CORRECTION APPENDED: This story misstated the school’s role in Janmohamed’s program in Kashmir. She did not ask the school to help fund the work she conducted in August 2006. The school cosponsored a photography exhibit now on display at the school.

Sarah Royce
A young woman holds one of the cameras School of Social Work student Shenaaz Janmohamed distributed to children in Kashmir to document earthquake damage in the region. Janmohamed hopes to replicate the program in Detroit. (Courtesy of Shenaaz Janmohamed)

A white UNICEF tent sits nestled in the lush green mountains of Gurthama, an outpost in the Pakistani-controlled region of Kashmir. Its canvas sides are sprinkled with holes and stains. The tent is just a few feet away from a makeshift graveyard where children often play.

This is how School of Social Work student Shenaaz Janmohamed described the place she called home for a month last summer. During that month, she helped children document their lives using photographs following a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that devastated the area in October of 2005.

As part of a method called Photovoice, Janmohamed gave local children cameras to document damage.

By sending photos directly to government officials and policymakers, Photovoice aims to force policymakers to address the social issues they may otherwise ignore, Janmohamed said. Because the Kashmir program was a test run, those photos weren’t sent to officials.

Janmohamed has begun applying Photovoice to Detroit neighborhoods, where she hopes to highlight local environmental justice issues.

Janmohamed recently passed out cameras to Detroit mothers, who have taken photos of lead piping and garbage that often litters residential neighborhoods.

The technique was developed in 1992 by Caroline Wang, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and popularized by the 2004 film “Born into Brothels.”

“Using Photovoice makes it easier for policymakers to understand what is really happening in their own cities and towns,” Janmohamed said.

Kerry Clare Duggan, a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, has researched environmental justice in Detroit and said using Photovoice in the city could help the struggling city.

“I’ve used photos and film before for fundraising and it really does have an impact,” she said. “But these rundown areas in Detroit aren’t a secret, they are literally in people’s backyards. Policymakers should already be aware of them.”

Over a nine-day period in Kashmir, children ranging from 6 to 11 years old each took 48 photos. They wrote their own captions for the images.

Janmohamed and local facilitators then met with the children to discuss the images, the earthquake and their memories surrounding the incident.

“It is important to include children in the rebuilding process,” Janmohamed said. “Many of them had friends who died in the earthquake. One girl told me she dreamt the Earth was bleeding. This was like group therapy, a fun way of grieving.”

Every day, a different child led the group on a walk through familiar areas that had some significance to the child.

The walks were also a way for Janmohamed and other relief workers to assess the damage.

“I bonded very quickly with the children, even though there was a language barrier,” Janmohamed said. “We communicated through smiles and laughs, and they often referred to me as ‘baji,’ which translates to sister. “

Janmohame said she felt connected to the community after visiting Pakistan three times.

Nine days after the earthquake, she started a fundraising blog, which has helped raise more than $90,000.

Wanting to visit the area personally, Janmohamed first approached the School of Social Work about conducting a research project in the region, but school administrators told her they couldn’t support the project.

She then began working with the University’s Center for South Asian Studies, which sponsored her trip with the University’s International Institute Individual Fellowship program.

The Aga Khan Development Network, which provides logistical and financial support to the area, hosted the project and helped Janmohamed start Photovoice.

Janmohamed turned the children’s photos into an exhibition titled “Youth Perspectives of the South Asian Earthquake,” which also includes freelance photographer Aasil Ahmad’s photos of the region.

The photos will be on display in the School of Social Work until March 15.

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