Caroline Wang '83

Giving Voice Through Photos
January 31, 2003
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Photovoice, as explained by Caroline Wang--one of its co-developers--"blends a grassroots approach to photography and social action." It provides cameras not to health specialists, policymakers, or professionals, but to people without easy access to those who make decisions affecting their lives. "What experts think is important may not match what people at the grassroots think is important," she says.

Through photovoice, Wang hopes to encourage people to define for themselves and others--including policymakers--what is worth remembering and what needs to be changed. The organization draws its theories and methods from several sources: "critical consciousness," meaning that the photographic image of daily life is strongest when it's depicted by members of the community; feminist theory, characterized by "an appreciation of women's subjective experience, a recognition of the significance of that experience, and political commitment"; and documentary photography, a tradition that celebrates the recording of images as a catalyst for change.

Wang first became interested in photography and documentary writing as an undergraduate through Duke's Center for Documentary Photography. (From that program emerged the current Center for Documentary Studies.) While doing graduate work in community health education at the University of California at Berkeley, where she would earn her doctorate, she received a Ford Foundation grant to study reproductive health and development in rural China.

In 1992, during her China stint, Wang and colleague Mary Ann Burris thought up the photovoice idea. They would inform and train community members to improve community health--all through photographic self-expression--and in so doing, catch the attention of local leaders.

Among the outcomes of Wang's work is a book that she co-edited. Based on the images and voices captured in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, it's called Visual Voices: 100 Photographs of Village China by the Women of Yunnan Province. She's also been a proselytizer in professional circles: Her articles on the photovoice method and her community-based public health work have appeared in The American Journal of Public Health, Health Promotion International, the Journal of Women's Health, and Social Science and Medicine, among other publications.

Writing about the "Yunnan Village Women's Photographic Exhibition," the basis of the book, the China Daily quoted one participant in the project: "For generations in my village, no one had access to a camera. I'm lucky to have one and proud of it." Photovoice had asked sixty-two women to portray their daily lives. Only two of the women knew what a camera was before the project started. They were simply taught how to point and shoot. "We're not really interested in 'beautiful pictures,'" Wang said at the time. "Instead, we wanted to see what the women wished to say about their health and work realities."

What emerged were multiple images testifying to a gritty reality--a group of farming women with hoes on their shoulders heading home from work, a cluttered living space complete with a brand-new cassette recorder and color TV. Some of the pictures not only depicted women's lives but also expressed their aspirations; one showed a woman in a car she couldn't yet afford. The aesthetic impression was "a sharp contrast between the emerging affluence of modern times and hard life of bygone days," the China Daily review said. It added, "Many people have noted that the women have not only gained experience, they have also become more confident."

The project also made a policy impression, according to Wang. For example, officials in the province, struck by photos of children playing alone and unsupervised while their mothers worked in the fields, were prompted to start child-care services.

Beyond rural China, Wang has directed and consulted on photovoice projects in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Ann Arbor project was one of the more intriguing efforts of the organization. Over a single weekend, medium-format cameras and film were provided to eight men who were, or had been recently, housed in a homeless shelter.

" Not only did the guys express appreciation at the chance to document their lives and discuss the needless stereotypes that get conferred on them because they are homeless," said one of the local organizers. "I think we've created a powerful visual as well as verbal statement that everyone who lives and works in this town can appreciate and learn from."