PICTURED: “Field Worker” by Jacqueline Cortez, taken of the fields near Oxnard High School.

by Mike Nelson

What’s a picture worth? A thousand words? A million?

Better yet, how about an instrument for social change?

So discovered Jacqueline Cortez, a 17-year-old student at Oxnard College, who spent part of her 2019-20 senior year at Channel Islands High School involved in an eight-week project that opened her eyes — and, she believes, the community’s — to a safety issue of which she was previously unaware. 

All because of a photo she took of farmworkers in the fields near Oxnard High School, being exposed to potentially dangerous pesticides.

“I never really thought of myself as an advocate,” admits Cortez, “but taking that picture gave me some insight into what farmworkers deal with in terms of safety and health and the day-to-day pressures of providing for their families. If they get sick and can’t work because their working conditions aren’t safe, who provides for them?”

The vehicle for Cortez’s photo project was PhotoVoice, a worldwide “visual literacy” program to illuminate and communicate issues of concern to the broader community, with the goal of stimulating social change. Developed in the 1990s by two women researchers to address the daily experiences of village women in China, PhotoVoice places cameras in the hands of participants to photograph issues or conditions that impact community health.

“People Selling from Car” by Beyoncee-Tanya Escalona, taken in the Channel Islands High School parking lot during an active fire.

Participants then share their photos to generate discussion, action and advocacy to improve community access to quality health care. Promoted by San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), PhotoVoice was brought to Ventura County two years ago, funded by the County Department of Behavioral Health (VCBH) and implemented by BRITE Youth Services. 

“So much in our world is highly image-driven, so there is a need to understand and communicate what those images might represent,” said Joaquin Ortiz, MOPA’s director of innovation. “And photography is a powerful tool, with a long history of influencing how we think about the world. 

“Ansel Adams didn’t just make beautiful photographs; he taught people about caring for nature and the environment, and it led to the creation of national parks. PhotoVoice asks participants to address specific community issues — and in Oxnard, we felt that student participants could show different dimensions of life.”

“Immediate social impact”

The local appeal of PhotoVoice stemmed from its proven capability “to promote public and community health, and to help understand what community health needs are,” explained R. Bong Vergara, VCBH research consultant and principal investigator who served as technical advisor for PhotoVoice Oxnard.

“It’s also a research approach that has practical components and can make an immediate social impact,” Vergara said. “It facilitates positive policy or system change, and it enables local stakeholders and participants to see fruits of their labors in the short term. You run PhotoVoice for eight weeks, and soon after you have meetings, feedback and a set of recommendations.”

The goal for PhotoVoice Oxnard, Vergara said, was to study racism as a social determinant of health. The challenge was finding student participants.

“We had three failed attempts in the beginning, because it is incredibly challenging to get youth to commit for eight weeks,” said Vergara. “But when we finally partnered with BRITE, we were able to pull it off.”

Officials at BRITE (Building Resilience and Inclusion Through Engagement) — a youth development project funded by VCBH that promotes social change regarding underage and binge drinking — saw PhotoVoice’s potential for developing youth leadership through community engagement, despite the challenges in getting commitments.

“Many students have jobs that their families rely on, so they have to make choices whether to help provide for their family or work toward their future,” noted Vanessa Alva, mental health and prevention specialist for BRITE. “Some students are interpreters, homemakers and babysitters for their families — plus they have the stress of schoolwork.”

But the potential upside to PhotoVoice was so great, Alva said, that a year ago BRITE — assisted by Oxnard College’s Upward Bound mentorship program — assembled 15 student participants from the South Oxnard and Port Hueneme area. Following technical training in photography, the students set out to document what they saw in their community.

“They took pictures of what they’re exposed to daily — their cultures, the social inequalities, gender issues, all the struggles they have, and how they affect the way they grow up,” said Alva. 

“As adults, we don’t see all the struggles that high school students go through. They come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Maybe they’re from first generation migrant families, or are the first in their families to graduate high school or have parents who don’t speak English.”

