Resilient Neighborhoods: Citizen photographers highlight safety-related issues on city's East Side

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But for Detroiter Loretta Powell, they also make excellent conversation starters. 

Powell, who lives in the city's East Canfield neighborhood and works with Detroit's Loretta Powellpublic school system, recently participated in a photo documentary project where she and other participants took photos of her East Side Detroit neighborhood focused on themes related to safety and security. 

"I photographed a butterfly rain garden that I created. Then I did the abandoned school down the street from me and an abandoned house," she says. "I found out every picture had a story. I was really happy about what I did and accomplished."

A collaboration between the Eastside Community Network (ECN) and the University of Michigan's School of information, the project relied on a method of community engagement known as photovoice. Photovoice makes use of photographs taken and selected by participants as a tool to reflect on emotions, experiences, and ideas connected to those images.

The method was first developed in 1997 to assist rural women in China's Yunnan province to have more of a say about policies and programs that impacted their lives. It's also been used in Flint, Michigan to engage local youth and adults on the issue of neighborhood violence. 

The ECN-University of Michigan photovoice project, which took place this year, involved 11 East Side Detroiters who used photovoice techniques to explore issues related to safety and surveillance in their communities. For Powell, the photos of the school and abandoned building represented a negative shift that had occurred in her community.
 
"It made me sad," she says. "And my emotions were coming out, because I was talking about what had happened to me when the neighborhood changed. And I didn't even feel like living here anymore, because it wasn't the same."

On the flip side, the photo of her garden evoked feelings of safety, as well as the experience of working with her neighbor to improve the area around her home in a positive way.

"I created my butterfly garden in 2019 and then my neighbor did [a vegetable garden] on my lot. And I was inspired on the other side of my house [to create] a gazebo garden," says Powell. "So right now, I'm very proud of my neighborhood, because it's looking so much better."

This photo of Loretta Powell's garden appeared in the photovoice exhibit. (Loretta Powell)'Where has this project been?'

This year's East Side photovoice effort grew out of a longstanding relationship between ECN and the University of Michigan's School of Information. The two organizations have worked together since around 2013, collaborating on a variety of efforts including events where students from the university showed interested seniors how to maximize their use of electronic devices like tablets and Fitbits.

Alex Lu, a University of Michigan PhD student with Master's degrees in Social Work and Information Science, was the catalyst for getting the photovoice project going. He's part of a U of M social innovations group that's dedicated to finding ways that technologies can address issues marginalized groups and individuals may face. 

Lu's interest in surveillance technologies helped spark his decision to spearhead the initiative. The theme of the project also synced up well with an ongoingA food sculpture that appeared at the exhibit. (Steve Koss) conversation within the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP) coalition — which ECN is part of — about Project Greenlight, a video surveillance system utilized by the Detroit Police Department, which has been used in conjunction with facial recognition software. So the idea of collaborating on a photovoice project connected to surveillance issues was quickly embraced by ECN.

When the East Side nonprofit began reaching out to the community for participants, the response was pretty overwhelming, according to Savana Brewer, a senior program director with ECN. 

"My phone started blowing up with calls," she says. "Some of them said, "Where has this project been? I've been wanting to talk about Project Greenlight forever."

The focus of the project, which began in May, eventually expanded to encompass the idea of safety. ECN selected 11 participants — 10 women and one man, most of whom are seniors — from the nonprofit's service area, which includes parts of the 48213, 48214, 48215, 48224, and 48207 ZIP Codes. Each were provided with cameras, trained by an experienced photographer, and given three weeks to photograph their communities. 

The group met together for several workshops where the participants chose and discussed different photographs, using prompts like "What does safety mean to you?" and "How does it feel when you're being surveilled?" 

"They really expressed their perspectives, feelings, and views on the topic, safety and surveillance in this case," says Lu. "Each participant chose a couple images or pictures to use as a stimulus for group discussion." 

Lenderrick Bridges took photos of cameras in his East Side Neighborhood. (Lenderrick Bridges)'Every Photo Has A Story'

Lenderrick Bridges is a retiree who formerly worked in the airline industry and regularly volunteers with ECN teaching computer skills to local residents. He chose to aim his lens at surveillance technology in his community. 

"[I was wondering] just how many surveillance cameras would I notice? It [turned out to be] about 15 to 20 cameras on me every day," he says. "I didn't realize there were that many cameras throughout the neighborhood." 

Although he was "kind of creeped out" by all the cameras in his neighborhood, Bridges really enjoyed being part of the photovoice project and hopes that ECN and University continue the program, perhaps broadening its reach to include more youth who could share their own perspectives.

The photovoice project wrapped up with a Photovoice exhibit called "Every Photo Has A Story" at the Stoudamire Wellness Hub at 4401 Conner Street that took place on Saturday, August 27. 

Photos in the exhibit included a photomontage of surveillance cameras and pictures that ranged from dangerous intersections and clogged storm drains to colorful gardens and beloved pets. The event also included interactive activities like a bulletin board to help gather additional community feedback about the photos and issues related to the project. 

ECN and U of M hope to use data from the project to improve community safety and advocate for more "socially just" uses of surveillance technology on the East Side. Encouraged by the community interest in the project, the partners are considering engaging in more photovoice projects in the future. And that's something Bridges, who loved participating in the effort, really hopes comes to pass. 

"When we all got together and put it all together it was really interesting. I learned a lot [of things] I didn't know that was going on in the neighborhood," he says. "I would like to see this be an ongoing type of effort, like maybe every month have a group of pictures showing different things on the East Side." 

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.