Taking Pictures, Speaking Out

Photo of the Delaware River taken by one of the Photovoice project participants. Image courtesy of Felicia Mitchell.

University of Kansas social work doctoral student Felicia Mitchell handed out disposable film cameras to members of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, all of whom “lived or worked” on the Tribe’s reservation in northeast Kansas. Mitchell asked the Tribal members to take pictures illustrating the relationship between health and water in their community.

The distribution of the cameras and the associated research formed the backbone of Mitchell’s dissertation. Recently completed, it’s a study using a qualitative research method called Photovoice. Invented in the 1990s by Caroline C. Wang at the University of Michigan and Mary Ann Burris at the Ford Foundation, Photovoice aims to enable participants “to represent their communities or express their points of view by photographing scenes that highlight research themes.”

In inviting the Kickapoo to photograph the connection between water and health in their community, Mitchell empowered them to voice their own concerns and interests. A small tribe, with around 1,600 members and about 600 reservation residents, the Kickapoo are uniquely affected by water issues, and Mitchell wanted to let the Tribal members explain exactly how.

The Kickapoo rely on the Delaware River for nearly all their water use. This reliance leaves them uniquely positioned for certain water challenges. First, surface water is subject to drought and climate change, often leading to low flow. In fact, in 2003, the Delaware ran completely dry and the Kickapoo had to ration their water, spending thousands to truck in over 7 million gallons of water. Another drought in 2012 affected everything from livestock to swimming pools, fire departments to car washes.

Further, non-source contamination from pollution and runoff upstream affects the quality of the water. Often the tap water on the Kickapoo reservation tastes bad, and those who can afford it use bottled water, itself posing a host of environmental issues. Additionally, tainted river water can lead to health concerns like eczema and even cancer.

Yet, when Mitchell handed out the cameras, she left her Photovoice question broadly phrased, not explicitly mentioning any of the Kickapoo’s previous water issues. In this way, Mitchell ensured that the results wouldn’t be tainted by her own interest, theories, or previous research. Mitchell says she “left it open-ended on purpose. I was careful about not leading them to any visuals.” So it’s all the more striking that nearly every camera came back with a picture of the Delaware River.

Water is central to many if not all indigenous populations — a common saying across indigenous peoples is “water is life.” The Kickapoo Tribe has only been in Kansas — and by extension, along the Delaware River — since the 1800s, when they were relocated to their current reservation in Brown County. Therefore, going in to her Photovoice study, Mitchell wasn’t sure how central the Delaware would be. Turns out, it was. The river, according the Mitchell, is “connected to a lot of aspects of the livelihood of the community,” even if the Delaware wasn’t the Kickapoo’s by choice.

The Kickapoo people Mitchell spoke with raised many concerns. Some discussed how much more uncommon swimming was these days. Others worried over contamination in the springs used for ceremonies and rituals. Many raised the specter of being unsure whether the river caused cancer.

Yet Mitchell’s goal is more than learning about the issues facing the Kickapoo; she also aims to raise awareness to a broader public. She say “the purpose of the study was to engage the community in participatory research by collecting these photos and stories about health and water that can then be shared with a wider audience.”

With the wider audience in mind, Mitchell secured a Kansas Humanities Council grant to design and mount an exhibition of photographs the Kickapoo participants took. She enlarged the photographs and quotes from her research and displayed the exhibition in the senior center at the Kickapoo Reservation. After the exhibit, Mitchell solicited feedback from the participants and Tribal members to make sure she got the story right. Soon, she hopes to mount a public exhibition to make the Kickapoo water story more widely known.

Learn more water stories of Kansas at the Water/Ways Smithsonian exhibition that is touring Kansas through June 2018..

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