Each week during the silent time of confession during worship, I pray that I may see with new eyes. It is natural for us to see the world through a particular lens of our own experiences and station in life. After all, we are a product of our experiences no matter how hard we work to escape them. Where we grew up, where we live, our jobs, our friends, our family, where we worship, where we were educated, and where we have traveled are among the few things that may shape how we view the world around us. But that doesn’t mean that someone with a similar life experience sees the world the same way. We all view the world around us differently and it is often these differences that pose particular challenges in our abilities to work together for change. (This is perhaps all too clear as we endure another presidential election cycle.)
That two people can look at the same situation and see two different realities is not novel. I’m sure you have been in a situation where you have heard someone respond to a situation in a way that causes you to rub your head in wonder – I know I have. But that’s not necessarily the point of this blog. I want to share with you a novel way to understand why it is that others may see something the way they do, and perhaps to have dialogue about those differences.
Colleagues and I recently wrapped up a research study with an urban neighborhood in the Southeast. We were interested in the ways residents come together to address problems they face on the neighborhood-level. We knew that residents would identify different problems and perhaps discuss them differently too. Each month we asked them to go out into the neighborhood, armed with their smartphone, and capture specific kinds of images – strengths, problems, cooperation, and uniqueness. Residents uploaded these images to social media with captions, and we came together as a group to discuss what we saw from the perspective of the one who took the photo and from the rest of us viewing the photo. This method, called photovoice, is designed to give voice to issues through the use of photography. It is meant to lend insight into problems and issues or shed light onto particular strengths that might otherwise go unnoticed.
What occurred among the group was nothing short of amazing! Over six months, fifteen residents produced over 100 unique photographs of their neighborhood (#WEandUofSC) that we then discussed as a group to make meaning out of what we saw. The amazing part is that we all began seeing the neighborhood and each other with new eyes. These residents know each other and work shoulder to shoulder to build up their neighborhood; yet somehow through this process they began to see anew. The camera lens was able to capture something unique and invited us into a space of critical reflection about the world around us. We asked what we saw in the photos and what was really happening. We discussed what might be done to address problems or to build upon strengths.
But what I found most interesting was the wide and varied interpretations residents had about individual images. This simple and rather ubiquitous phenomena took on new salience as the residents sought to make meaning and chart a future for the neighborhood. It got me thinking how we might use this method within congregations. What images might we capture and what meaning might we make of them? How might what we see in an image vary and what does that say about who we are and where we are going? Or consider how congregations might use this method to understand better their neighborhood context. Ponder what it might be like if a group comprised of church folk and non-member neighborhood residents got together to capture images of issues within the neighborhood. Imagine how the conversation might be similar and dissimilar among those gathered around the table, and what congregations could gain from this type of learning and listening. Suddenly things we have “seen” many times are seen from a new perspective when we look through the eyes of others whose life experiences differ from our own and ask what we see here and what is really happening here. We enter into a place of vulnerability as assumptions are challenged and ways of knowing reformed.
In his sermon today, my pastor talked about Thomas’ need to touch Jesus’ wounds. Thomas wasn’t ready to believe until he saw for himself and actually touched. It was in this resurrection moment that he, and the others, began to see anew. I invite you to see with new eyes the community around you. I encourage you to gather a group of people, armed with their smartphones, to begin capturing images of your common life together, then come together to discuss what it all means. You might be surprised what you learn about your community through the eyes of others.