Student Spotlight: Picturing Adelante with Gloriana Sojo
George Washington University student Gloriana Sojo participated in many research and academic activities within the Avance Center, including the PhotoVoice project. Using PhotoVoice, she engaged twelve Latino youth living in Langley Park, MD, including six recently arrived and six second generation immigrants, in a dialogue about peer, family, community, and health issues affecting Latinos. Participants developed photography skills, used photographs to stimulate critical thinking and discussion, and suggested solutions for emergent issues. Below is an interview with Ms. Sojo about her experience on this project.
How did you become involved in the PhotoVoice project?
I’ve always had an interest in photography in generating social change, and the power of photo journalism. PhotoVoice’s dual mission of empowering people to tell their story and speak out about issues in their community, while also gaining insight into issues a community faces was intriguing to me. I knew the Avance Center was already very involved in the Langley Park, MD community, and I wanted to develop a program to expand our understanding of current needs and experiences of Latino youth and their families living in Langley Park, MD.
I worked with the Avance Center team to develop a curriculum, which covered the basics of photography skills and covered the project goals, including sparking community activism among Latino youth.
The youth were treated as key collaborators from the very beginning. They were provided cameras to work with and given Adelante gift bags to make them feel part of a team. Fortunately, everyone involved in the project had done previous work with the community and participants, which helped with engagement, as there were already solid relationships built with the youth. It was also a creative and interesting project, so youth were eager to participate.
What were some of the problems youth identified in their community?
Through their photography, youth identified several problems in their community. These included trash, substance abuse, lack of healthy eating options, and public safety. There were pictures of litter in the community, the many liquor stores, beer bottles in the streets, and police vehicles to name a few.
What were your biggest challenges of the project? Successes?
Identifying problems through the method of PhotoVoice does have limitations. I had to ask, is trash actually the biggest issue? Or is it just easy to take a picture of it? This is a very visual method to capture problems, so things that are more abstract, such as stress or isolation, are harder to depict through photos.
It also wasn’t as easy to take pictures in the community as we thought it would be. The youth couldn’t travel around the community easily, so things were limited to their more immediate surroundings. This was especially true of the recently arrived immigrants. Compared to the second generation immigrant participants, the new immigrants had more difficulty getting around, were not as articulate about explaining their photos, and weren’t as aware of community issues, since they had recently arrived.
Despite these challenges, we did have success. PhotoVoice was a very catchy concept and youth were interested in participating and taking pictures. We concluded the project with an exhibition of participant’s photographs. We exhibited about 40 pictures, which were professionally framed by a GW art student, with captions and the authors’ name. Many important community leaders attended the exhibition; it was a great way to showcase the youths’ work.
Overall we got insight from the youth, but we also got to show them their work matters! The exhibition demonstrated that the participants were essential collaborators on the project, and their insights were valued.
And a final success would be how involved the Avance Center senior researchers were with the project. It was refreshing to see them on the ground with the community.
What have you gained from this experience?
I learned that to help a community, you have to be a part of it and listen to the community before doing an intervention. I had great role models from the Avance Center researchers—they have a lot experience, but to implement an effective intervention, they understood the value of building a relationship with the community.
I entered the experience more from the communication and journalism side, wanting to be a bit more open-ended and creative, but I learned the importance of creating and sticking to a methodology for implementing a project. For example, I learned to standardize the process by making sure to ask the same questions about the photos, as opposed to asking ad hoc questions from more of a journalistic perspective. I learned that if we wanted to conduct research, methodology was really important.
How will you use these skills in the future?
This project was an overlap of my three interests: migration, development, and photojournalism. It was a nice experiment of trying to combine these three things.
Academically, I have a better understanding of standardizing processes in research, which I will remember in the future. I understand the importance of both building relationships with a community, but also sticking to your methods so you have sound data.
My biggest lesson is this idea of giving back. The youth participants are not just research subjects, they are people. I am happy that this is so important to the Avance Center. You want to work with people, not just at them. It goes two ways.