January 5, 2011 in City

Vestal: Project pairs photography with social action

Tells farmworkers’ stories as they struggle to find housing
By The Spokesman-Review
 
TYLER TJOMSLAND photo

Lupe Cortes, left, a health promoter with the Quincy Community Health Clinic, looks at photos taken by Cristian Ramon as the pair document health issues in their community on March 26 at a trailer park in Quincy, Wash., as part of a project called Photovoice.
(Full-size photo)

A couple of years ago, when Kathy Hirschel started as an outreach worker at the health clinic in Quincy, Wash., she was shocked by what she saw as she visited the families of migrant workers.

A mom with an infant and a young child, living in a single-room trailer. That seemed cramped until she came across a family of six living in a trailer the same size. Mom, dad and the two youngest kids slept in the bed, and the two older ones slept on the couch. Wherever she went to visit families, she saw similar stories. Uninsulated homes with space heaters. Families doubled and tripled up. Paper-thin walls. Clothes stashed under beds. Electrical hazards.

“It was really, really – wow. Bad,” said Hirschel, a 29-year-old who emigrated from Peru five years ago. “It was a shock to see the conditions they were living in.”

So when the clinic and a Washington State University professor were launching a project to identify crucial issues among the region’s migrant workers, Hirschel and her fellow promotores – health promoters – knew what they wanted to highlight: housing.

For farmworkers in Quincy, there’s not enough of it. And some of what’s available is astonishing.

The promotores took cameras out into the largely Hispanic community to document the problem. The result is “Photovoice: Housing in the Quincy Valley of Washington State,” a multimedia presentation intended to spur action among activists and decision-makers.

“Basic needs are a huge issue here,” said Mary Jo Ybarra-Vega, a migrant health coordinator at the clinic. “People come in, ‘We need housing. There’s nowhere to live. We’re two, three families in a little travel trailer.’ … We want them to come (work here) but we don’t have anywhere for them to live.”

The collaboration between clinic workers and WSU comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of one of the more famous pieces of journalism by broadcast news pioneer and famed Cougar alum Edward R. Murrow. In 1960, on the day after Thanksgiving, Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame” shined a light on the wretched conditions of migrant workers – “the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world,” as Murrow put it.

The differences between Murrow’s report – an old-school bit of broadcast reporting, where the journalist literally stands between the viewer and the subject – and the Photovoice project are stark. In this case, the images, stories and decisions arise directly from people in the community; the Photovoice approach has been used in a variety of social research settings, typically combining photo work with an element of social activism among marginalized communities.

In essence, it’s having people tell their own stories instead of having researchers come in and tell a community, “Here’s your problem,” said WSU communications professor Jeffery Chaichana Peterson.

A few years back, Julie Postma, an assistant professor of nursing at WSU, had been working with the clinic on issues such as public health nursing and discovered the clinic workers had an interest in documenting their work through photos. In the fall of 2009, Peterson got involved and helped introduce the Photovoice approach.

Once the photography was well under way, Ben Shors – a friend and former colleague of mine at the S-R who teaches journalism at WSU – and photography student Tyler Tjomsland helped them edit and shape the final project. (Tjomsland does freelance work for the newspaper, as well.) You can view the results at YouTube and Vimeo; it’s been produced as a DVD, as well.

If the storytelling approach was different from Murrow’s, many of the issues remain the same. We’re still talking about the same problems for migrant and farmworkers – the people who pick your nice, cheap apples.

A third of those people live in overcrowded conditions, according to a statewide survey conducted in 2008 by the Washington State Farmworker Housing Trust. Thirty-six percent reported problems such as rodent infestations or no heat. Forty-two percent paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing. Six percent were homeless.

“We have lots of homeless people,” Ybarra-Vega says in the video. “They don’t call them homeless here. They just call them farmworkers or ag workers or migrant workers. They’re homeless. We need to have and afford them proper housing so they can pick our produce and make a living and help us make a living. Hopefully that’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

Ybarra-Vega, along with Postma, will make a presentation about the project at a forum on migrant issues in February. She says there are efforts to provide more low-income housing in the area, but that a recent 50-unit project built by the Catholic diocese filled up immediately.

Hirschel has been striving to get families into better housing, and she’s glad that a couple of those featured in the project have found better housing.

“They’ve moved out to a new place,” she said. “A really nice place, thank God.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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