is an LA based organization whose mission is to end homelessness one child at a time. They provide food, shelter and counseling for the abused, neglected and abandoned youth of Los Angeles. They strive  successfully integrate the children into society as functioning adults.

Their website program shares these facts about homeless youth on the streets of LA:

  • Many youth leave alcoholic and drug dependent families where physical and sexual abuses are an inescapable part of their daily lives.
  • Of the 12-17 year old runaways that come to LAYN, most parents never even report them as missing.
  • As many as 7,500 homeless youth will sleep on the streets of LA.
  • Squats, where many youth settle, often under freeways or in abandoned buildings are violent and filthy.
  • Many youth resort to prostitution and other criminal activity to get by.

They are always on the search for responsible and healthy adults willing to give up some of their time to act as mentors to these homeless children. I think if PhotoVoice stepped into work with the children and set up an exhibition based on the true stories of these individuals, it could be a beneficial opportunity to give life to both organizations AND give back the power to those abandoned, abused and downtrodden.

PhotoVoice has a history with working with homeless youth. See “Waiting, Glasgow 2010-2011” on PhotoVoice‘s website to note their experience in tackling issues of youth homelessness: HERE.

The words and images by these children humanize them. Just as my post on Manzanar and Toyo Miyatake discussed the significance of participatory photography in creating an atmosphere of empathy and understanding, a project in collaboration with LAYN would certainly shed light on youth homelessness and spark change from the more priveleged people who will empathize and donate to support this cause.

Consider it, Mr. McCullough!


How participatory photography humanized Manzanar

11 12 2011

I thought I’d do something a bit different. I want to express the importance of documentary photographic tradition but compare it to the idea of participatory photography.

I’ll use an example that is close to my heart – the Japanese Internment Camps. When I was studying abroad in London, England, I remember an instance where a native Brit swore he knew nothing of internment camps. Was the reach of this news not an international matter? I’m a proud Yonsei (a fourth generation Japanese American). My great-grandparents were forced into an internment camp in Giza River, Arizona.

For those unsure of what I’m talking about, here are a few quick facts (all from the Japanese American National Museum’s website janm.org):

  • Pearl Harbor & the start of WWII created a tension in the United States.
  • The FBI began arresting leaders in the Japanese American community. Over 2,000 Issei (Japanese immigrants to the US) were detained by the Justice Department without right to a fair trial. NONE were charged with espionage, and were “FREE” to join families in the concentration camps.
  • All Japanese-Americans (yes, that means immigrants and their American-born children) were forced from their homes, sold family businesses and had their possessions taken from them as they were put into concentration camps located in remote areas of the country.
  • Over 120,000 JA (Japanese-Americans) were put into the camps.
  • The War Relocation Authority did attempt to create camp communities that felt “normal” by including schools, hospitals, a newspaper and sports.
  • Living conditions were poor. Internees lived in hasitly constructed barracks, bathing facilities were communal and meals were served with substandard ingredients.
  • In Jan. 1945, the exclusion order was lifted. JA were free to leave the camps, but many had so little financial resources to return home.

And back to my point! I’d like to show you some photographs from FSA Photographer Dorothea Lange (famous for her migrant mother great depression photograph, the one you are currently picturing in your mind is probably the one I’m talking about)

What do you notice about these photographs about the 3rd party documentary photographer? They do a great job with setting and documenting the living conditions. The people in the first image are lined up, interpersonal faces as part of a mass crowd forced to leave their families – it’s a distant image meant to preserve historical content. Even the second image with the couple in the barracks appears distant – the two aren’t looking or engaging with the photographer. They sit still, forced. There is nothing that speaks of who these people are, other than an up close documentation of the events. And the third image doesn’t even feature people, it’s a straightforward setting.

