San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Photovoice’ Project Makes the Invisible Visible

Seven women in La Carpio recently became artists in their own residence for one week, in a project spearheaded by two University of North Carolina professors.

The professors and four U.S. students lent the women digital cameras to explore and explain their reality in the impoverished neighborhood in northwestern San José, which began as a Nicaraguan squatter settlement in the late 1990s and has since grown to approximately 14,000 residents.

The technique combining photography with grassroots social action, known as “photovoice,” was made famous with the 2004 documentary film “Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids.” But professor Mary Morgan, one of the organizers of the La Carpio event, said it’s been around for at least a decade. She said the technique was first pioneered in rural China by North American professors and the U.S.-based Ford Foundation.

“(The women) said, ‘We need a way to communicate with the other world,’” said Rosemary Bardell, another professor involved with the project here. “It gave them a way to communicate, and it helps them learn to more specifically articulate what they need.

It makes them visible.”

“It’s supposed to be empowering,” Morgan said.

The La Carpio photographers, six Nicaraguans and one Tica, took photos with a focus on their daily lives – making tortillas, cooking, fixing cars. But they also showed a preoccupation with the poor infrastructure in the shantytown: trash everywhere, poor bridges and lack of sanitation.

La Carpio resident Lucía Aguilar proudly displayed one of her photos of a dilapidated, improvised bridge over the Río María Aguilar.

The bridge spanning a surging river might be a great theme for a new amusement park ride if it weren’t potentially fatal.

“I took my photos to call attention to the problems of poverty,” Aguilar said. “Here, there is a lot of abuse, violence and fear. We’re fighting to stay alive.”

María Acuña, the only Tica photographer in the group, said the hope is that the photos will lead to something better.

“We’re waiting to see how the project is carried out,” she said. “It strikes me just how needy this community is.”

While organizers said the program’s goals include helping the women better themselves, they said there is no firm plan to follow up with the women.

Graduate student Victoria Kintner said the photo project here is a pilot program for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Morgan said the program has been a success, and the quality of the photos is outstanding.

“It went beyond all expectations,” she said.

“They got pictures I could never get in a million years. They just opened up their private lives to us.”

She said the university has no plans to return to Costa Rica but is looking at running a similar project in the African nation of Ghana.

The whirlwind nature of the one-week photo foray was a disadvantage, organizers said.

“If we had it to do over again, we would make it longer,” Bardell said.

Program participants, all workers at the Humanitarian Foundation in La Carpio, received clothes, food, toiletries and “some money” for their efforts, according to Kintner.

The women make roughly $160 a month at the center.

Humanitarian Foundation Director Gail Nystrom said this is not the first photovoice project with which her organization has been affiliated. Earlier this year, area youth completed a six-month project that yielded 100 photos, she said.

“That project was better, and it included haiku poetry as well,” she said. “It gives them a voice and it makes the invisible in our society visible.”

Nystrom said she is still looking for a place to exhibit the photos. She can be reached at 8390-4192.


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