Back to the Beginning
Exploring the Origins of Photovoice
Imagine you’re an academic in South America, around the 1950’s or 60’s. It’s a pretty exciting time to be an academic. With the Cold War in full swing the world has become a battleground of ideas, and you are on the front lines.
You’ve just come out of university in the capital, but now eagerly leave the city and head out into the rural villages. You’re excited to spread these new ideas- workers rights, community organizing, the history of colonialism, the latest economic practices, new agricultural techniques- but when you finally reach the village, you realize that these farmers and villagers aren’t quite what you expected. Sure, they find your ideas interesting- but they have their own knowledge. They have experiences, they have wisdom, and they have an intimate understanding of their society that you totally lack. As an academic, you immediately decide that this type of knowledge needs a name, so you call it vivencia.
You realize that what’s needed here is not a lecture, it’s a conversation. Both you and these farmers can teach each other, and benefit from mutual knowledge generation. Their vivencia gives you a deeper understanding of this local situation, while your studies provide context and tools for the community. The villagers aren’t the object anymore, they are part of a joint subject, joining you as participants. To put it another way, you aren’t studying them, you are both studying the situation.
You came to these villages expecting to instruct and educate, but instead you found so much more. You thought you had it all figured out, but there are more perspectives available, perspectives that offer value and understanding if you only listen. You should probably make this experience the foundation of a new school of academic research. It’s research that’s based in the community, and involves participation by all parties- why not call it Community Based Participatory Research, or CBPR?
EPIC’s new project, PHOTOVOICE IRAQ: Picturing Change, is one of many projects that grew out of this great CBPR idea you had back in the 60’s. It relies on group participation and ownership of the project by all parties. We at EPIC may provide the tools, but it is the youth we are partnering with on the ground in Iraq who provide the expert knowledge, the vivencia. In building our project this way, we hope to foster a relationship of cooperation and equality with the people of Iraq, and study not them, but the changes and conflict in their daily lives.
People, be they academics, South American peasant farmers, or Iraqi youth, are smart. “Self-conscious people,” writes Mohammad Anisur Rahman, “those who are poor and oppressed, will progressively transform their environment by their own praxis.” People are often ready to learn, ready to grow, and ready to change so long as they are full, active participants in that process. It is in this tradition that EPIC seeks to follow, because we feel it offers the best way forward for Iraq, the US, and the larger field of peacebuilding.
Program Design Intern at EPIC. He is a second year masters candidate and the Barzani Graduate Peace Fellow at American University