Abstract: Images & Voices: Using the Arts-based Method of Photovoice to Understand the Needs & Aspirations of Diverse Women Working in the Sex Industry (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

79P Images & Voices: Using the Arts-based Method of Photovoice to Understand the Needs & Aspirations of Diverse Women Working in the Sex Industry

Saturday, January 16, 2010
* noted as presenting author
Moshoula Capous-Desyllas, MSW , Portland State University, Graduate Research Assistant, Portland, OR
Purpose: The subjective experiences and voices of sex workers are seldom heard and their needs are consistently defined and represented by non-sex workers throughout history, in society and within academia. Historical representations have contributed to the stereotyping and stigmatization of sex workers. Academic research is consistently being done ‘on’ sex workers instead of with them. However, use of arts-based methods allows for participatory, shared knowledge creation and self-representation. The purpose of this study was to understand the needs and aspirations of female sex workers in Portland, Oregon from their own point of view. The arts-based methodology of photovoice was used to bring forward the knowledge and experiences of their everyday lives through the inclusion of their photographic images and voices.

Method: The goals of photovoice are: to enable people to record and reflect their community's strengths and concerns; to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important community issues through large and small group discussions of photographs; and to reach influential community advocates and people who can be mobilized for change (Wang & Burris, 1997).

In this study, 11 diverse women working in different positions within the sex industry were each given their own 35mm cameras to take 36 back & white photographs of their needs and aspirations. Individual dialogue sessions were held with participants to reflect and discuss their images. Participants were also invited to partake in two group dialogue sessions where they shared their photos with each other and planned for the art exhibit of their visions and voices. The objective was to display their photos in order to inform policy makers, influential community advocates and the broader public. Phenomenological analysis was conducted with the transcripts from the individual and group dialogue sessions in order to understand how sex workers made meaning of their needs and aspirations and constructed their experiences in photos as the creators and interpreters of their own images.

Results: The themes that emerged to illustrate the participants’ needs and aspirations were: sustainability of the body; nourishment of the heart; fostering of the soul; self-empowerment and identity; activism and social justice; dreams and desires; and symbolism and creativity. Meaning was created in their photographs through the use of self, bodies, emotions, imagination, intellect, humor and affected experiences. The research findings support the power of art to engage and empower participants and resulted in the coordination of three art exhibit openings and media coverage.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings highlight the complex and diverse experiences of individuals working in the sex industry. By handing over creativity and its interpretation to sex workers, the content is more culturally exact and explicit, utilizing emotional and cognitive ways of knowing. This has the potential to familiarize social workers with the lived experiences of sex workers who are the experts on their own lives and change negative stereotypes. Use of arts-based methods counters the dominant forms of representation produced within social science research, provides a new way of seeing, and offers opportunities for social action while engaging a broad audience beyond academia.