Point. Click. Change.
The first thing you notice is that these are not ordinary pictures. They are stark depictions of a neglected neighborhood: Heavily trafficked streets too dangerous to cross. Overgrown parks where drug dealers conduct their trade. Grocery store shelves empty of fresh fruits and vegetables, but loaded with cheap, high-fat, high calorie food, and low-cost high proof liquor. Graffiti-covered walls riddled with bullet holes. These photos may not seem like typical works of art, but they make profound statements just the same. Because they speak the truth.
These are the images of Photovoice, a powerful tool for social change undertaken by Kaiser Permanente's Community Health Initiative. Kaiser Permanente enlisted professional photographer Leila Kramer to work with residents in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. Kramer taught Photovoice participants how to use a camera to document their lives and their community. Following a program created by University of Michigan's Professor, Carolyn Wang, Kramer then equipped the budding photographers with disposable black-and-white cameras, and sent them into their neighborhood. Their mission: photograph the barriers to healthy eating and active living in Park Hill.
In July 2006, a dozen people took up the cameras and accepted the challenge. Blown up to 16 by 20 inches, complete with captions created by the residents, the Park Hill photos were recently presented at Photovoice: Image to Action, an invitation-only meeting for Denver policy makers and community leaders.
Before an audience of 60 diverse leaders, each of the 12 Photovoice artists shared the barriers to healthy eating and active living reflected in their pictures, and implored the audience to work together to address the needs exposed in the images. What emerged from this seminal event was a newly coalesced group of diverse individuals committed to improving their neighborhood and a policy document developed by Photovoice photographers, community members, and policymakers that serves as a blueprint for change in Park Hill.
According to J. Elaine Borton, Park Hill Thriving Community coordinator, Photovoice has been a tool that enabled residents to "talk to people who can be part of the solution. These photos represent the community speaking. With Photovoice we were able to bring this issues home, gain consensus, and build solutions."
One participant of the Photovoice: Image to Action meeting is a member of the Denver Mayor's Task Force on Zoning. He was so moved that he shared the needs and issues exposed via Photovoice to the task force, telling Borton, "Before now, health had not been adequately addressed during zoning task force meetings."
"Zoning is a powerful tool for improving the health of a community," according to Borton. When a community zones out or limits restaurants selling high-fat, calorie-dense foods, and zones in healthier food options, significant strides to improve community health and reduce health care disparities are made.
To share the power and voice of the community members, the Photovoice images are exhibited and rotated monthly at various Park Hill businesses, community centers and churches. The images have been used to communicate and address Park Hill's status as a "food desert". Additionally, the images have been a tool to advocate for a full service grocery store and limit the leasing of space to fast food restaurants in a new retail development. Through these images, Borton says, "Many pieces come together. Job training. Economic development. Community revitalization and beautification. Employment. Access to fresh food. More walkable, bikeable communities. All the pieces connect to create a healthy environment."
By raising the awareness of barriers to healthy eating and active living, the Photovoice program has helped make a significant impact in Park Hill. Already, an empty, neglected, weed-infested building has been demolished to make way for a watershed, with walkable trails. One powerful photo depicting an under-utilized park was used to leverage a recently passed city bond initiative to renovate the City of Axum Park. Improvements include a perimeter multi-use path for biking and walking, improved lighting, a playground and simple landscaping changes to decrease illicit behaviors happening in dark, visually-obstructed areas of the park.
None of this would have happened without Photovoice. Seeing is believing. Successfully piloted in Colorado in 2006, Photovoice puts cameras into the hands of community residents so they can document the barriers to healthy eating and active living in their own communities. By creating a visual record of the environmental conditions in their neighborhoods, residents identify opportunities for community change, help set priorities, and act as advocates for change with city officials, policy makers, and legislators. As Borton says, "Awareness of the problem fosters action." In this case, a picture is worth even more than a thousand words.
"It feels good to see the work we put into Photovoice materialize into positive change. We've been trying to do something for years in this neighborhood and nothing ever got done. We talked with city leaders and had meeting after meeting, and Photovoice was the first thing that brought results to fruition."
Executive Director, Northeast Park Hill Coalition
Can a picture lead to healthier living? If it leads a community to take action, you bet it can. Photovoice equipped 38 Park Hill, Colorado community members with cameras, then trained them to photograph the barriers to healthy eating and active living in their own communities.