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Worth 1,000 words: Photos express what immigrants can't easily say about life in Portland

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Worth 1,000 words: Photos express what immigrants can't easily say about life in Portland

PORTLAND — Riverton residents Saharo Sharif-Isaack and Safiya Mohamed did not quote Shakespeare last Friday when talking about improving their neighborhood, but they do know the value of a picture.

“I think it shows what we are really capable of doing. We are people that want a change,” Sharif-Isaack said about a project called Photovoice, where she and fellow Somali immigrant Mohamed documented neighborhood conditions and the need for better physical health in their community.

The project was organized by University of New England graduate students Lily Bottino and Collyn Baeder, with help from Kira Maas, an outreach coordinator at the Portland Community Health Center.

But it took guidance from Sharif-Isaack, who operates her own interpreting business and knew who and how to approach volunteers who would use disposable cameras to take ordinary pictures showing what could be improved in their community.

"They trust me, I always do different projects with them,” Sharif-Isaack said.

For Mohamed, it meant snapshots of accumulated cigarette butts, and how close an unfenced playground is to a busy street. Photos of accumulated snow shows how hard it is for her to get out and walk with her children, a basic exercise she said has lowered her blood pressure and reduced aches and pains in her arm and back.

"Before I thought a picture doesn't tell people anything, but I feel like this will really work," Mohamed said.

Bottino is pursuing a master's degree in social work and Baeder is studying for a master's in public health. Their project received a grant from the UNE Center for Excellence in Interprofessional Education.

Bottino and Baeder spare no words describing their desires for social justice, but said without Sharif-Isaack, their project would not have developed.

“I made fliers, just thinking I could drop them off," Bottino recalled.

When that didn't work, Sharif-Isaack went door-to-door in the community off outer Forest Avenue.

“I said 'Lily, I think I can do the recruitment process,''' Sharif-Isaack recalled.

Mohamed was joined by two other women taking photos, which were organized and captioned in English and Somali. All are on display now on the fourth floor of Hersey Hall on the UNE Portland campus on Stevens Avenue.

At noon on March 19, Bottino and Baeder will present their findings to UNE students and staff. They have also been invited to speak April 10 at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, in a program sponsored by the Global Alliance for Arts & Health.

Mohamed said she hopes the city will build a fence to better protect children on the playground, and that exercise or yoga classes for women will be held at the Riverton Community Center.

Cultural barriers about having men present and the need to stay properly attired can keep neighborhood women from exercising, she said.

Photovoice is not a new method, it has been used globally for more than 25 years. Bottino credited University of Michigan researcher Caroline Wang with coining the term in the early 1990s while working in China's Yunnan province.

Bottino said the pictures brought immediacy to the finished product.

"There was something tangible for the participants, which doesn't always come from research. It's not just like taking numbers and making a paper,” she said.

Baeder is an artist, but said she gained lessons in perspective from the volunteers.

"Some of the photos, when you looked at them, you might think immediately of one thing," she said. "But once you learned what it meant from the partiicpants' perspective, you would learn this is what they want.”

Sharif-Isaack has worked on other Photovoice projects, but said this one added resonance to community concerns.

"It was really meaningful because we don't usually come out and express problems," she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.