Published: Oct. 21, 2009

Photovoice project brings new perspectives to Mali visitors, students

Contact(s): Kristan Tetens Residential College in the Arts and Humanities office: (517) 884-6290, David Cooper Public Humanities Collaborative office: (517) 432-2584

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Most people are familiar with the sayings “a picture is worth a thousand words” and “every picture tells a story.”

For 12 Malian academic, civic and religious leaders visiting Michigan State, dozens of photos they’ve taken during their visit here and in other U.S. locations will translate into dozens of stories upon their return home.

But not before they have had a chance to share their views of America, Michigan and MSU with the public.

Their most meaningful photos will be displayed during a Photovoice exhibit reception from 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Lookout! Gallery in the Residential College of Arts and Humanities located in Snyder Hall. The exhibit is part of the Photovoice project in the residential college. Photovoice, which combines photography with grassroots social action, meshes photography with insight, discovery and reflection. 

The delegates are visiting local religious and cultural sites, and taking part in campus forums and discussion sessions with MSU faculty and students. They also are visiting with religious leaders and other officials in Dearborn, Detroit and Washington, D.C., as part of the “Strengthening Civil Society through Dialogue on Faith and Community: A U.S.-Mali Exchange Program.“

The delegates’ visit to MSU during the three-week program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State is being hosted by RCAH and the Center for Advanced Study of International Development in the College of Social Science.

For the Malian delegates, most of whom are Muslims, photos they have taken of their visits to local and Michigan synagogues, temples, mosques and churches tell stories of new friendships, but also of religious and personal freedoms and the possibilities for change in their country.

MSU students, under the direction of David Cooper, professor of writing, rhetoric and American cultures, planned and organized the local project, from technical camera operations to the development of the exhibit. He also set up “reflection sessions“ at which delegates (with the aid of interpreters) shared memories, photos and perspectives on religion, higher education and the American way of life with students and each other.

Cooper, who teaches in both the residential college and the College of Arts and Letters, has long had an interest in social documentary photography as a vehicle for social change and personal insight. In addition to his teaching duties, he is the director of the Public Humanities Collaborative in the College of Arts and Letters.

“Photovoice projects can immerse students in new languages, cultures and ways of seeing traditions through the use of a camera – a tool designed to engage students and photographers alike,” Cooper said.

“For this project, both the Malian guests and students needed to learn how to use the camera we supplied the delegates with for their trip, and both groups needed to have a thorough understanding of how the photos would enhance the learning and dialogue process,” he said. “More importantly, everyone learned to move beyond the barriers that may arise when new cultures come together for the first time.”

Rebekah Galang of Lansing, a senior arts and humanities student with food and sustainability as interest areas and member of the MSU Honors College, was involved with the first Photovoice project with members of a Malian delegation last year.

“The Photovoice project is a very powerful project because you can do anything with the lens of a camera,” said Galang, who is one of the main student facilitators this year. “You’re working to get a diversity of photos. You’re learning the meaning behind each person’s photos. And you’re learning from the comments others in the group have to say about the photos.”

Other students working with Cooper on the project are Zack Bissell, a junior arts and humanities major and a member of the MSU Honors College; Zac Johnson, a junior in arts and humanities and religious studies student in the College of Arts and Letters; Lauren O’Connor, a junior majoring in arts and humanities, and psychology in the College of Social Science; and Corrina Van Hamlin, a senior arts and humanities major.

For more information on the RCAH, visit