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ASU doctoral student leads research project on homeless children in Peru

September 01, 2009

Through the lens of disposable cameras, Jamie Patrice Joanou had hoped to capture snapshots of the lives of children living on the streets of Lima, Peru. Instead, her study revealed the humanizing effects of photography through self-portraits of homeless boys who simply wanted to create memories of their lives.

Joanou, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and policy studies within the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education at Arizona State University, first became interested in the lives of children living on the street while traveling for a year in South America.

Joanou was intrigued by these children, mostly boys, who make their way on the streets for diverse reasons, including familial abuse, poverty and neglect. They employ various strategies to make a living in the densely populated city of nine million. Lima does not have as large a population of homeless children as Brazil or Mexico, she explained, but the street is a very transitional place for street children who are marginalized from mainstream society.

 “They experience daily instability, moving from home to street to juvenile detention. Their relationship with the urban environment is very fluid, and their relationships are very fluid with each other, with organizations and with other inhabitants of the city,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about them, so I decided I wanted to get my doctorate in education.”

In 2007, Joanou finished her master’s degree in social and philosophical foundations of education and returned to Peru to pilot her project about Lima’s street children. Her dissertation proposal, “Street Children and Cityscapes: The Use of Photovoice as a Collaborative Method with Children Living and Working on the streets of Lima, Peru,” received an international award from for outstanding and innovative research ideas that have the potential to lead to advancements in their respective fields of study. The award comes with $1,000 and a one-year premium membership to, an online collaborative research community.

"Jamie's work contributes to the growing use of photovoice in work with young people, including those in challenging circumstances,” says Elizabeth Swadener, a professor of education policy, leadership and curriculum with the Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education. “Such work honors the perspectives and experiences of children and youth and provides a powerful vehicle for not only creative self-expression but for sharing stories and creating spaces of possibility."

Joanou returned to Peru in 2008 and gained access to this population through a local nonprofit where street children can wash their clothes, shower, eat and participate in educational workshops.

After gaining rapport with the youth there, she gave them disposable cameras and asked them to shoot pictures of their environment, hoping to receive images of their 24-hour urban landscape. She offered them key words, such as “calle” (street) and “Terokal,” the shoemakers’ glue they inhale to get high.

“They’re living in extreme poverty; they have very limited contact with their family, and they don’t have access to technology, like cameras," she says. "It was a way for me to get to see what their lives were like while still being an outsider. I was never going to be able to do observations by being a full participant.”

“I wanted them to use those key words to explore what was important about street life. What I got back was pictures of themselves and pictures of their friends. I originally attributed that to the novelty of having a camera. Then I asked them to take pictures of places in the city that were important to them. Each time I got pictures of themselves and their friends. I started to realize the importance of that in identity development. They wanted to see themselves in the photograph and be seen as individuals.”

Joanou says it was especially important for the children to be viewed as more than street kids. “Their identities are really complex, and they want some authorship to their identities because they tend to be contrived by media, and even research, and that’s really problematic.”

Because poverty-level families don’t typically have cameras, the children didn’t think it was possible to capture their lives in pictures, Joanou says. Photography helped bring these children in from the societal margin by giving them photo albums of their youth.

Joanou theorizes that photographs don’t document history and aren’t objective images of life, experiences or moments in times. Rather, they are ways of creating history, creating identities and finding meaning.

“The humanizing effects are having an active part in the creation of their own histories,” she says.  “It was the best experience of my life, and probably the hardest. There was a constant negotiation of my expectations, rules and guidelines, and a constant renegotiation of rapport. They taught me a lot about how to be a person and how to be a better researcher, too.”

After analyzing data and writing her dissertation, Joanou plans to publish a book on her research and pursue a tenure-track faculty position after graduating.

“I hope to go back to Lima and also to use the pictures with them for future research," she says. "I’m going to try to maintain contact with the boys in my study and go back in one, two, five years and see how they view their adolescence and how that view and perception changes over time.”