The Photovoice Kashmir Pilot Project
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In the village of Gurthama, a mountainous region in Kashmir, families have been struggling to survive after a long series of disasters. The most recent affliction to their small rural village was the 2005 South Asian earthquake, which caused widespread, devastating, and lasting damage. Rebuilding homes and livelihoods has overwhelmed community members of all ages, with children in particular struggling to make sense of growing hardships that are often inconceivable even to adults. Gurthama, just five kilometers from the Line of Control with India, has endured more than its share of violence and instability over the years—notably with the Kargil War of 1999; an ongoing environmental battle with deforestation; deteriorating infrastructure, and the land—literally—on a downward slope.
It is in this trying environment that the Photovoice Kashmir Pilot Project was developed to bring forward youth perspectives amidst the din of reconstruction and rehabilitation. Designed and led by U-M School of Social Work graduate student Shenaaz Janmohamed, the nine-day pilot program was conducted this past August and included photography lessons, community walks, story-telling, drawing, and small group discussions for the children. This curriculum provided the youth affected by the recent earthquake with an opportunity to explore and record their survival experiences and visually document their environment. Aasil K. Ahmad, a freelance photographer based in Washington D.C., accompanied the team to document the project and facilitate photography lessons in the village. The children were introduced to basic photography skills, such as loading a roll of film, to more abstract concepts, like creating stories through imagery. Fifteen children each received their own camera, two rolls of film, and the freedom to capture their drastically changed post-earthquake environment in a new and exciting way.
This photographic method, “Photovoice,” was first developed by former U-M public health professor Caroline Wang, who applied this participatory technique in 1992 while working with women in Yunnan, China on issues of reproductive health. By equipping local citizens with cameras and fostering a confidence to document issues important to them, photovoice creates a valuable opportunity for self-assessment and reflection, as well as a chance to highlight community and individual needs. This approach recognizes that the “everyday” knowledge of people experiencing life-changing events is in fact a vital source of expertise. Photovoice provides a much-needed alternative perspective on global events from people who lead lives that are very different from those traditionally in control of the public’s visual understanding of the world. In the case of Gurthama, the viewpoints of children have never really been considered a valuable means to understanding the consequences and needs following the devastating earthquake. The Photovoice Kashmir project represents a first attempt to include these voices in a greater discourse of change through an interactive and self-empowering curriculum.
With cameras and new-found skills in hand, the village youth captured their homes, their families, and their ever-changing environment in photographs. As nine-year-old Sanam led a group of project facilitators through her village, she pointed out environmental and infrastructural consequences of the earthquake that an outsider may not have caught in a traditional needs assessment. “This path used to be clear before the earthquake, but now it is difficult to walk on, especially when it rains. I have slipped and fallen a few times,” she said. Sanam captured these differences in her photographs and shared her thoughts on the altered landscape through short stories. Another participant, Sonia, 12, took photos influenced by her own personal losses after the earthquake. “I took this picture because it reminds me of my friend. She died in a landslide that looked similar to this one. So many people have been hurt or have died in this earthquake. In my family, we lost 21 members. I want to wonder why this is happening to us, but I have to just stay strong.” The process of taking photos and telling stories allowed the children to share their own unique understandings of the disaster and its persisting presence two years later.
On the last day of the project, despite heavy rain and strong winds, the Gurthama community gathered under a large tent for a concluding event organized by the children. Family members enjoyed performances, songs, speeches, and a presentation of photos prepared by the children on their experiences during the Photovoice Project. The gathering brought community members together for the sole purpose of listening to and celebrating their children, which was a rare opportunity in post-disaster times. The project succeeded in engaging the community through art while perhaps laying the groundwork for future participatory programs in Kashmir that will continue to elevate unheard narratives, as villages—and lives—are slowly rebuilt.
The children’s photographs and translated captions, along with professional images taken by Ahmad, were on display at the International Institute Gallery from February 1–March 15, 2007. The exhibit, entitled, “Photovoice Kashmir,” will continue a tour throughout the United States and will eventually be returned to the Gurthama village—so that these documented narratives remain present in the community consciousness. Continuing with advocacy efforts, graduating film student Natalie Baker is editing video shot during the pilot into a documentary and learning guide that highlights the benefits of integrating participatory arts methods such as photovoice into development projects in Pakistan, specifically for disaster relief. The Photovoice Kashmir Project may serve as a model and catalyst for greater youth participation and encourage young voices to be respected as legitimate agents for change.
Shenaaz Janmohamed is completing a master’s degree in the U-M School of Social Work focusing on community organizing and social systems.
Thanh Pham is the assistant editor for the Journal of the International Institute and a LSA/english alumna (2004).
Wang, C. and Burris, M.A. Photovoice: Social Change Through Photography. http://www.photovoice.com/.