Social Dialogue Magazine
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Mieko Yoshihama Professor, University of Michigan School of Social Work, United States

PhotoVoice: Arts-Based Participatory Research and Action to Inform Gender-Sensitive Disaster Policies and Responses in Japan

In what ways can social work research and practice capture the lived experiences of the socially marginalized and lift and amplify their voices toward the creation of more inclusive social policies and responses? This article presents an ongoing participatory action research effort aimed at the development of more inclusive, gender-informed disaster policies and programs following the Great East Japan Disaster in 2011. Using PhotoVoice methodology—a participatory method involving photography and creative writing—we also sought to introduce a new approach to knowledge development and policy making in Japan.

The Great East Japan Disaster and Women

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck the northeast region of Japan on March 11, 2011, which triggered massive tsunamis, causing unprecedented destruction to the natural and built environment. Nuclear meltdowns and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant ensued, releasing high levels of radioactive material, whose effects continue to this day. Decades of research and field work around the world have shown that disasters exacerbate pre- disaster inequities and magnify the vulnerability of marginalized groups (Enarson, 2012; Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2003). Unquestionably, women in Japan have been marginalized. In 2011, the year of the disaster, Japan ranked 98th out of 135 countries on the Gender Gap Index; in the most recent report released in October 2017, Japan ranks 114th out of 144 countries. Given women’s lower status in society, it is no surprise that their perspectives are not well reflected in disaster policies and programs in Japan.

Prior to the disaster, Japan’s major policies on disaster—the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act and the Basic Disaster Management Plan—made limited reference to gender. Research in Japan has paid limited attention to gender, and no study has used participatory methods of investigation to capture women’s lived experiences and perspectives. The PhotoVoice Project is aimed at filling these serious gaps in social policies, programs, and research.

Making Women’s Voices Heard through PhotoVoice

Using PhotoVoice methodology (Wang & Burris, 1997), the project sought to document and analyze the consequences of the disaster and formulate recommendations to make disaster policies and programs more responsive to diverse and marginalized populations. As a participatory action research effort, the project was also intended to strengthen participants’ capacity to take action themselves and incite action on the part of others to strengthen disaster policies and programs (Yoshihama & Yunomae, in press).

PhotoVoice, developed during the 1990s as a tool to identify and analyze community issues and formulate plans for change, is rooted in empowerment and emancipatory education, feminist theory, and documentary photography (Wang & Burris, 1997). It engages the very people affected by the social issue under investigation. Rather than being relegated to the role of study subjects, or objects of examination, participants serve as experts, producing knowledge through photo-taking and dialectic discussions. Along the way, they create voices (i.e., short written texts) to accompany selected photographs. Their photographs and voices are disseminated in print, digitally, or through exhibits in community venues. PhotoVoice has been used in a wide range of settings to examine and improve the social conditions of vulnerable population groups (Hergenrather, Rhodes, Cowan, Bardhoshi, & Pula, 2009; Yoshihama & Carr, 2002).

Gathering and Orienting Participants railroads, bridges, and ports. Participants have also photographed damage to their own houses and workplaces, as well as the unfamiliar and difficult living conditions in their temporary housing. Photographing the damage caused by the nuclear accident has required creativity. Unlike destroyed buildings and the heavy equipment used for repair of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, radioactive material released into the air, soil, and water is invisible. Some participants initially expressed doubt about capturing such invisible damage; however, they have found creative ways to capture it. For example, the image of a cucumber grown too big and that of a persimmon tree with fruit sagging in the middle of winter were used to illustrate the impact of radiation contamination, which discouraged people from eating the vegetable and fruit.

Getting in Touch with and Expressing Emotion

Participants also have captured images that express various emotions: sense of loss, grief, sorrow, anger, fear, anxiety, powerlessness, and helplessness. These emotions have also been expressed during group meetings, verbally and in tears, facial expressions, and silence. One participant took a photograph of a lone house that withstood the force of the tsunami. In pointing out that the inside of the house was destroyed and nonfunctional, she stated that she and other evacuees were similar, feeling devastated and empty inside. She also took a photograph of a tilted building to illustrate her sense of being destabilized by the disaster and evacuation. She also photographed a dog and a cat in a cage at the emergency evacuation center where she was staying and chose to display the latter to express her sense of entrapment in an emergency evacuation center.

