Low Income Women Speak Out through "Photovoice" Projects in Winnipeg and Saskatoon

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Public policies have a significant effect on the lives and health of women living in poverty. Low-income women are often subject to careful scrutiny and surveillance by others. Yet they are rarely given a voice in shaping these policies. In the fall of 2005, Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence (PWHCE) began working on two projects to address this situation in partnership with two community-based organizations, the Winnipeg North End Women's Centre and the Saskatoon Anti-Poverty Coalition. Together we initiated photovoice projects with small groups of low-income women in Winnipeg and Saskatoon.

Rather than putting them under the lens, the photovoice projects put women behind the lens, allowing others to see the world through their eyes. In each project, women received training from a professional photographer and discussed the ethics of taking pictures of other people. Then each woman was given a disposable camera and encouraged to take photographs that would represent her experiences of living in poverty, the barriers and the supports found in her community, and the policies and programs she would like to change or keep.

After taking their photographs, the women met several times to share their pictures with each other and to talk about what the photos meant to them.

"How much does it cost as a society to deal with crime, illness on the end of people not having enough money?" asked one participant from Winnipeg’s North End. "Why can't we make some proactive decisions, and start putting it into preventative health care, preventative crime prevention? As opposed to waiting until we are sick, and scared and alone."

With their permission, we tape recorded these discussions, and used them as the basis for creating captions for each photograph. Each woman selected which of her photographs and words she wanted to include in a public display. The photographs were then enlarged and mounted on plaques.

Private showings were held in each city for the photographers, their families and close friends. These events were followed by public showings of the women's work. In Winnipeg, the photovoice exhibit, entitled Poverty: Our Voices, Our Views, was on display at the University of Winnipeg during the MayWorks events on May 1, 2006. Since then the Winnipeg project has been shown at Warehouse Artworks in October 2006 and the Label Gallery in December 2006. In Saskatoon, the photovoice exhibit, entitled Looking Out/Looking In: Women, Poverty and Public Policy, was launched at the SCYAP Gallery on May 9, 2006 and remained on display until May 31.

"The reality is—I am disabled," wrote Nadia, another participant, under her photograph of a wheelchair in a kitchen. "I am a woman. I live in poverty, my voice is not heard. The truth is—my spirit has risen above this. There are times, though, when people or situations come along to remind me of what I am and try to put me back in my place. You cannot understand how I feel by studying books, by taking courses. You can only understand how I feel by crawling into my skin and living my life."

The photovoice exhibits are available for display to raise public awareness of the realities of living in poverty and to stimulate action for just social and economic policies to improve the conditions of women's lives. They can be viewed online at: http://www.pwhce.ca/program_poverty_photovoice.htm