I’m not saying that these images aren’t valuable. I just want to draw comparison between what documentary photography does for individuals versus what participatory photography can do.  Qualitative-research.net in Bettina Kolb’s article Involving, Sharing and Analyzing – Potential of Participatory Photography Interview, writes this about participatory photography, “Experience from several photo interview studies shows that taking a photo is a serious and important moment for the participants. In the interview, they often report why they went to a specific place and reveal their motivation as they describe the distance or other challenges they may have had to overcome in taking a photo.”

Take a look at these images by Japanese-American photographer, Toyo Miyatake. When he and his family were forced into Manzanar Concentration Camp, he snuck in a camera and lens and swore it his mission to document the camps from the inside. Before WWII, he was an established celebrity and personality portrait photographer. He worked from his studio in Little Toyko in Los Angeles, CA. He actually worked with the famous Ansel Adams to produce a photography book entitled  Two Views of Manzanar.

Here are some of the images produced by Miyatake:

You can feel the humanity in them. Miyatake took to photographing the more private aspects of his family’s life in the camps. Instead of Lange’s documentary approach, Miyatake took the camera indoors to tell the stories of his own strife. You can feel the emotion in these images. This kind of real storytelling is only achieved when the person is given the means to make the images themselves – participatory photography gives a voice to those silenced. I cannot reiterate enough the significance of photography and strongly suggest you check out the photographs by Miyatake.

Thank you for reading this (if you made it this far). It’s a personal subject for me, and I realize this entry was long. Let me know what you think the differences in the results between participatory photographs and documentary photographs are – I’m curious to hear the discussion.

“Lookout London”, project highlight

11 12 2011

There are so many fantastic projects highlighted on PhotoVoice‘s project site (check here if you’d like to see more, they are worth it), but I think the ones really worth discussing are ones that could have a companion project in Los Angeles. While Los Angeles faces its fair share of social problems, it cannot be compared to some projects that focus on third world issues. However, we cannot compare strife – human pain IS worth discussion. There should be no scale of who needs more help where and when, and all issues of human dissatisfaction and distress should be addressed.

So I’d like to bring to your attention, dear readers, “Lookout London” a project focused on 8 young people living in supported housing in Homerton. This group has dealt with gang culture and knife crime and was asked to great imagery and captions to convey their experiences to peers and the general public. This group of people has been given a branding by the media as a group of hoodrats – out to make trouble and hurt innocent people. But their story runs deeper and the media’s act to cover up the real travesty, that the government allows this type of housing in these neighborhoods to continue, is exposed through imagery.

The group not only produced a series of enlightening images, but also worked to create a booklet to disseminate to young people, parents and youth workers that would help to bring awareness to the issue of poverty and stimulate discussion of the role of young people in society. This project has worked to destroy negative stereotyping and assumptions of criminal behavior in a segment of society that should be helped not punished.

Why was PhotoVoice so effective to spread awareness? It is the nature of reality associated with the medium of photography. Though photograph is an art and real images can be manipulated (check out my classmate’s blog on photoshopping), the stigma that all images made with a camera have some basis in reality helps people trust the images they see.

Take a look at what was produced for “Lookout London”. Not only are the images technically and artistically beautiful to look at – but paired with the captions, they share a fascinating viewpoint.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Draw your anger…”

11 12 2011

Participatory photography is just one example of how art can influence and help people. Art therapy is a growing field that works with people as they recover from something traumatic. Art therapy is defined as “a way for people to come to terms with emotional conflicts, increase self-awareness, and express unspoken and often unconscious concerns about their illness and their lives”, it uses creative mediums as a way to express emotions (Cancer.org).

Brief History of Art Therapy: The connection between art and mental health was first recognized in the late 1800s. In 1922, a book titled Artistry of the Mentally Ill was published and it began a domino effect of interest in the medical community. Practitioners seriously considered the relevance of this growing field in patients with mental illness. In the 1940s, ideas from psychoanalysis and art were combined to develop art as a tool to help patients release unconscious thoughts. “Patients’ creations began to be considered as a type of symbolic speech” (Cancer.org). In 1958, at the National Institute of Mental Health, an artist named Hanna Kwiatkowska translated her knowledge as an artist into the field of family work and introduced methods of evaluation and treatment techniques using art therapy. In 1969, the American Art Therapy Association was established. The organization now has more than 4,500 members and, along with the Art Therapy Credentials Board, sets standards for art therapists and educates the public about the field.

