Photos promote dialogue about drug, alcohol use

Heather Latter

The old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” has taken on new meaning after the completion of four “Photo Voice” projects developed here over the past year.
Initiated by the Rainy River District Substance Abuse Prevention Team, the projects encompass a photographic technique used in health promotion and community development to identify issues and act for social change.
“The projects were conducted mostly with young people who were given cameras and asked to go and take pictures to answer a specific question,” explained SAPT co-ordinator Hugh Dennis, noting this past year the focus has been the question: “What has influenced you to use or not to use drugs and alcohol in your high school career?”
The first project was done by a group of students from Fort Frances and Rainy River high schools, with other projects taking place at Atikokan High School and among Couchiching youths and elders.
Dennis indicated each “Photo Voice” project took about three-four months to complete, with the groups meeting periodically.
“[During each session], we picked our favourite five and then the pictures were given captions to express the feelings of the photographer as they took the picture,” noted James McInerney, the spokesperson for the Fort High and RRHS groups.
“Overall, we took about 60 photos and whittled them down to our favourite 30,” he added.
The photos for each project were divided into categories decided upon by the group. These included passion, family and friends, boredom, fears and authority, availability, limitations, goals, and personal feelings and beliefs.
“These pictures all convey an idea that moves them to use or refuse to use drugs and alcohol,” McInerney explained, stressing the interpretation of these pictures can go either way.
For example, one photo shows a picture of an Ipod on a T-shirt and the students gave the caption “Music makes me high.”
McInerney said this can show both sides of using or refusing drugs and alcohol because with music, one might choose to use because it is that kind of culture, or one might choose not to use because they’d rather have clear ideas without use of a substance when playing their music.
Dennis agreed while both views could be interpreted in the photos, many were positive.
“And without a doubt, they concluded that family and friends were the most important influence to use or not to use drugs and alcohol,” he remarked.
“We find ourselves in a certain circumstance because of how we interact with friends and family,” echoed McInerney.
Dennis stressed the project did what it set out to do—promoting a dialogue about what influences contribute to one choosing to use or refuse drugs and alcohol.
“The discussions were awesome,” he enthused, noting the groups included students from all walks of life—some in early recovery from addiction to those on their way to university.
“There was a real sense of bonding and the information passed between the participants was huge,” he added.
To conclude the “Photo Voice” projects, a PowerPoint presentation was recorded by Jadmart Video Services, using a spokesperson to describe the process, photos, and reflections of the group.
“We took it to a different level by producing the video,” Dennis remarked.
He said the project idea came from the University of Michigan, but he has not seen one taken to this level.
“The groups were really receptive,” he stressed. “And we wanted to do non-scripted presentations so that whatever is said is from the heart.”
Dennis admitted patience was the key when working on the projects—learning to let things flow and not to be too directive.
He said the videos will be shown to peers, town councils, health boards, youth centre boards, and teachers as a way to begin a dialogue and act for social change. It also has enabled the participants to record and reflect their community’s strengths and problems.
The “Photo Voice” projects from Fort High and RRHS, as well as Atikokan High School, can be viewed on the SAPT’s website at
The two projects featuring youths and elders from Couchiching will be added once that community has first had a chance to see them.