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UW Project Combines Photography, Advocacy

June 16, 2008 — A new and innovative University of Wyoming research project has dual goals: To help young people and parents tell their stories through the camera lens and to use those stories to raise public awareness of children's mental health issues.

The Wyoming SAGE Photovoice Project, led by Associate Professor of Counselor Education Kent Becker, is an initiative of the Wyoming SAGE (Support, Access, Growth and Empowerment) System of Care. The project is funded through a six-year system of care grant from the United States Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration.

The project uses Photovoice, a technique that combines equal parts photography, research, group process, storytelling, social action and development of awareness of personal and community issues.

Participants work through a multi-week process that begins with basic photography lessons and concludes with personalized displays featuring photos and narratives that describe their experiences.

The SAGE project works under the premise that young people who have lived at the edge of what society deems normal are best able to explain their experiences. Some have lived in foster care. Some have been placed in institutions designed to serve troubled youth. Many have struggled in school.

"Many of these youths have had more than their share of experiences living in a box, or being put within a box -- what's expected, what are the norms, what does society say is OK and not OK," Becker says. "Many have been the recipients of a fair amount of trauma and they have safety and trust challenges. For them to really do well in life, to fully meet their potential, the boxes are too confining."

He adds, "They tend to be stereotyped and stigmatized -- often in school -- as troublemakers or loners. Some have been in the system for awhile, and sometimes not succeeded based on those external rules."

Participation in the Photovoice project provides these young people with alternative roles, mostly unfamiliar to them: Photographers and storytellers, team members and researchers and social activists and leaders.

Some participants will also join Becker for presentations at national conferences, including one meeting that will include youths and parents interested in public education and policy change.

For more information on the Wyoming SAGE Photovoice Project, or to view sample projects, visit the project Web site at

Project Director Kent Becker, right, explains the Wyoming SAGE Photovoice Project to fellow University of Wyoming College of Education colleague Jeasik Cho.

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