Exposing Failures and Formulating Visions

Participants have also captured images of what they perceive as effective and ineffective disaster preparedness, risk mitigation, and responses. They have photographed and discussed the reconstruction process, which involved leveling mountains and cutting down trees to secure land for public reconstruction housing and constructing tall seawalls along wide coastal stretches of northern Japan. They have also frequently discussed the inadequate response to the radioactive contamination by the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company. In addition, participants have created photographic images representing what is yet to happen and what they desire to happen, such as a more disaster-resilient society and reconstruction efforts that promote the coexistence of human beings and nature. Initially, we implemented the project in the three most severely affected prefectures—Koriyama City, Fukushima Prefecture; Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture; and Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture. In each site, a women’s non-governmental organization (NGO) helped refine and implement the project. We began with 20 participants in groups of five, nine, and six. Over the years, the number of participants has grown to over 50 as we have expanded the project to additional sites. Included were housewives, members of NGOs and governmental organizations, and professionals (e.g., physicians, nurses, and midwives) ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s. All had experienced varying degrees of loss and damage, losing family members and friends, having their homes damaged, and having to evacuate to temporary housing. Seven years later, some remain displaced.

Photographing and Narrating the Disaster’s Consequences

Since the project’s start, participants have taken photographs of various aspects of their lives and communities after the disaster and attended a series of group discussion meetings. At meetings, participants select several photographs that they wish to discuss. Together with their photographs, they talk about their experiences and observations of the disaster and its aftermath; this is a dialectic process where multiple perspectives are shared and acknowledged. Group facilitators (including the author) encourage the participants to go beyond simple narratives of what happened after the disaster or what image participants captured in the photograph. Photographers, other group members, and facilitators together explore sociocultural factors that might have contributed to what happened or did not happen, and what change would be necessary to ensure more effective disaster prevention and response policies and programs. Many photographs are descriptive, capturing scenes of destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunamis, such as damaged houses, buildings, roads, railroads, bridges, and ports. Participants have also photographed damage to their own houses and workplaces, as well as the unfamiliar and difficult living conditions in their temporary housing. Photographing the damage caused by the nuclear accident has required creativity. Unlike destroyed buildings and the heavy equipment used for repair of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, radioactive material released into the air, soil, and water is invisible. Some participants initially expressed doubt about capturing such invisible damage; however, they have found creative ways to capture it. For example, the image of a cucumber grown too big and that of a persimmon tree with fruit sagging in the middle of winter were used to illustrate the impact of radiation contamination, which discouraged people from eating the vegetable and fruit.

Getting in Touch with and Expressing Emotion

Participants also have captured images that express various emotions: sense of loss, grief, sorrow, anger, fear, anxiety, powerlessness, and helplessness. These emotions have also been expressed during group meetings, verbally and in tears, facial expressions, and silence. One participant took a photograph of a lone house that withstood the force of the tsunami. In pointing out that the inside of the house was destroyed and nonfunctional, she stated that she and other evacuees were similar, feeling devastated and empty inside. She also took a photograph of a tilted building to illustrate her sense of being destabilized by the disaster and evacuation. She also photographed a dog and a cat in a cage at the emergency evacuation center where she was staying and chose to display the latter to express her sense of entrapment in an emergency evacuation center.

Exposing Failures and Formulating Visions

Participants have also captured images of what they perceive as effective and ineffective disaster preparedness, risk mitigation, and responses. They have photographed and discussed the reconstruction process, which involved leveling mountains and cutting down trees to secure land for public reconstruction housing and constructing tall seawalls along wide coastal stretches of northern Japan. They have also frequently discussed the inadequate response to the radioactive contamination by the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company. In addition, participants have created photographic images representing what is yet to happen and what they desire to happen, such as a more disaster-resilient society and reconstruction efforts that promote the coexistence of human beings and nature.

