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ASU helps empower youth through photography project

September 01, 2009

Roucelin Nava’s photograph of her grandmother’s boldly colored funeral flowers —purple mums, Gerber daisies and red roses — was more than a simple digital image. It was a devotion to the woman she had loved and lost.  

“When I hurt my knee, my mom didn’t even call 911 because she knew my grandma would fix it,” she wrote in the picture’s caption.

Roucelin’s emotional picture was one of 43 chosen for a stunning exhibit unveiled at the South Mountain Salvation Army Community Center July 30, 2009.

The extraordinary photos were chosen from nearly 1,000 images created by fifth and sixth graders taking part in the South Phoenix Photovoice project, an innovative program co-directed by two Arizona State University assistant professors, Seline Szkupinski Quiroga, from the Department of Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Jennifer Sandlin, assistant professor in the Division of Advanced Studies in Education Policy, Leadership and Curriculum in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education.

Szkupinski Quiroga and Sandlin are both members of the ASU South Phoenix Collaborative, a network of researchers, students and community stakeholders addressing health and environmental challenges in the South Mountain community.

Photovoice was designed to empower youth through digital photography, teaching them during a 12-week program to turn their lenses on their community, capturing images of anything from dangerous streets to childhood obesity. The program also helped the students discover the strong pull of advertising on their lives as they roamed their neighborhoods with their cameras.

Szkupinski Quiroga, a medical anthropologist who studies the intersection between culture and health, initiated the Photovoice project, says Sandlin, who designed the project’s curriculum. Szkupinski Quiroga, who has extensive experience working in communities, met with South Phoenix residents “to get the lay of the land and learn what they were concerned with,” she says. “Everybody was talking about childhood obesity, but we wanted to know what the kids think, what are they eating and why. What do they think is healthy food and what is their experience with exercise.”

Eleven-year-old Joseph Montano took a picture of his grandmother behind a plate of tacos, rice and beans at a restaurant to sum up his cultural reverence for Mexican food. “We are a generation of taco eaters,” he says.

Sandlin says she delved into the Photovoice project because she is “very interested in popular culture and advertising and how they help shape our identities and belief systems as we walk through the world.”

Photovoice, she says, was the perfect setting for the 10 and 11-year-olds to talk about how they are affected by powerful advertising, particularly for less than healthy food.

Referring to a photo of a candy vending machine at the Salvation Army, she says “the kids and I had a really interesting conversation in which they described how advertising for candy leads you to believe that the candy is somewhat healthy, such as the advertising for Snickers bars.”

The students, Sandlin says, were savvy about how consumers are mislead, but were still influenced by the ads “and regularly bought the foods anyway.” She explained, however, that “often they are buying and eating this food because don’t have any other choices. For instance, the vending machines in the community center where they spend a great deal of time almost exclusively stocks candy and junk food, so while they may be aware of what healthy choices are, they aren’t being given the opportunity to choose healthy foods in those contexts.”

As the students wrestled with whether they should eat the candy, the teachers urged them to critically analyze the ads. “We also encouraged them to see health as encompassing not just individual choices,” Sandlin says, “but also cultural and structural issues such as the kinds of foods that are marketed to them and that are made available to them in the restaurants and grocery stores in their neighborhoods.”

With a new interest in healthy eating, the students took pictures of fruits and vegetables, contrasting them with sugar and fat-laden snacks.

April Ruiz, who composed an inviting portrait of sliced cantaloupe, said the melon is her favorite fruit because it is healthy and helps energize your body.

Another student, 12-year-old Adam Orosco, made his statement on unhealthy foods with a photo of the vending machines’ candy bars and other snacks. Eating well, he says, “is more important than anything else, it keeps you healthy.”

Albert Longoria, 10, known as AJ, has sworn off junk food since photographing the project. “They started tasting nasty,” he says.

The $12,000 project was funded by top-tier health agencies and others interested in promoting healthy diets: The Association of State and Territorial Public Health Nutrition Directors, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in collaboration with the Arizona Department of Health Services, ASU and the Salvation Army Phoenix South Mountain Corps Community Center.

Andrew Hammerand, a professional fine arts photographer and recent ASU graduate, taught the students how to operate the cameras, master the art of storytelling and document social issues with photography.

The students went on “photo walks” to practice their skills. Once familiar with the digital cameras, they were given weekly assignments on a broad health-related subject and returned every Saturday to download their pictures and talk about their images.

Hammerand, rushing with other colleagues to frame and hang the 43 photos the night before the exhibit, said he was “blown away by the photos the students took.”

So was the project’s curatorial and exhibition specialist, Claire Warden, an ASU senior enrolled in photography and museum studies, who curated, along with Jando Chavez, an installation assistant, the Photovoice exhibit.

Warden, who has a background in painting, noticed Roucelin’s photo of her grandmother’s grave, and called the picture “visually stimulating.”

Just as Szkupinski Quiroga and Sandlin expect the project to draw attention to childhood obesity, the students documented untended parks and streets and gang graffiti in hopes of striking a chord with officials who have the clout to make change. 

Longoria’s stark picture of a lone paint-peeling soccer goal in a littered park makes a strong point. “I can’t play with all the trash,” he wrote in the picture’s caption. “You might get hurt on the broken bottles. They never clean it … I was going to do it but it is too much.”

Chelsea Faliveno, the community center’s program director, said the Photovoice project did far more than teach fifth and sixth graders to create riveting photos.

“The bigger picture is that they are doing much more than taking pictures,” she says. “They are learning discipline and how to finish a project.”

The young photographers and creators of Photovoice want their powerful pictures to get more attention and are looking for restaurants, schools, libraries, community centers, coffee shops and businesses to showcase their exhibit. Anyone interested in hosting the exhibit can call Sandlin at (979) 777-0993 or Szkupinski Quiroga at (480) 727-6091. They also can be reached at and

Carol Sowers, with the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, can be reached at (602) 524-4443 or