Experimenting with Collaborative Participatory Photography
Working full-time and professionally in photography since my last years in university, first through the evolution of digital photography and now with the ubiquity of camera phones, the internet, and social media, I have seen the barriers to doing and sharing photography recede to almost zero. Photography is no longer the exclusive domain of the technically trained or professionals, and can be an accessible, democratizing tool for all that transcends culture, language, and preconceived assumptions about values and behaviors. Recognizing this I have been experimenting with a collaborative form of participatory photography in the context of socio-environmental issues as a way of building trust and engaging communities in addressing these concerns, as well as providing user-centered design and learning tools for those working on these issues to better understand the community’s needs from the participants’ own explorations of their own lives. Traditional participatory photography is focused on teaching photography and empowering the individuals who participate in the program. By adding discussion, Listening Sessions, and public exhibition, I am trying to expand the focus to leverage the emergent, evolving roll photography is playing in our global society. I am not concerned with participants becoming photographers, but on multiplying the impact of cause-driven work by using the power that photography and the photographic process has for anyone—and everyone—to engage others in conversations about the things that are most important to them.
I have had the opportunity to do several experimental pilot projects, including one focused on traditional participatory photography combined with communications skills development with youth in the First Nations community of Klemtu, B.C. on the pacific coast of Canada; one with fishermen in the small coastal village of Závora in southern Mozambique as part of a larger user-centered design process; and one with an international group of fisheries program managers in the Philippines using photography as an onsite learning tool. The work with Klemtu was written up by The Nature Conservancy and featured in print and online in Photo District News, and my NGO partner, Rare (through their Center for Behavior and the Environment), and I are currently in the process of developing exhibitions, a campaign, and other ways of presenting the images from our collaboration with photography participants from the two projects in Závora and the Philippines.
I have been a ‘Concerned Photographer’—a term coined in the 1960’s by International Center of Photography (ICP) founder Cornell Cappa to describe “photographers who demonstrate in their work a humanitarian impulse to use pictures to educate and change the world, not just to record it”—for my entire 20+ year career. And for the last decade, I have focused exclusively on projects exploring how we live on the planet and with each other, and almost always in ignored or underserved communities. Breaking down the barriers between photographer and subject and recognizing how much even more powerful photography can be when we listen to, learn from, and collaborate with each other, is the logical next step for me in making sure the work I do has meaning and matters.