Creating Voices and Speaking Up

Of the many photographs taken and shared at group meetings, participants choose those they wish to display to the public. They then write a short message (voice) to accompany each photograph. In November 2012, we organized the first series of exhibits in Fukushima. In addition to displaying photographs and voices, printed large, we also organized public forums, where participants made verbal presentations and interacted with the audience.

We have thus far organized over 40 public exhibits and about 20 public forums. At selected exhibits and forums, we obtain written feedback from the audience. One audience member wrote, “I felt the power of the photographs. It is important to keep a record. Photographs help us remember and continue to talk about what happened.”

Reaching a Wider Audience

A limited number of people attend exhibits and public forums, and presentations occur on a time- limited basis. Participants desired additional means to disseminate their photographs and voices. One such attempt involved publication of a book, a compilation of participants’ photographs and voices in March 2015. Each participant designed two pages using their own photographs and voices. For the front and back covers, a participant drew a stream of photographs capturing images of the disaster along the coast, representing the journey from the present to the future (see photo).

Translating participants’ voices into English and French represents another effort to achieve wider dissemination. Instructors and students of the Japanese language at the University of Michigan in the U.S.A. and Université Paris Diderot in France have taken up this challenge. The translation of voices has served as a valuable learning experience for students. It has become a regular part of an advanced translation course in the University of Michigan’s Japanese Language Program. This is a new and exciting interdisciplinary collaboration.

In 2014, the National Women’s Education Center, a national public agency in Japan, invited us to submit the participants’ photographs and voices to its digital archive. This archive is linked to the Great East Japan Earthquake Archive (http://kn.ndl.go.jp/en/#/ ) of the National Diet Library (the equivalent of the U.S. Library of Congress), which is, in turn, linked to various archives around the globe. This invitation symbolizes societal recognition of the value of the citizen- generated documentary record of the disaster that our PhotoVoice Project has produced. The availability of English and French voices allows for global dissemination.

Continuing and Expanding

Life after a major disaster is demanding and unpredictable. When the project began, many participants were living in emergency evacuation centers or temporary housing; some had to relocate many times in search of safer and more suitable temporary housing. Many were assisting other disaster victims as part of their regular employment or as volunteers, and many continue to do so to this day. Participants were and, in many cases, still are exhausted and over-extended. Yet they have continued to take photographs and attend meetings, attesting to the meaningfulness and effectiveness of the project.

Given the chaotic conditions immediately following the disaster, initially, we asked prospective participants to attend three discussion meetings with the option of continuing if they so desired. Participants wanted to continue beyond the originally planned three sessions. The project is now in its seventh year and continuing to expand, with the participants themselves helping to create more groups in four new venues. These participant-generated efforts are another indication that the project is serving an important need for disaster-affected citizens.

Collective Creation and Dissemination of Knowledge

PhotoVoice—by combining photo-taking, group discussions, voice writing, and public dissemination of photographs and voices—effectively serves as a means to record, reflect, analyze, communicate, and prompt action while also serving as an introspective and emotive channel through which to identify and express feelings. Participants are actively engaged in the dissemination of knowledge through exhibiting their photographs and voices and making presentations to inform policymakers, practitioners, the media, and other citizens and prompting them to take action in their respective capacities. Clearly, PhotoVoice promotes cyclic processes of critical consciousness and action—praxis.

References

Enarson, E. (2012). Women confronting natural disaster: From vulnerability to resilience. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Hergenrather, K.C., Rhodes, S.D., Cowan, C.A., Bardhoshi, G., & Pula, S. (2009). Photovoice as community-based participatory research. American Journal of Health Behavior, 33, 686-698.
Wang, C., & Burris, M.A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24, 369-387.
Wisner, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., & Davis, I. (2003). At risk: Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability, and disasters. London: Routledge.
Yoshihama, M., & Carr, E.S. (2002). Community participation reconsidered: Feminist participatory action research with Hmong women. Journal of Community Practice, 10, 85-103.
Yoshihama, M., & Yunomae, T. (in press). Participatory investigation of the Great East Japan Disaster: PhotoVoice from women affected by the calamity, Social Work.