Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Women Who Fish Have Stories to Tell: Part 1

By Erin Burkett, Michigan Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellow

"My brookie" Photo: Shawn Rathbun
As a Michigan Sea Grant graduate research fellow, I use a community-driven, social science research method called photovoice to better understand women’s fishing experiences. Photovoice combines individual photography with group storytelling to highlight a group that hasn’t previously been given sufficient attention. Only about one of every five Michigan anglers are women, and, in the past, women have been largely absent from studies asking who fishes and why.

Photovoice projects typically follow these general steps: recruitment, documentation, photowalks, and exhibit or action phase. First, you have to recruit participants. I started by contacting fishing clubs and their members through email, Facebook, and club meetings. I visited bait and tackle shops and stores that sell fishing licenses to explain my project and distribute informational flyers. And finally, I posted flyers in public spaces and contacted women-specific natural resource organizations. I went through this process in two distinct Michigan regions: the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula and metro-Detroit. The following steps were conducted separately within each region.

Anyone interested in joining the project was invited to an informational meeting where I explained what participating in the project might entail. With a little prompting using open-ended questions, the women started sharing their fishing stories and what topics they might want to highlight in their pictures. Something that makes this type of community-engaged research unique is that participants have autonomy and control over the project’s goals and outcomes throughout the entire project. The role of the researcher is to facilitate and observe the process and collect data in the form of transcribed audio recordings of meetings and the photographs and stories shared by the research participants.

"Cooler colors" Photo: Amber Voght.
The next phase of the project was the documentation stage. Over the next few months, each group member was asked to take photographs that represented their fishing experiences. For the most part, everyone used a cell phone camera, and everyone incorporated pictures from their past that still had significant meaning to them.

Keweenaw area project members sharing their photographs and fishing stories during a "photowalk." Photo: Erin Burkett
The next series of 2-3 group meetings, called “photowalks,” is a key component of any photovoice project. Photowalks give each participant ample time to share their photographs and the stories behind them. What happens when you get a group of women anglers together in a room and put their photographs on display? Engaging storytelling, a lot of knowing nods of agreement, and plenty of laughter. Each group discussed their favorite fish to catch and eat, what gear they use, where they fish, who they fish with, how they feel being women in a sport dominated by men, and everything in between.

What’s next?
The exhibit or action stage varies for each unique project. The Keweenaw group created a gallery-style exhibit that is currently on display at the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw. The exhibit’s title, Connections: Stories From Women Who Fish, refers to the members’ decision to present their experiences as a group, rather than as individuals. As group member Emila Downes explains, “Everyone has an idea about what fishing means to them, but as a community or group, what does fishing mean? It facilitates the connection to everything around us from people to nature. For some it is a break from the world and for others it's a connection to the world. Whatever fishing means to you, it is a way to connect everyone across generations, nationalities, lifestyles, and occupations. It's what brings us together!” Project members have stressed the importance of bringing their stories to multiple audiences, and plan to move the exhibit to multiple venues in the future.

The metro-Detroit project group will share their experiences in a group presentation at the June meeting of the Metro-West Steelheaders. Their main goal is to invite women who want to try fishing or get more active in local fishing clubs, but who might not have had the confidence or experience to try the sport.

Emilia Downes setting up the photography exhibit Connections: Stories from Women Who Fish at the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw in Houghton, MI. Photo: Erin Burkett
Introducing the project and group members at the Carnegie Museum's public exhibit opening on February 14, 2019. From left: Amber Voght, Emilia Downes, Cori Fitzpatrick, Denise Vandeville, and Erin Burkett. Photo: Hugh Gorman

Project Highlights
My favorite thing about facilitating this project thus far has been seeing the relationship-building among the participants. They aren’t just swapping fishing stories. They are inviting each other to go fishing, thinking about each other between meetings, and even considering starting an outdoor recreation club for women. Seeing these connections build has made the project really fun and rewarding. These outcomes wouldn’t be possible if I had chosen another research method like a social survey that is completed by individuals in isolation. The next step in this project is to summarize my findings and prepare them for publication. I will also share my findings with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which is interested in learning more about this unique group of stakeholders.

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