Internalized Stigma & the Environment: Reflections from a Photo Narrative Project

Internalized Stigma & the Environment: Reflections from a Photo Narrative Project

Authors/Contributors: Internalized Stigma Interest Group

The Internalized Stigma Interest Group, of the Howard University annual International Conference on Stigma, is a network of people interested in promoting the awareness and reduction of internalized stigmatization of all types of oppression, especially related to stigmatized health conditions such as HIV, mental health challenges, sickle cell, and substance use challenges. We are activists and academics, people with lived experience, researchers, program workers, clinicians, students, and many other things – sometimes within a single individual! Everyone is welcome. We meet monthly over Zoom video-conference and have an email group. Both are used to exchange ideas and resources to support each other’s varied efforts.

Internalized stigma happens when a person absorbs society’s negative stereotypes or judgements about a personal identity, life situation, or health condition into how they think about themselves and their experiences as if they were true of them. It is also sometimes called “self-stigma,” but it is not the individual’s fault. Rather, it can be impossible to not take in some of the stigmatization one is exposed to, especially if it is frequent, repeated, and/or coming from sources we respect or rely on. Internalized stigma is harmful – to one’s self concept and belief in one’s self – and contributes to many negative consequences. Therefore, it is important to resist internalizing society’s oppressive messages. This project is part of that resistance.

For the 13th annual Howard University Conference (Nov 15-18, 2022) our interest group invited everyone we could reach to submit a “photo-narrative” addressing the theme, “Internalized Stigma + the Environment: How am I seen? How do I see myself? How do I want to be seen?” We did this to expand our conversations about internalized stigma to people outside our interest group, to invite creativity from people having to face stigmatization, and encourage resistance to internalized stereotypes. We invited people to consider not just how am I seen, but how do I want to be seen and how do I see myself. This relates to identity centrality, the idea that each person holds many intersecting identities, and people differ widely on which identities are most important to them and their self-concept in different situations or times of their life. Importantly, people have choices about how they define themselves. The diversity of these choices is a central theme in our photo narrative project.

Generally, photo-narratives refer to a picture someone has taken to convey something about a specific theme or question — plus a caption or paragraph they write to explain the photo’s significance. The two then travel together in the project: photo + narrative. For our project, we invited each person to submit just one photo-narrative – a digital photo accompanied by a caption no longer than 150 words.

We received 17 photo narratives from across the United States and the world: Washington, D.C.; Charlotte, North Carolina; Greenville, North Carolina; New Orleans, Louisiana; Indianapolis, Indiana; Cleveland, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Baltimore, Maryland; Kansas City, Missouri; New York City; Miami, Florida; the Philippines; Uganda; Pakistan; and Nairobi, Kenya. Internalized stigma reaches across the entire world – and yet so does the creativity, love, and connection of those fighting against it.

Many themes emerged from these photo narratives: smiles, love, inner and outer beauty, recovery, strength, awareness, advocacy, loneliness, confidence, community, heroes and warriors, alienation, connection, bravery, creativity, inner conflict, power, heaviness, resistance, survivorship, intelligence, equality, positive vibes, obstacles, courage, hope, and resiliency.

In sum, we believe that our photo-narrative project was an initial success, as evidenced by the meaningful stories and photos shared, as well as the positive reception by conference attendees at our presentation of the work (including folks who shared their stories). This was also a community-derived project that allowed our diverse workgroup members to work toward a common goal. Check out our photo narrative project HERE!

After completing this project and presenting at the annual conference, our workgroup discussed next steps. How can we expand the impact of this project? Is this type of project something that people interested in reducing internalized stigma would like to continue in the future? We want to hear from you!

This blog post represents a first step to continue sharing and building on this work, and we welcome your feedback, ideas, and interest in this work/our group! Please don’t hesitate to join our group here. We look forward to meeting you!

One response to “Internalized Stigma & the Environment: Reflections from a Photo Narrative Project”

  1. Ukumukah Akwi Ekwaiya says:

    I am so interested but I am above age

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