What people see in a photograph can vary from person to person, and discussing those differences can often lead to a greater understanding of another person’s thoughts and emotions. That’s the idea behind a photography project in Kearney called PhotoVoice.
Buffalo County Community Partners is a non-profit organization headquartered in Kearney, Neb., with the mission “to assess, strengthen, and promote the health of Buffalo County.”
With this goal in mind, BCCP started the PhotoVoice Project, which uses photography as a medium to bring together kids from various backgrounds.
Teresa Lopez, the only girl in the class, said she looks forward to the two-hour sessions every week.
“I just love photography. My family has just been around photos for so long, so that’s what made me [want] to come to this,” Lopez said.
Lopez and the other students are each given an easy-to-use digital camera. They’re told to capture certain types of photos each week—things like landscapes or self-portraits—then they discuss their photos with the group.
Some of the shots are funny and light-hearted, others serious and sad.
Mark Foradori, youth coordinator with Buffalo County Community Partners, said photography can offer a healthy, creative outlet to many students. Just like any other extra-curricular activity, Foradori said students who embrace photography are able to express themselves in ways they might not be able to otherwise.
“They have a different perspective on things. They’re all middle school and high school-aged students, and their world is completely different than the world of adults,” Foradori said.
The aim of PhotoVoice is to help kids make better decisions. Funding for the project comes from the Nebraska Crime Commission in the form of a grant worth about $8000.
At-risk youth in Buffalo County’s juvenile justice system are given first priority to enroll in the class, but Foradori said you don’t need to be an at risk-youth to benefit from it.
“It’s more like an enrichment program, and it can be kind of a mentoring situation for them. Some of them are inspired by it and take off with it, and some of them just move on to the next thing. Just like any other student activity,” Foradori explained.
Because some of the youth in the PhotoVoice project are in the juvenile justice system, we can’t identify them for this story. One such teen sparked a conversation about the fragility of life after he shared a photo of his new tattoo.
“It’s for my friend that passed away. He was only 15, actually 16…him and his friend were going down the highway and hit some loose gravel and flipped the car,” he said.
This type of open discussion is why PhotoVoice was started. Foradori said he wants to create a safe environment where students can discuss what’s going on in their lives, using the photos as the jumping off point.
Psychologist Judy Weiser calls this technique Therapeutic Photography, which is similar to Phototherapy, a field she helped pioneer in 1974, when she began using photographs during therapy sessions. She was working with deaf native children in Canada, and said the photographs made it easier to communicate.
According to Weiser, she soon realized the power photography could play in helping people characterize their feelings and express themselves.
There are differences in PhotoTherapy and Therapeutic Photography, usually the presence of a licensed mental health professional, but Weiser said the core principles remain the same.
“The meaning of a photograph isn’t in the photograph. The details on the surface tell you what it’s a picture of, they don’t tell you what it’s a picture about,” Weiser explained, “because it’s about something different to each and every person that views it. Including the person that took it.”
In Weiser’s opinion, what we think a picture is about depends on who we are, where we came from, our life experiences, our personality…everything that makes us individuals.
She called it “basic phenomenology” and gave this example:
“Joey shows Bobby a photo and Joey explains the [what he sees] and Bobby goes, ‘Man, that’s not what I saw in there. Here’s what I saw in there’ and they have a conversation. And in that conversation is the learning that they need to step back and think first before they have an expectation or make a decision. And you can’t teach that directly,” Weiser said.
By creating a language of sorts to help people deal with their emotions, Weiser said photographs can actually help an individual grow as a person.
Teresa Lopez, from the Kearney class, said that’s exactly what photography and the Photovoice project have done in her life.
When asked how she takes pictures, Lopez said, “Most people want it to be perfect. I don’t want it to be perfect. I just want it to be an everlasting memory for me.”
The PhotoVoice Project in Kearney is not affiliated with the international PhotoVoice charity, although they share similarities.
There will be an exhibition of the Buffalo County Community Partners PhotoVoice Project at the Merryman Performing Arts Center on June 17.
For more information on Phototherapy and Therapeutic Photography, click here.