How do you communicate ideas to a broad audience when you have limited writing skills, no access to a computer and, most likely, you don’t share a common language with the people you want to speak with? The answer is photography.
Through an innovative community-based conservation project coordinated by Utah State University visiting faculty member Adam Beh, Kenyan pastoralists, park rangers and community scouts are using the power of images to find their voice.
“It’s a simple technique and an amazing catalyst for discussion,” says Beh, who joined USU’s Department of Environment and Society as a visiting assistant professor in summer 2010. “Just give people cameras and let them tell their stories.”
Beh, who recently completed a doctorate in human dimensions of natural resources from Colorado State University, used a methodology called “Photovoice” to initiate a grassroots conservation program among pastoralists living near national wildlife reserves in north central Kenya.
“Photovoice was developed about 18 years ago and has been used primarily in public health and labor rights projects,” he says. “The idea is to give participants a way to easily conceptualize their experiences and share with others.”
Beh initiated the project as part of his doctoral dissertation.
“The Samburu East region is home to majestic wildlife, including elephants, lions and giraffes,” he says. “With colleagues at CSU, I conducted surveys within the Samburu East community of local perceptions of the region’s conservation concerns.”
Beh found that locals often feel the interests of safari operators and international tourists favor local concerns and few opportunities exist at professional and academic levels for environmental education.
“With this in mind, we developed the Samburu Photovoice Project to generate discussion and action regarding conservation education in Samburu East District,” he says.
Beh assembled six focus groups with 26 participants including teachers, national conservancy wildlife scouts and youths, along with national reserve park rangers and staff.
“The idea was to make this a participatory project — not my project, but the group’s project,” he says.
Among the questions asked of participants were: What would you like to teach others about your environment? Where are the gaps in knowledge regarding conservation in Samburu? and What should we do as a community to address conservation concerns?
Beh says the response was eye-opening.
“The photos are stunning and the stories each participant told about their images — along with the feedback they got from others — adds to the richness of the narratives,” he says. “It’s exciting to watch this process unfold.”
The group collected more than 160 photographs and, from those, selected 60 to display in varied venues with a brief, accompanying story. Beh has a copy of the exhibit he plans to share at USU and throughout the community. In December, he returns to Kenya for further work with the focus groups.
“This is an interesting project because I’m a participant as well as a researcher,” he says. “It remains to be seen how this project will evolve. We’ve planted some seeds; now we get to watch it grow.”
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, firstname.lastname@example.org