What I Learned When I Gave Women the Opportunity to Share Their Stories Through Participatory Photography
I realize that I am preaching to the choir when I say that there has, and continues to be, an incredible number of development projects that fail. Schools sit empty because no one thinks about how to pay the teachers. Crops produce small yields because farmers choose not to use the subsidized fertilizer. Computers are stored on shelves because there is no one to repair them when they break. There are solutions to this, although admittedly not always that simple: Ask people what they need and then work with them to deliver it.
I came to understand this nearly a decade ago as a budding graduate student exploring social change by working directly with people who are arguably the most disenfranchised demographic in the world: poor women. Women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor, and as a result, strategies to alleviate poverty and empower women have been rolled out on every continent. Women’s empowerment specifically has been touted both as a human rights issue and a key component in poverty alleviation because of the direct impact that it has on economic development, higher education achievement, and an increased quality of life for the poor.
Unfortunately, some people tend to make decisions for women living in poverty without engaging them in dialogue, let alone consulting them. Conventional wisdom would have us all believe that poor, uneducated women do not have the acumen to devise strategies that will improve their quality of life and lift them out of poverty. Tackling these complex issues requires a degree from an institution of higher learning or perhaps a prestigious position in a development agency. The result is that there is an incredible disconnect between what women need and what they actually receive.
This has never sat well with me, so I decided to investigate this detachment by using an alternative method of collecting data not about women living in poverty, but rather with women living in poverty. In the early 2000s, an innovative approach was emerging—participatory photography—in which disenfranchised groups of people would use photography to define, communicate, and ultimately improve their situation. This is fundamentally different from taking photos of people, in which our interpretation of their lives is shaped through the artistic lens of the photographer.
Working with a small group of women in Kenya and another in Nicaragua, I gave them point and shoot cameras, taught them how to use them, and asked them to take photographs of their lives and write captions to accompany them. Rather than being the subjects of the photos, these women became the creators, playing a more significant role in shaping the meaning associated with each image.
Captioning the photos also became a process of storytelling, and for the first time in their lives, they had an opportunity to share their stories with the world. They embraced it. Rolls of film poured in, handwritten notes accompanying each one. Although I had met with these women in their communities, oftentimes in their homes, I was amazed at what I hadn’t seen with my own eyes. There are many things that occur when the Western white women leave, and this project gave me insight that I had never dreamed possible.
I called the project HerStory, believing that if women were given a voice, they would re-conceptualize and rewrite their own history, as well as determine their own future.
Here is the project...
"Salvadora hopes that mankind is equal…Salvadora is a single mother with an 8-year-old son. She has been father and mother at the same time. She was mistreated physically by the father of her son and for this motive she decided to stay single. She advises that women stay single. The major negative impact was that the father of her son said that he wasn’t his. She hopes that her son becomes a great man. She feels, as an independent woman, that she likes to work in order to do what she wants. She recommends that many women should receive seminars in order to raise their self-esteem."