Depending on your aesthetic sensibilities, a trip to Springfield, Vermont can leave you feeling emotionally numb, astounded, or a myriad of other feelings, both positive and negative. The hulking brick remains of Jones & Lamson Machine Company’s lower factory greet you as you head into town from from I-91. Vacant storefronts dot Main Street. Long-abandoned factories stand watch over Black River Falls, depositing themselves brick by brick into the rushing waters.
While some look upon the town’s dilapidated appearance with disdain, CCV Coordinator of Academic Services Deb Grant and her students don’t.
On a Tuesday evening in mid-March, Grant and a few students from her Dimensions of Freedom class meet up on Main Street with a handful of sixth-grade students from Riverside Middle School. Armed with point and shoots, DSLRs, cell phones, and just about every other type of digital camera you can name, the group sets out to capture scenes of Springfield. Over the course of about an hour, hundreds of photos are taken. Decrepit buildings, graffiti, and refuse are all recorded, along with early blooming flowers, smiling restaurant patrons, and church steeples towering above the village. These are photos of neglect and pride. More importantly, they are photos of community, and they’re part of Springfield Photovoice.
“We’re hoping the Photovoice project is a good opportunity for changing the culture and providing more education about our community,” said select board member Stephanie Thompson. “I’ve had the great fortune of seeing some of the photos the students have taken and reading some of the narratives and it’s very inspiring the way that they can look at their community through a different lens and alter that perspective. Putting that out to the community, I think, will be a really great opportunity for people to start to see things in a very different light.”
Thompson had seen a Photovoice project completed in Rutland a while back. She immediately saw the appeal of the project and decided to bring up the idea at a Project Action meeting. Grant, an active voice in the community through her work at the College and a member of Project Action, also saw the potential of Photovoice as a service learning opportunity for students. Both said they saw Springfield Photovoice as a driver for a town rebirth of sorts. Now, two semesters and two classes later, the project is gaining momentum and Grant’s students are driving it.
“The students whom I’ve worked with on this project are becoming more articulate about their connections to the community and they’ve been better able to talk about their experience here and what they think should change,” Grant said. “And they’re wanting to be more involved. A few of them have already made suggestions about things that could happen to benefit the community.”
Starting last semester with her Interpersonal & Small Group Communications class and now with her Dimensions of Freedom class, Grant has paired her students up with younger students in the community to shoot pictures of the things they like and don’t like about Springfield. The students have also been writing narratives about some of the things they’ve been seeing along the way. Those photos––rusty gates, crumbling brick facades, cigarette butts––are then posted to a private Facebook group page where students and community members can discuss and comment on the work. But that’s just the beginning. With the help of Thompson and Project Action a sizable selection of the photos will be put on display in Springfield’s Great Hall with a meet the artists reception scheduled for May 24.
“Not only will the exhibit make a strong impact, but the location is great,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of foot traffic on any given day through that space so the number of impressions that the project is going to have beyond that May 24th event will be tremendous.”Manufacturers that have closed up shop and left the town, neglectful landlords, and drugs are a few reasons for Springfield’s decline. Thompson said that over a number of years specific events have transpired, including a shooting and a murder, that have also cast a pall over life in the small town of roughly 9,000.
Students echoed that same sentiment. Mandy Stevens, a Springfield native and student at CCV’s Springfield academic center, noted that things were different when she grew up in the town.
“I remember not having to worry about walking alone, or that overarching fear of having to watch over your shoulder. Growing up here was pretty carefree,” the thirty-one-year-old Stevens said. “It’s different now. As a mom, at least my perception of it is. I’m definitely more aware of where my kids are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing, especially with the recent events, the shootings, and drugs.”
Student Dagan Warner is a second-year student at CCV studying computer systems management. He said the goal of Springfield Photovoice is to present the community with a picture of Springfield that might not be noticed otherwise. There are easy subjects to capture, such as the crumbling buildings, along with more difficult subjects, such as the drug problem, Warner said. And then there are the passing moments of beauty that are caught by chance.
“My favorite photo is one I took maybe a month ago when I was helping the high school Intro to College Studies class,” Warner said. “They were watching a video about the rule of thirds…and I was just sitting by the window and it happened to be a cloudy day with the sun poking through and I took this shot, and in the top, right corner, the sun was just coming through, and this one beam of light came down on this parked car, this isolated beam. That’s my favorite shot.”
The project goes beyond just showing Springfield from a new perspective, Warner and Stevens said. Working with younger students, Stevens notes, means many of the scenes in the photos are being presented from community members whose voices are often unheard or not taken seriously. Warner said he hopes to see two other specific outcomes from the project. First, he’d like the work to inspire others who might feel nervous or too shy to share their thoughts on Springfield, to speak up. And second, he’d like those who look unfavorably on his hometown to look at the images and think twice.“This is not supposed to be a negative thing, it’s supposed to be a positive thing,” Warner said. “You know you have the optimists who see good in everything, and then you have the pessimists. We’re also trying to show the pessimists that there are good things in Springfield, like the beautiful scenery and the life around town.”
Thompson shared similar feelings about her hopes for the project and suspects that because Springfield Photovoice is a student-led project it will resonate with and inspire the community.
“For me, it’s all about community engagement,” she said. “The best part about this for me is that the students were given loose direction that it needs to be community-based and the way that they have approached this has been uniquely decided by them. I think that makes this a much more genuine project and I’m hoping this isn’t the only Photovoice effort we have in Springfield. I also hope that it will inspire other projects and further engagement from other sectors and other citizens in the community.”
And word of the project is beginning to trickle out. Grant and Warner recently gave a public presentation about Springfield Photovoice to Project Action, and the Tuesday evening guerilla-photo session certainly peaked some interest from passers-by. Promotion of the artists’ reception and show will be starting up soon, Thompson said, which she expects will garner more interest in what’s been happening.
When asked if she thought Springfield Photovoice was going to help the town, Stevens said it’ll take more than the project, but she’s confident in her commitment and in her community.
“Deb [Grant] showed us some examples of Photovoice in Rutland and some of the success they’ve had, so I think it’ll make a difference once the ball gets rolling,” she said. “And you know, if you don’t do anything, nothing is going to change.”