Sherry Prenevost and the power of photography in social justice
A Picture Paints A Thousand Words: Discovering Sherry Prenevost by Joy Watson
I first discover Sherry Prenevost’s photography at a dinner in Toronto. I meet her a few days before Christmas n 2016. Over aromatic red wine, I am lulled by her stories. She has an unassuming presence and in her soft-spoken way, I am pulled into the power of her orbit as she talks about her work as a photographer, a job that has taken her to many different parts of the world to meet a diverse spectrum of people from all walks of life. But Sherry is no ordinary photographer. She is a self-taught professional photographer with her roots deeply anchored in disadvantaged communities where she uses her art to facilitate processes of social transformation. Her work is mind-blowingly powerful and seeks to find ways of drawing attention to those who are in need, who are in some way, a victim of social injustice.
Sherry Prenevost’s path to photography
Sherry did not start out as a photographer. For 22 years, she co-owned a company. Compelled by a desire to do humanitarian work, she joined an international environmental humanitarian organisation, as CEO. Through this work, she came into contact with many organisations doing work at grassroots level both in Canada and internationally and realised that this is where she wanted to focus her energies. “I was struck by the level of integrity, commitment and passion in this work and realised that I wanted to support this more.” This eventually led to her joining a research team at Ryerson University where her work primarily entails the use of photography to build respectful partnerships with remote indigenous First Nations communities. One of these projects, “Mamow Ki Ken Da Ma Win: Searching Together” addressed the social determinants of health and well-being through a partnership-based approach to child, family and community wellness in First Nations communities in northern Ontario.
Sherry uses a range of different methodologies in her work such as retreats aimed at fostering inter-generational communication between First Nation Elders and the youth. She was also involved in establishing safe spaces for women experiencing violence where they could meet and provide support to each other. A project called “Her Life Her Canvass” entailed working as a mentor with victims of gender-based violence to use art to facilitate a process of finding voice and healing. Her work attests to how instrumental art and creative processes can be in healing deep-seated trauma.
Sherry’s work as a reflection of the beauty of human possibility
Jackie Thomas, the CEO for the Artists to Artists Foundation, has described Sherry’s work as “taking us on a journey of discovery of what is possible when we are actively involved in affecting our world. Her work reflects the beauty of human possibilities and the depth of human spirit. She very uniquely combines art, the impact that art can have on each of us and the human condition to create amazingly artistic and emotional bodies of work.” One example of this is Sherry’s work in teaching photography to persons with intellectual disabilities, which inculcated a sense of social inclusion, the restoration of dignity and the cultivation of a sense of purpose for those involved. Sherry’s purpose here was simple. “For me, I was deeply touched each day that I worked with the adults. They were open to so much. Every day began and ended with hugs and so much appreciation. They taught me that their ability is far more reaching than their disability.” Those who participated in these sessions were elated when their work was showcased in Mississauga Life Magazine.
Sherry’s work is renowned and has received much acclaim through several awards. These include the prestigious ‘Marty Award for Emerging Visual Artist of the Year,’ the first and only time the award had been bestowed on a photographic artist. The award is conferred by the Mississauga Arts Council. Artists are nominated and juried by top industry celebrities and the event is televised, so winning it was a significant testimony to the beauty of her work. Yet in her humble; accessible way, Sherry is largely unfazed by the prestige that has been bestowed on her work. She is motivated by an entirely different energy. “The work I do feeds my soul. Our footsteps matter in this world and I wish for mine to count, on behalf of others.”
Sherry’s work in using photography in First Nations Communities
Sherry’s work with First Nations communities has much to teach us about finding alternative ways to facilitate community development in our own context. Her photographs have been a powerful way of visually documenting research and community work and have been used in many published research reports, in the media and have been presented at conferences and symposiums. