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Photography as Method in Research and Evaluation- Radical Steps and Ideas

A picture is worth a thousand words. This is what we know to be true, but we rarely put a photo in a publication and let it stand alone. I think we have been missing something that

words cannot fully describe.

We are all about being radical and brave at AKA. Doing things we have not done before and considering new ways to evaluate programs and activities that go beyond numbers and text. This story started when we were asked to evaluate a recovery Gathering of Native Americans (GONA). We developed a paper survey with our partners and community at Eastern Shoshone Recovery, but it was not used…

Instead, the community asked us to evaluate the event using professional photographs, taken of participants during the GONA. One of the highlights of the GONA was the Ribbon Skirt Fashion Show. met with Marcus Red Thunder, a Native Wellness trainer and consultant for Eastern Shoshone Recovery GONA. We wanted to know more about the photos, the method, and the professional photographs taken during the GONA.

Months before the GONA, Eastern Shoshone Recovery hosted ribbon skirt-making classes. They set up sewing machines, fabric, and teachers. Everyone in the community was invited to attend. Families, grandmothers, aunties, and kids showed up every week to work on their ribbon skirts.

The Ribbon Skirt Fashion Show really showcased the people… … it is more than just the people it is the artwork the stories behind the skirts, that is where the healing is, that is where the true wellness is. They got the colors from a certain time in their life when they were hurting or having grief. It was really touching to hear those stories; they wrote down descriptions. I was announcing those models coming down the runway. It is a beautiful thing to see people coming out of their comfort zone. Put away the shame and hurt, whatever is holding people back, showcasing the beauty that you have, that is a microcosm.

Ribbon Skirt Fashion Show, group shot of children in ribbon skirts
Ribbon Skirt Fashion Show. Photo provided by Eastern Shoshone Recovery

The ribbon skirt represents a way of life, values, and principles. Taking photos of that, documenting that event… is powerful.

They walk away so proud and confident. That is the experience that you are speaking to for a lot of participants.

Why photography as a method?

It helps us professionally document this wellness movement. This is similar to a winter count that includes drawings on hides. Tribes used this method to document significant events that happened through the seasons, they started in the center and went outward. There would be symbols that documented what happened. The wellness movement photos are a digital winter count…in a way that is like a story that is unfolding. People are still part of it, it can be very powerful.

Today I am talking about our GONAs, the Ribbon Skirt Fashion Shows, the Designer Fashion shows, models, and actors. Professional photos give us the opportunity to start documenting it. There is a photographer there… production assistant, and other people are involved. There is no cost to the participant. They would be paying hundreds of dollars for the photos and portraits somewhere else. The payment is being part of wellness and documenting wellness and having something tangible that connects you to the wellness movement.

Many people are having a hard day, they can look back a see the qualities, and the good times in the photos, this is a tangible connection. They can get out of the negative mindset.

What is your vision for using this method to support the wellness movement?

I want to develop an apprenticeship program for Native youth. I built a studio in Hardin; I am expanding it. I want to show tribes how to put studios together. There are young storytellers out there. Some have already dropped out of school. Part of my mission is to market to some of those youth, who dropped out of school. They know how to tell a story. They slipped through the cracks; they are not bad enough to be in a group home… but they don’t have opportunities because of family. This opens up the opportunity to talk about what wellness is…. I have a month of sobriety and… struggling. People start talking about wellness. If we can do that in a broader sense… getting it out there, then we can be successful.

We are amongst the seven generations that we talk about. Their capabilities are far greater than ours… There was a systematic attempt of genocide, we need to remember this, for resiliency is in our blood, although that happened we are still here. Love and forgiveness were with our people long before Columbus. Those are the principles that are in these photos, when words match the photos, we can gain a lot from that.


Photography as a Method in Evaluation at AKA

Photography as a method has the potential to transform our evaluations and research. Working with Marcus and his team, we see the benefits of training community members as professional photographers, videographers, production assistants, and more. Skills and connections developed in the community support the storytelling process with photos, long after a research project, grant, or activity ends.

Here are some ideas about the roles and use of photography as a method and the role of evaluators:

  • Support team: outreach, promotion, the purpose of event and photos, scheduling, set up, take down, communication, dissemination of photos to participants.

  • Photographer: data collector, choreographer, director, confidence builder, empowers others, comfortable, sets the stage.

  • Researcher or evaluator: quiet observer, links photos to existing activities or interventions in the community, finds connections between photos and meaning and broader purpose, utilizes photography as a method, evidence of change, resilience, recovery, hope, transformation, or other (based on purpose).

  • History: photos become the history of individuals and families, they mark time, feeling, and place in the past, and they instill a sense of hope, pride, purpose, and gratitude.

One of the biggest takeaways for me from this method is that it is meaningful, and it is worth the investment. Photos actually engage the observer in a process to find meaning in the data that is all their own, they approach data with their own lens, their own biases, and their own interests. Meaning and value, derived from the process of observation, stand-alone, it does not need to be analyzed, theorized, or pathologized by a researcher. This is the ultimate gift of photography as a method.

For more information about the wellness movement, GONAs, and photography as a method reach out to our friend and colleague Mr. Marcus Red Thunder at



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