So, I guess you could even go so far as to say participatory photography is a sister to art therapy. While art therapy is specifically designed to help someone through the healing process by releasing feelings and thoughts too difficult to verbalize, participatory photography can be used to bring out the same feelings and thoughts from somebody before, during or after trauma. It doesn’t need to be prescribed by a doctor, therapist or psychologist. Participatory photography gives a voice to anybody – even those who don’t think their voice needs to be heard.

Here’s an interesting art therapy case study. I’ll also describe a way that this case study could be transformed into an instance of participatory photography.

Tom, age 9. (Names were changed by the doctor that wrote up this case study:

Tom was recommended to this art therapy program because of his history of abuse. He had experienced domestic violence for his whole life (including while he was in the womb – his father reportedly tried to punch Tom out of his mother). Tom was very irrational and had serious emotional swings at the time of his admittance to the art therapy program.

Tom actually began to draw the really graphic and horrible things that he wanted to do to his father – including shooting him and bombing him. He described his anger as “bigger than this room…red…you could throw it miles…you wouldn’t want to see it” and these emotions were expressed through this violent drawings. Through further artistic coaching, Tom began to draw images where his face was a mask. He said he was masking his disappointment and sadness with anger – he was sad about his broken relationship with his father!

“Art-making may channel chaotic, aggressive energy into more constructive and acceptable actions,” says Cathy Malchiodi.

The same lesson can be applied to participatory photography. Suppressed emotion due to hardship, expectations, silence, and disadvantage can be drawn out through artistic expression. The city of Los Angeles is infamous for its social issues. Isn’t it an exciting idea that issues of violence and inequality can be dealt with in an artistic capacity instead of on the streets in gang fights?

The possibility of change in Los Angeles begins with the decision to bring PhotoVoice to LA, Kevin McCullough. Consider it. You understand its impact, now let’s make it happen in the next few years.


“Images from the Streets”, Boston MA

6 12 2011

In an effort to persuade Kevin McCullough to bring PhotoVoice to Los Angeles within the next 3 years, I wanted to offer a case study of success within the United States.

I have discussed literay issues and problems of disadvantage in developing countries and how participatory photograph works to establish a voice for those who cannot share their stories via text. However, how does participatory photograhy help a country that exists in the first world?

“Images from the Streets” was produced by a collab between Emerson College and Neighborhood Action, Inc based off of PhotoVoice’s mission. The original idea was to pair students with a homeless volunteer to create a photography project about the homeless person’s story. However, a student questioned the motivation and asked why not give the control to the homeless person? And thus this project was born.

Homeless individuals that desired to participate were given a disposable camera and a quick lesson on flash/non-flash technique and were asked “to reord images of significant people, places or occurrences in their worlds”. This project gave an interesting notion to ‘the place’ and what a person with supposedly ‘no place’ in society deems of importance to the construction of their identity.

“Homeless people on the street are the most feared and least identified ith: people who die ignominious deaths in trash compactors, who freeze outside the doors of hospitals, and who have been burned alive while sleeping on park benches. They are the most hated of homeless people, loathed for their destitution, their apparent inability to provide for themselves, and for the conflicting array of emotions they evoke in passersby” -Steve Vanderstaay in Street Lives: An Oral History of Homeless Americans

People hate the homeless for many reasons, including reasons that are misunderstood. So what kinds of images did the participants come back with?

The participants photographed were “separated into three broad categories: images of affliction, images for education, and images of assertion” (Cynthia J. Miller).  The emphasis of the photographers that featured family and friends was the idea that these people weren’t homeless – they were above all else, people. Many participants used this project to share meetings, experiences and separations, much like a photo album. The role of the photograph was a way to take the everyday and transform it into something solid, something physical and something to be shared. 50 images from these participants were blown up and matted for exhibition.

