Witnesses to Hunger

A community-based participatory research project that uses the “photovoice” technique to engage mothers to take photos and record their stories about poverty and hunger with the intent to inform social welfare policy in the US. 


The Witnesses to Hunger programme, a community-based participatory research project that uses the “photovoice” technique, is part of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities based at Drexel University School of Public Health, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States (US). The programme works to increase civic participation of women in deep poverty with children that are food insecure. Witnesses maintains a strategic public awareness campaign by engaging mothers to take photos and record their stories about poverty and hunger with the intent to inform social welfare policy in the US.

Communication Strategies:
Witnesses to Hunger uses the methodology of “photovoice” to promote dialogue and advocacy on economic poverty and maternal and child health in the US among women who have first-hand experiential information on the negative effects of household food insecurity and poverty on the health and well-being of their young children. The photovoice methodology is a participatory action research (PRA) strategy that includes “providing cameras to those participants who are usually the ‘subjects’ of policies and programs (or the subjects of research studies) to ensure that they can provide their own frames of reference around issues most meaningful to them in order to educate the public and to inform policy makers about those aspects of policies and programs that need to change in the view of the participant.”

Witnesses to Hunger recruited women for the programme through a flier sent to caregivers who had requested outreach through another project (Children’s Healthwatch) at a local hospital in Philadelphia. Those women who responded were interviewed, first at home, and then more extensively in several individual interviews and in a focus group. Each of 42 participants received her own digital camera, a small stipend for the hours of interviewing time, and brief one-on-one training on how to use the digital camera. They were then asked to take photos of what they wanted the public and policy makers to see and to witness about their lives.

After 2-3 weeks, each participant was visited again for a semi-structured and video-recorded interview that used the women’s digital photographs as a guide. Using the photovoice technique, these interviews included questions about: 1) why the participants took the photos; 2) what they want the public to see; and 3) what they want others to do or to change. Through their digitally recorded individual interviews, the photographers constructed written narratives from their lived experiences in ways that incorporate their images.

The Witnesses to Hunger project team developed these audio and visual documentaries into a travelling exhibit featuring still photography, audio recordings, written narratives, and video clips. The images and associated narratives are displayed on the Center for Hunger-Free Communities website. The site also has integrated links to pages on associated social networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. “Through the program, the mothers’ voices are reaching local, state, and federal policy makers through testimonies and briefings, letters, and written reports. They also have begun to inform the general public through the Witnesses to Hunger website, local speaking engagements, press events, and media coverage of their work.” Witnesses launched nationally through a conference in Philadelphia – Beyond Hunger 2012: Real People, Real Solutions – where over 85 women and men that experience hunger and poverty first-hand shared their experiences and collaborated on solutions with policymakers, philanthropists, advocates, and journalists. The Center launched 2 new sites in Baltimore, Maryland, and Boston, Massachusetts.

The Witnesses to Hunger website includes a photo gallery of the mothers who participated and two archives of their photos – the first organised with an eye towards policy change and listed by policy, and the second illustrating the issues important to them, listed by issue.

Development Issues:
Poverty and Hunger

Key Points:
According to the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, “The term ‘food insecurity’ is the scientific term for ‘hunger’ in America. It is more precisely defined as a lack of access to enough food for an active and healthy life. In 2007, there were over 12.4 million children who lived in households that were food insecure. Between 2006 and 2007 the rates of severe food insecurity nearly doubled for very young children five years old and younger…. That number is now at 16.2 million, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in D.C. and has the potential to continue to rise with new and proposed cuts to state and federal assistance.”

Breaking the cycle is one of the most important concepts in Witnesses to Hunger. The women portray welfare assistance, poverty, violence and lack of care for others as a cycle that must be broken. They hope to break the cycle so that their children can escape poverty and reach to their full potential.” Issues that participants seek to address with their photos include: work and child care; welfare and assistance; violence and trauma; housing; health; food and hunger; family; environment; education; opportunity; and drug abuse.

Policies that the photos and stories address include:

  • Cash Assistance
  • Child welfare
  • Education and Opportunity
  • Energy Assistance
  • Food and Nutrition
  • Health Care
  • Housing & Homelessness
  • Laws
  • Streets
  • Transportation

Email from Marien Levy to The Communication Initiative on October 30 2009; and Witnesses to Hunger website, August 20 2012; and email from Aishah Miller to The Communication Initiative on September 4 2012.

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