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A picture and a thousand words

ASU anthropology student is equipping the community to identify and preserve personal places of meaning through photography

photo of Sonoran Desert taken by study participant

A photo of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve taken by project participant. Its accompanying quote is, "I feel like I am Paradise Trail… It's the trail that my new house—the property line—connects to. If I leave my house and come up here and my feet are on this trail, I feel good… Because I'm a steward. I feel like I have a responsibility, like it's a child."

November 16, 2016

Anthropology student Ryan Bleam is using photography to capture how the act of volunteering at local nature preserves can improve Arizona residents’ relationships with nature and the community by helping them identify what he terms a “sense of place.”

To demonstrate this concept, Bleam, a PhD candidate in Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, recently asked 18 volunteers at the nonprofit McDowell Sonoran Conservancy to each take 10 photos of places that were meaningful to them, including in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, itself, or anywhere else in their communities.

Each volunteer picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, but as Bleam explains, the stories behind the photos were the key ingredient of this project.

“Academically, we can understand the many different reasons why places are meaningful, but our lives are really full of stories, interactions and symbols, and they come together to make a meaningful environment,” Bleam says. “For example, one volunteer told me, ‘Some of my most meaningful places are just a pile of rocks. You want me to take pictures of that?’ And I said, ‘Yes! Absolutely! Try to get the best photo that captures that place, but the meaning behind it is most important.’”

That particular conversation inspired the eventual title of Bleam’s exhibit, “My pile of rocks,” which displays the volunteers’ photos and the accompanying stories behind them to reveal the surprising and personal relationships that Phoenix residents have with their communities.

photo of anthropology PhD candidate Ryan Bleam

Anthropology PhD candidate Ryan Bleam

Bleam’s ultimate goal with the project is to see how these volunteers’ sense of place changes over time as they engage with the land during their work and then use that information to identify best practices for use both in the preserve and by other conservation nonprofits nationwide.

One initial finding revealed so far is that, in many cases, people’s important places aren’t always tied to fixed locations on a map. Instead, they can also be areas that symbolize ideas that are significant to the person.

For example, several participants in Bleam’s project chose to take pictures of desert plants that, in their minds, represented the perseverance of life in the Sonoran Desert.

It may come as no surprise that Bleam’s own first experience in building a sense of place occurred through interacting with his local landscape. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he got a job through AmeriCorps to teach at an alternative high school in Oregon, where classroom learning was mixed with camping trips and conservation work projects. He and his students worked for a year to build a hiking trail, and on the last day of school they all hiked it together.

“It was really special to see the pride in the students and staff. I felt a deep connection there, and it inspired me to study how conservation volunteerism builds a sense of place,” he says.

After he completes his PhD, Bleam wants to either continue teaching and researching with a career in academia, or work with an organization like the U.S. Forest Service, where he could conduct more social science research on how park visitors interact with the environment. For those also considering a degree in anthropology, he has a few words of wisdom.

“Make sure you get involved in research projects and get experience in different kinds of data collection and analysis techniques,” Bleam says. “Then think about how to apply anthropological thinking and methods to issues in your own community.”

For Bleam, doing research that gives back to the community is at the heart of this project. In that spirit, he will give a public lecture on Tuesday, Nov. 22, to discuss his research and examine some of the common themes in the meaning and geography of the places photographed by his project participants. Visitors will also be able to view the exhibit “My pile of rocks.” See below for additional information on the talk and exhibit.

In Scottsdale... 

What: “Exploring ‘Sense of Place’ Through Photography of McDowell Sonoran Conservancy Volunteers” lecture

When: Tuesday, Nov. 22, 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Where: Scottsdale Mustang Library auditorium

Details: Free and open to the public. Visit the event page for more information.

See photos from Bleam's project ...

What: “My pile of rocks” exhibit

When: Now through the first week of January 2017

Where: Scottsdale Mustang Library auditorium

Details: Free and open to the public. Visit the event page for more information.