I just wanted to share this one, because I think it says so much about the way images and art can speak for us. We are literally the eyes of the next person in line, we’ve all been caught in a long line before that we wanted to end. But in this case, the line is for basics, for food, shelter, water, clothing, things that we take for granted. We are one of them visually, in this composition, and the author makes us very conscious of what it feels like to be human.

The author described this image as “the endlessness and facelessness of waiting for the basics.”

Thank you, and keep reading. Let’s get PhotoVoice to Los Angeles and make some real impact where it counts. (Right Mr. McCullough?)


Participatory Photography Defined

6 12 2011

I’ve spoken so much PhotoVoice and its great work using participatory photography. But for those who have no notion of what particpatory photography even is, here is a quick run down of its definition and why it exists at all.

A great explanation of participatory photography comes from an article by Kyle Knight on Vewd.org entitled What is the World? Participatory Photography in the Documentary Tradition, “Participatory photography – letting people make images that tell their own life stories – pushes our understanding of the human condition” beyond what we read in the news or in books.

It gives the power and the control to a person without power or control. It allows their eyes are to become ours as we learn to see the world through a new lens – a person with life experiences completely different than our own.

Interesting to note that a 2001 (yes, a bit outdated, but most thorough) survey of world wide literacy rates found that 1 billion people in the world (about 26% of the world’s population) is illiterate. Women make up about two-thirds of the illiterate and 98% of all non-literates live in developing countries. These are people without the power to communicate their ideas by word. If these people want to share their stories to languages outside their spoken tongue, a 3rd party mediator must be present to interpret and write down their story.  But this changes the story – it allows the influence (not always on purpose) of that 3rd party’s own life experiences to interpret the story of the powerless. But by image, we can give the power of communication to those who have the most to say. The camera is in their hands!

Something interesting to note is that documentary photography – a genre of photography that seeks to tell the stories of others, to “freeze moments, to create cultural artifacts” (Vewd.org) is threatened here. If we can teach a person with a story to be told to handle a camera for themselves, the story they create becomes just that much more powerful. “It is immensely powerful to engage the very characters of these stories, the people who are living the moments (Knight).”

First person perspective on real world issues, participatory photography is a step towards a more transparent world, a more empathetic western society and social change.


Kevin McCullough, I know you are new, but let’s get down to business

29 11 2011

Hello Mr. McCullough!

So you’ve officially started your job as Chief Executive at PhotoVoice (as of November 28, 2011). Welcome and congratulations. I suspect you’ll do some great things at the organization. And hopefully you’ll hear a bit of my whining and perhaps it will convince you to start a Los Angeles based project in the next 3 years.

But why you ask?

I see the work you did for the homeless in the UK, the impoverished in Paraguay and the unheard in Albania and I am nothing but floored and humbled by the program. But I see Los Angeles as a city ready for some change and positivity. And an artistically and creatively driven program like PhotoVoice is what a city dampened by homelessness, drug and gang culture, human trafficking and unemployment needs to have its voice broadcasted.

  • According to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, “more than 1,400 criminal street gangs exist in Los Angeles County, from graffiti and quality of life problems to murder and extortion – devastate a community’s well-being and sense of security.”
  • According to the Los Angeles Almanac online, homeless and unaccompanied youth (especially in Hollywood) is between 4,800 and 10,000.
  • LA Human Trafficking.Org states that “California is a top destination for trafficked humans. However, because of the hidden nature of human trafficking it is difficult to know how extensive the problem is.”
  • 12.2% of the population in Los Angeles County is unemployed (Google public data)

I think what makes your organization so different is the ability to gain community involvement and to garner a reaction. So many charities and organizations give money, but they do not create a new lens in which to view the world.

Please consider a workshop or program dedicated to one or all of these issues that Los Angeles County faces. LA County’s population is almost 10 million (as of March 2011). PhotoVoice could be the opportunity many marginalized, lost or silenced individuals need to share their story in such a huge city.