written by Cyanea Poon
Justice is a buzzword of our era. We go on streets protesting for the causes that move our hearts. We feel anger when we see people treated unfairly because of their skin color. We sign petitions to governors and lawmakers in hopes of seeing change. These actions and emotions are all of noble origin, and I respect and admire people who actively engages in these activities. However, as I personally explore the pathways of justice, I cannot help but see a disconnect between these pursuits of justice and daily life. Yes, I may go on the streets advocating for the establishment of a fairer minimum wage, but I catch myself ignoring the warm smiles from the cleaning lady in the office. I may invite people to viewings of a documentary about sweatshops in the name of raising awareness, yet I often forget to question how the products I consume are produced. I recognized this disconnect in my life and, along with the Streetside Conversations team, wondered how we can bridge this gap. Essentially, what does justice look like permeating daily life? During my time spent with in Thailand with a dear friend, Teddi, I found an item that bridges the disconnect for me – my camera.
My camera travels with me everywhere. Through visual images, I capture moments, people, places, stories. The transformation from a second in time to a permanent artifact not only indicates the shaping of history, but also tells a narrative from that moment. It is the ongoing three-way conversation between the subject in the picture, the photographer, and the viewer.
During my time in Thailand working for a safe house that provides shelter to adolescents who had been victims of sex trafficking and forced labor in 2015, my camera and I documented a lot of the happenings within the facility. We took note of the mundane in everyday life, and we captured the rehabilitation progress of these young women. While doing our duties for the organizations’ report and documentations, there were often a couple sets of tiny feet pattering behind us, eager to see what we were doing and what we had captured.
One of these eager faces was Teddi’s. Whenever I finished a series of pictures, I could be sure to find Teddi right behind me if she was not caught up with other work. She is not a girl with many words, but she was often keen to look into the tiny 5cm x 7cm screen admiring all the magic the tiny black box managed to capture. On a day like any other day, as I was wrapping up a life skills workshop and showing some girls the pictures, Teddi turned and asked me, “Can I borrow your camera?”
This seems like a simple yes or no question. There may be conditions for a “yes” or explanations for “no” and in the moment, situational factors were important in shaping my answer to Teddi’s simple query. However, this little question points to something much bigger: how can my camera be used in a small act of justice?
Can I borrow your camera?
First, lending out the camera is a risk – the risk of giving up the ‘power’ of the photographer. The photographer holds the power of the narrative. Although photography is the ongoing conversation between the subject, the photographer and the viewer, the photographer is sole decision-maker in defining the parameters of the conversation. S/he defines what is focused, what is put within the frame, how the subjects and/or objects are arranged and placed, when the shot was taken, and the circumstance under which it is taken. If we walk down memory lane and flip through pictures of the past, it will come as no surprise that that Bobby-whom-we-do-not-like never made it into our photo albums, but Susie-our-childhood-best-friend-that-lives-far-away made multiple appearances. Essentially, the photographer defines what is worth remembering in the moment and giving up this power is a risk.
Second, lending out the camera is an acknowledgement. In giving up the power of the photographer, the lender simultaneously acknowledges that the borrower is capable and able in telling his/her own stories. It is the declaration that other people have a valuable perspective that is unique to them and unknown to us, and we are willing to learn from their point of view. Adopting this posture is the research method known as photovoice. In 1997, a group of researchers led by C. Wang founded this participatory research method, hoping to provide a channel for illiterate participants to express their lived experiences. Through the usage of photographs, photovoice enables the researcher and participants to become co-learners bridging cultural differences and equitably sharing expertise based on personal experience and professional knowledge. It honors others and let them tell their stories in an acknowledgment of their dignity and the uniqueness of their perspective.
Third, lending out the camera is an investment of time. When somebody returns a borrowed item, 9 out of the 10 times we ask them, “What did you do with it?” This opens up the opportunity for the borrower to express his/her narrative, and simultaneously offers the lender an opportunity to listen. However, sincere and true listening takes time – it asks us to set aside assumptions, to pause in expressing our viewpoints, and to be willing to ask exploratory questions. Lending and receiving back my camera might be a small act, but the choice to pause and listen requires the investment of time.
As we enter into Streetside Conversations together, let us ponder: What is your camera?
What are you willing to do day-to-day for the cause you believe in? What is the risk that you can take? What is the power that you can give away? Where can you acknowledge and honor peoples’ stories and dignity? How can you invest and listen to others’ stories and journeys?
In the exploration of practicing justice, I urge our writers and readers to approach with the following emphasis:
The posture of recognizing we are flawed people living in an imperfect world and we make mistakes. This involves intellectual humility, and consequently the willingness to admit mistakes, learn from them, and move towards a better method of doing things.
Small & Creative:
The posture of innovation and contextualization. Have the courage to envision and transform pre-existing structures and phenomenon in our context into something that aligns with our beliefs and values.
The posture of making our beliefs and values integral in our everyday life. We must acknowledge that habits and patterns are a physical embodiment of what we believe in. Our daily actions leads us to better discernment when there is a call for us to respond to an issue on a larger scale.
In small and creative ways, practicing justice daily. Let us explore and reflect what this means through Streetside Conversations.
Can I borrow your camera?
Teddi’s question still hung in the air.
I looked back into her eyes and responded,
“Yes! And after, could I see your pictures?”
Cyanea Poon is the co-founder and publishing coordinator of Streetside Conversations. She is a story-carrier. She likes listening to stories and letting stories be heard, especially voices that are often silenced and go unheard. She especially like to capture the stories as visual images, and her computer is stocked with photographs from the crowded streets of Hong Kong, the mountains of Chiang Mai, the skyscrapers at Chicago, and the waves of Lake Superior. She looks at numbers and equations on a daily basis, but she can always find time to listen to your story over a snack of your choice.
 Wang, C. & Burris, M.A. “Photovoice: concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment.” Health Education & Behavior, 24. 3. 1997, 369-387.
 Hergenrather, K.C., Rhodes, S.D., Cowan, C.A., Bardhoshi, G., & Pula, S. “Photovoice as Community-Based Participatory Research: A Qualitative Review.” American Journal of Health Behavior, 33, 6, 2009, 686-698.