LAWRENCE — A group of Ch'orti' Maya women in Guatemala used digital cameras to document health and environmental problems in their hamlets, and as a result, Engineers Without Borders is working on a water purifications solution for the community.
The Photovoice project was conducted by University of Kansas researchers seeking to help marginalized indigenous communities in eastern Guatemala.
"These women are disempowered," said Brent Metz, associate professor of anthropology. "They are especially vulnerable to social criticism. So we developed techniques to try to help them get over that and contribute to their community’s health."
Metz and co-author Jodi Gentry, who earned her master's degree in environmental engineering from KU and works as an environmental engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, used a KU Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies Cluster Grant in 2012 to train Ch’orti’ women on using digital cameras and document conditions in their homes and neighborhoods. The research also involved students from a KU field school in anthropology and the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies via the KU Study Abroad program in 2013.
An article recently published in the journal Human Organization details their work in distributing the cameras to the Ch'orti' women and the conditions the women documented with the photos.
In addition to helping the women find voices in their communities that will lead to Engineers Without Borders improving the water quality, the research suggests ways that anthropologists can adjust and improve Photovoice and other community-based participatory research methods to help people document their own perspectives.
Metz said the researchers faced both social and technical challenges in getting the project off the ground.
For one, many of the women had never used a camera before, and they were unfamiliar with electronic devices. The researchers had to balance how to train the women to use the cameras without overly guiding them on what type of images to shoot, he said.
"You don't want to lead them too much in any direction," Metz said. "You're dealing with a marginalized population who are insecure about their identity. They also don't want to make mistakes."
They also faced issues with the equipment and battery life of the cameras, particularly in places without access to electricity.
Another challenge in training was seeking to connect with the women to get them comfortable with documenting conditions in their homes and neighborhoods without seeming to be patronizing, Metz said.
"They have no to very little experience with other people around the world, and so you have to be sensitive not to exoticize them," he said.
To overcome this challenge, in showing the Ch'orti' women examples of things to document and photograph, they included photos of more affluent Americans of different nations, including examples of obesity and health problems or environmental problems such as traffic smog in U.S. cities.
"With adjustments, we partially met our objective of learning Ch'orti' women's perspectives on health needs, building trust and accumulating photos for various functions," the researchers wrote, "but our application of the method was far from perfect."
The women were able to document a host of health and environmental problems, and their photos were compiled into a large presentation that the entire county could see. This included issues with running water and water quality to even the prevalence of flies that come during a cycle as mango fruit rots on trees. The flies can cause contamination by landing on mangos, human and animal waste, and food and lips, which is dangerous for children, especially.
The publication of the photos gave the women a voice they normally did not have in the community, Metz said.
It also helped them advocate for the Sunflower State Professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA to start working on a project to improve the running water quality in the community, particularly in setting up a system to better purify the water and treat it.
"There is something that could be done on the sanitation side of things," Metz said. "There is a sustainable solution that has worked in other communities."
Now the researchers believe the experience with the Ch'orti' women and the adjustments they made using Photovoice are applicable to helping other indigenous populations, particularly those suffering from a high degree of social exclusion, poverty, illiteracy and heightened sensitivity to being disrespected.
"Part of the reason why gauging women’s perspectives on health is important is that they are on the front lines of processing food, feeding families, and washing children and kitchen utensils," Metz said. "That's why we went to them. They also water the garden around the house. They do everything on the front lines with water, so they know the issues and the potential problems. Yet when most people go to these communities, it's the men they talk to, and women aren't quietly observed in the background. We needed to get to the front lines somehow, and Photovoice did that."
Top photo: Brent Metz, associate professor of anthropology, trains Ch’orti’ women in Guatemala to use digital cameras to document health and environmental problems in their hamlets. Metz led KU researchers and students in 2012-13 on a Photovoice project that seeks to help marginalized indigenous communities.
Top right photo: Brent Metz, associate professor of anthropology, far right, and KU researchers Jodi Gentry and Aida Ramos train Ch’orti’ women in Guatemala to use digital cameras to document health and environmental problems in their hamlets. KU researchers and students in 2012-13 participated in a Photovoice project that resulted in Engineers Without Borders working on a water purifications solution for the community.
Bottom right photo: A Ch’orti’ women in eastern Guatemala shows pictures to men in the hamlet that women took to document health and environmental problems there. KU researchers and students in 2012-13 led a Photovoice project that seeks to help marginalized indigenous communities.
Photos courtesy of Brent Metz.