Lens Crafted

Ph.D. candidate Birthe C. Reimers and Photovoice Clarkston images

Ph.D. student’s project helps Clarkston residents view neighbors’ realities through shared photography

A photo of a line of colorful clothing strewn atop hedges beneath an apartment window allowed one of 13 participants in a Clarkston, Ga., community engagement project designed by Kennesaw State doctoral candidate Birthe C. Reimers to vent about an issue of concern.

“This photo is a common sight at the Fox Trail complex,” the project participant wrote in describing the image she captured as part of Photovoice Clarkston, Reimers’ pioneering adaptation of a 1990s research method designed to promote dialogue and motivate social change.

The photographer continued: “I understand that many of these residents, who seem to be mostly immigrants, don't have access to a dryer, need to air dry their clothes. I actually commend the practice of air drying laundry as it’s energy efficient. I have a problem with the actual complex and their disregard for the needs of their residents. … The complex looks dilapidated and run down, and it may potentially bring down the value of the entire neighborhood.”

Another image of the interior of a retail shop with rows and racks of brightly hued urns and garb gave another project participant a chance to reflect her pride in her native culture. “It’s nice to have a little of what’s back home here in Clarkston,” she wrote.  “It serves as a reminder and keeps me connected to my Ethiopian culture.”

Reimers, a student in the Ph.D. Program in International Conflict Management and 2013 Clendenin Scholar, designed the photo project as a way to allow residents to “voice” their perspectives through imagery and share concerns about Clarkston, a small town of nearly 8,000 residents 10 miles east of downtown Atlanta that has undergone a stark transformation in a little over three decades.

Once a largely homogenous community with 90 percent white residents, Clarkston has evolved into a diverse community whose high school now serves students and families – most of them refugees – from more than 50 countries. Whites make up about 14 percent of the town’s population, according to the 2010 census.

The transformation has come largely as a result of efforts began in the 1980s by the U.S. State Department and various resettlement agencies that viewed Clarkston as an ideal site for refugee resettlement. The community also is home to a large concentration of African-American residents. Time magazine once dubbed Clarkston “the most diverse square mile in America.” Some have called it the “Ellis Island of the South.”

Working with community partner, CDF: A Collective Action Initiative, Reimers conducted the dialogue- and image-sharing project and compiled the resulting images into the exhibit, which was unveiled during the town’s United Nations’ World Refugee Day celebrations June 20 and 21. It will make its debut at Kennesaw State’s Zuckerman Museum of Art July 26 as part of an exhibit titled “Hearsay.”

While many agree Clarkston has made progress during its transformation, most concede that change has not come without misunderstanding and conflict. For example, Reimers noted, some of the town’s lower income residents think government and nonprofit resettlement services for international refugees have created an unfair advantage for the newest arrivals. Some longtime residents have expressed concerns about the local economy and safety as more refugees arrived.

“I wanted to design a project to lend a proverbial megaphone to a diverse group of Clarkston residents,” Reimers said. “The goal was to compile and share with policymakers and service providers the participant’s perspectives on the assets and challenges that shape communal dynamics in town and unite or divide the population.”

Following an initial training in photography and ethics, the project participants set out as photographers and co-researchers to document life in Clarkston from January to May 2014. They also gathered on Saturdays to share their images and engage in in-depth discussions, which allowed them to see life from their neighbors’ perspectives.

Reimers said the project allowed her to explore the application of Photovoice as a community engagement strategy to transform the relationships among the diverse project participants. It was the culmination of research for her dissertation – “Lending a Megaphone to the Muted: A Photovoice Exploration of Refugees’ and Locals’ Perspectives on Communal Dynamics in Clarkston, GA.” She looks forward to writing the dissertation and plans to graduate in May 2015.

The project aligns with Reimers’ academic research interests, which include community-engaged research and practice, conflict transformation, diversity, marginalization, and refugee resettlement. She has a history of engagement in Clarkston, serving as a co-facilitator of community trust meetings for CDF and participating in other projects there, including the recent painting of a mural at a local pediatric clinic. She previously served as a community and family mediator and facilitated school-site conflict resolution trainings and victim offender restitution processes through Mediators Beyond Borders and local nonprofit organizations in Atlanta and Los Angeles.

With the Photovoice project, Reimers is pioneering the methodology as a practical conflict engagement strategy in diverse communities. She has published and presented in national and international journals and conferences on topics such as overcoming ethnic hatred, post-conflict social identity reconstruction, and the interconnectedness of community-engaged scholarship, practice and pedagogy.

While Reimers is still in the process of assessing the project, she said she believes it has been a success based on the feedback she has received from the project participants and viewers’ reactions to the exhibits. 

As Selamawit Yakob, a Photovoice Clarkston participant and Kennesaw State junior majoring in information systems, observed: “Photography is more than just an image on a paper or posted on a wall; it’s a powerful or light-hearted message that conveys the message the photographer wants the audience to see through its lenses. Photovoice has taught me that images are more powerful “voice” tools rather than just arguing or not finding the right words to send your message across. In the click of a button and a flash of light, an image is produced to express that message and even more in a powerful way. [The project] has given me the courage and opened my eyes to the beauty in the Clarkston community and also the harsh reality that the residents face.”  

The Zuckerman Museum of Art’s “Hearsay” exhibit featuring Photovoice Clarkston opens July 26 with a reception open to the public from 5 to 8 p.m. The exhibit includes a series of seven solo projects that revise and expand on traditional independent narratives and visualizations. It runs through Oct. 25.

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-- Sabbaye McGriff

Photo by: Benjamin Roberts