The #Spenardia Photovoice project was part of Cook Inlet Housing Authority's (CIHA) Cultural Asset Mapping initiative that started early in 2016 focused on the Spenard neighborhood of Anchorage, Alaska. CIHA, through its ArtPlace Community Development Investments Grant, is focusing on different forms of neighborhood engagement and community involvement to better inform their development process and advance their mission.
#Spenardia was a year long process with three distinct parts that started in the spring of 2016 with a (1) research and mapping, walking the neighborhood to identify and discover resources and opportunities (2) a photovoice project itself where seven photographers walked the community throughout the summer months of 2016 (3) that concluded with #Spenardia, a photographic exhibit at the Church of Love, January 13 - February 24, 2017, that was promoted through various mediums and social channels, including digital mapping projections from a two story building(the old Spenard Post Office building) with imagery that was sourced from Spenard residents at large.
"Photovoice is a way of learning through other peoples’ experiences.” according to Oscar Avellaneda-Cruz, curator of the project. "This project, #Spenardia, was born as an idea when I was working on asset mapping with CIHA. I honestly didn't care much about this neighborhood until I walked it. I realized that I had a lot of assumptions about Spenard.
“Everyone has a voice and everyone’s experiences should be heard," Oscar explains. " I feel strongly that authentic, participatory community engagement can be transformational. Photovoice, was a great starting point, it brought to light some of the neighborhood themes and created the context for conversations that have the potential to spark neighborhood outcomes.”
Photovoice & learning through the experiences of others
Seven photographers ventured into Spenard at varying times of day and explored different micro-neighborhoods. Their only requirements were to document a “Day (or Night) in Spenard” and engage with the Spenardians they met. The photographers came from a range of different social circles and represented roughly two generations of Anchorage residents, that spanned the spectrum of being deeply connected to parts of the neighborhood to not knowing much about it. Of the seven photographers who participated, about half would identify as professional photographers.
Photographers were expected to return with no less than fifty images, of which, eight were culled by Oscar for display on the walls of the Church of Love. Some of the non-exhibit imagery was rear-screen projected, like a light-up billboard, from the second story window of the old Spenard Post Office building at 34th and Spenard, adjacent to the Church of Love.
Early on in the research phase of the project, Oscar had observed that the hashtag "#Spenardia” on twitter, Facebook, and instagram was often used in conversations about the neighborhood that encompassed more than the geographic area. The online conversations were an array of interests, curiosities, aspirations about the neighborhood that fit well with the “ish” methodology of photovoice’s qualitative research. Oscar continued to watch these conversations throughout the project and concluded #Spenardia was an appropriate name for the project.
| Online community engagement for physical community activation
To help grow the momentum of the #Spenardia project as a neighborhood concept-brand, the seven photovoice photographers were encouraged to publish and share some of their imagery from walking the community on their personal social channels that were primarily focused on Facebook and Instagram. Toward the last quarter of 2016, Oscar started to focused on weekly curating photos on Instagram by commenting the hashtag #Spenardia on imagery that fit themes of the Photovoice project. Some of the imagery curated was also projected on the windows of the Post Office building, with permission from the creators. Oscar saw the projection medium as a platform to magnify the voices of super fans of Spenard.
Oscar continued to digitally engage and invite people to the Post Office building through social channels as a way to bring others into the conversation about Spenard's identity, people and characteristics and to introduce the public to different points of view about the area.
Church of Love Exhibit
Visitors to the exhibit had the opportunity to contribute to the conversations about Spenard at the opening reception of #Spenardia. Participants were encouraged to have their picture taken in an instant Photo Booth. On the nearby Photo Booth wall, people posted one of their images on a community engagement card and filled in their thoughts to complete two statements: "Spenard is__________. Spenard needs__________________. " Completing these phrases and sharing a photo was an opportunity for participants to engage in describing and cataloging their thoughts and feelings about the neighborhood. They became contributors in asset-mapping Spenard.
At another station, participants made buttons with an old school button press. Oscar provided a variety of images including several snippets of photos featured on the wall. This hands on activity was very popular. Participants were creative making button from provided images and some featuring their own image from the Photo Booth. "I saw this as a way people memorialized a special experience. This button serves as a reminder. "I was there," or "Oh yeah, I remember that time, that experience." It becomes part of a shared memory.
A mural, left over from a prior art event at the Church of Love, depicting a tiger dancing with a raven, was left in place as another engagement station. "Leaving the mural up was a way of honoring the history of the Church," says Oscar. "We could see it as a Rorschach image, an invitation to project your own ideas about Spenard. Viewers were asked, "What do you see? What does this mural say about Spenard?" Responses centered around the eccentricity of Spenard's neighborhood characters and the peaceful co-existence of differing creatures.
The mural, the photo booth and the custom button station gave people an opportunity to share their values and realities in a casual and interesting way.