Colleen Towler

Colleen Towler
Colleen Towler, Graduate Student, School of Social Work

With the generous support of the Wallenberg Travel Award, I was able to create a Photovoice project. The project focused on gaining an improved understanding of youth navigating non-traditional sexuality and gender expression in rural areas of Northern Thailand with a focus on individual and community empowerment. The project utilized participatory action research and took a women-centered approach. Seventeen students in areas outside of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai participated. The project’s goals were to encourage critical consciousness through dialogue and reflection, foster a supportive community, engage in self-exploration, and create action steps to work towards their desired social or political change. With the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg in mind, I aimed to see individuals as experts in their own experience, learn from them, and empower them to realize that one individual can make a difference in their society no matter how difficult it seems.

The project was conducted over a six-week period. The participants were given cameras, taught basic photography skills and asked to take photos that represent their experiences involving their gender identity and sexuality. Each week they participated in group sessions to reflect on why they took the photos and shared experiences. They were also asked to journal about the photo taking process and their group discussions. Finally, they were asked to choose a medium in which to display their work. Both groups created media campaigns to create visibility and raise awareness of their experiences. Some of the topics discussed were self-expression, cultural hierarchy, educational institutions, religious institutions, relationships with peers, teachers, and family.

From the first meeting until the last, I witnessed a tremendous amount of growth within the individual participants and groups. Through photos, journals, surveys, and dialogue I saw the participants understanding of self-in-environment develop. On the first meeting, almost all participants said they felt accepted within their families, school, peer groups, and society; but through photographs and group dialogue, more complex relationships started to emerge.

Participants reflected on their desire to continue having a safe community to reflect on experiences of the LGBTQ+ community, share their knowledge with others, and sustain the project all year. Participants also discussed skills they developed such as exchanging ideas among friends, photography skills, speaking and expressing sense of self in public, and skills to face problems and consider worldviews.