The language barrier alone presents problems, she added. “There are many stories of people being taken advantage of through the system because materials on safety regulations or health care options were handed to them in English, and they couldn’t understand them.”

From art to action 

Jacqueline Cortez learned that reality, somewhat to her surprise, through her PhotoVoice project that focused on farmworker safety. Her photo — showing farmworkers wearing no protective gear and standing near equipment containing potentially dangerous materials — was designed, like all photos taken in the project, to generate discussion, reflection, awareness and action.

“Some of my friends have parents who are farmworkers, and this project opened my eyes to their challenges,” she pointed out. “Most of them have no financial stability, no medical insurance. What if one day they couldn’t work, or get help?

“Homeless Person Walking Across Oxnard College” by Marisol Hernandez, taken November 2019 at the peak of the Maria Fire.

“As a Mexican-Hispanic young woman, I felt I could not only relate to them, I could even become an advocate for them. So I was able to get out of my box, in that I could see situations from a different perspective, and I gained empathy and sympathy for others.”

Other photo subjects included the Maria Fire and the homeless, all of which generated discussion when presented in group situations. Participants were asked, “What do you see going on here? How does it affect you? And what can you do about it?”

“At times,” Cortez said, “it was hard to swallow that people really experience these difficult situations, like immigrant farm workers not being guaranteed health assistance even though they do the most laborious job, or homeless people not being offered the same resources as others, and no one is fighting to give them these resources.”

A project by youth participants Lucia Sanchez and Yosduan Ramos focused on medicine cabinet and opioid brochures, and prompted further discussion about language inequities. The consensus of the group discussion that followed the presentation emphasized “the need to inform the public about the dangers of access to prescription drugs,” and suggested training in Spanish and Mixteco “to show people how to take care of their medications and how to prevent access to teens.”

Originally, the plan was to present these photos in a public exhibition, but the COVID pandemic made such plans impossible. “So we found a different route,” said Alva. “We built a website, recorded voice overs, and helped students write a script on how to talk to government representatives.”

Students present their work via Zoom to Oxnard City Council members. 

“They didn’t know the real struggles of farmworkers,” said Cortez, “but after our presentation they were more on board, and saw what the needs are. Councilwoman Gabriela Basua, who has a sister on the health board, told us how to get involved, and we’re trying to get word out so more can help. 

“It’s a great honor,” she added, “to advocate for others, and to show that youth is capable of helping. I found a voice and used it to help those around me.”

“I was blown away by how well they presented themselves,” said Alva. “These students told their truth and their life stories. PhotoVoice made adults and the public open their eyes.”

The next step

The visual literacy approach, said Vergara, produced information that will give direction to VCBH’s race-conscious substance abuse prevention program, and strengthen its health promotion plan for racial minorities. 

“This approach gives ordinary community members the tools and platform to express their experiences and policy recommendations on any community issue,” he said. “You could use the approach to engage community members meaningfully on any issue in which decision makers want to take action. It helps when an issue is driven by evidence and data.”

A second pilot study, with more African American, Samoan and Pacific Islander students participating, is underway, overseen by VCBH and BRITE. The goals remain the same:

  • Enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns about how racism affects their mental health and substance use risk.
  • Promote critical dialogue about racism’s impact on mental health and substance abuse through small group discussions of photographs.
  • Collaborate with decision makers in addressing systemic racism.

 “Our hope,” said Vergara, “is that by the end of round two we’ll have demonstrated enough evidence on how racism impacts behavioral health in Oxnard, and offer the opportunity for program innovation and policy reform to address local systemic racism.”

“We want to help these young people become better advocates and make positive changes in their community, and show them that shaping the future comes from within you,” said Alva. “We can help students get on track to change their communities, to find their voice and see the bigger picture.”

For more information on the project, other photos and discussions, visit the PhotoVoice Oxnard website at brite.mykajabi.com/Photovoice-Oxnard.