Literacy Through Photography

13 Feb
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Photo by Ester Alvarado, who came to Worcester from El Salvador.

Driving from my home, I sometimes fight the force of habit and will myself away from the highway ramp, instead ascending one of the many hills of Worcester. As I cross the plateau at the top, to my left I can see one street after another plunge toward downtown, each lined with bland and boxy three-deckers, all seemingly the same.

Even though I often drive with a camera ready in the passenger seat, I never once stopped for a shot.

Then, two years ago, something happened that suddenly injected supposedly boring streets with meaning. It happened after an exhibit of immigrant photography held on the Assumption College campus; as I drove, I realized I was staring at one of my favorite pictures from that exhibit, taken by Ester Alvarado.

And now I had a story to go with it. In Ester’s words:

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That photo and caption, like so many others in the exhibit, came into being largely because of the energetic and imaginative Esteban Loustaunau, a Spanish professor who, as part of a class he taught, gave immigrants taking classes at Teaching Resources of America, Inc., disposable cameras. Their mission: To take one shot symbolizing their lives in Worcester, then present on them using their developing English skills. Since Esteban is not one to let projects die with the semester in which they were started, he moved on to a next phase – having the photos framed with captions in the Assumption library, with a special grand opening, Photographers and their families – many of them taking a bus the school provided – greeted one another with hugs and celebrated one another’s work. It was a moving night, with some tears shed along the way.

Job well done. Time to move on, right?

Well, no.

Esteban then found a student, Andrea Kolodziej, to take the project to yet another level –– an on-line exhibit of all the photos, called “Immigrant Perspectives of Life in Worcester.” Andrea, a passionate, bright and creative CSL minor, created the website and conducted interviews for further information. “Photography is a universal language, so even people with a language barrier can express themselves and learn through photography,” Andrea wrote me. “The photographs are often very personal and meaningful to the participants.”

Elena and daughter with Esteban with her photo at February 2012 exhibit.

Elena and daughter with Esteban with her photo at February 2012 exhibit.

The project is an application of Literacy Through Photography (LTP), which has been practiced for decades, most notably by photographer Wendy Ewald. From 1990 to 2011, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies sponsored LTP as an active project; teachers would come to Durham for LTP training – and the school would ultimately take the concept abroad, training teachers in the use of LTP in Tanzania. (You can find pictures and stories about the latter on Duke’s LTP blog.)

Up in Worcester, Esteban, himself an immigrant from Mexico, read of Ewald’s work, and decided to apply it to his Spanish CSL classes. “One of the many challenges newly arrived immigrants and refugees face in their host countries is their ability to be seen and heard.  This is especially challenging when the immigrants and refugees are unfamiliar with the dominant language of their new land.  In a social and economic context, the ability to access goods and services, education, health, jobs, even public recognition is often based on literacy proficiency.  The more a newcomer understands about the culture and the language of a new place, the easier it might be for this person to adapt and settle in the new location.

“Now, to me that is still a one-sided view on settlement.  It is as if in order for a newcomer to be recognized as a citizen he or she must adapt to a given set of expectations and accept a new way of life.  This is the perspective of most governments who welcome immigrants and refugees.  What Literacy Through Photography acknowledges from the start is that newly-arrived immigrants and refugees already possess knowledge that ought to be recognized by others (i.e. the social majority.)

“The challenge we face in the United States (as in most countries who welcome immigrants and refugees) is that we seldom get to hear and learn about this other knowledge due to the immigrants and refugees’ limited literacy skills in English and perhaps also to our own lack of consideration from views and cultures that are different from ours.”

Count me as one of those changed by the LTP experience – now when I drive past all those three-deckers, I look more closely at all those three-deckers, wonder at the cultural diversity within those three-decker boxes that I once assumed were all the same.

Rafila D. Papit (Romania) on the Boys and Girls Club at Tainter Street: "I call this picture 'The Symbol of Constructive Creativity.'   Why did I take this picture?  I thought this building brings hope and opportunity for all young people.  ...  School should teach you to be your own teacher, the best and most.  Seriously."

Rafila D. Papit (Romania) on the Boys and Girls Club at Tainter Street: “I call this picture ‘The Symbol of Constructive Creativity.’ Why did I take this picture? I thought this building brings hope and opportunity for all young people. … School should teach you to be your own teacher, the best and most. Seriously.”

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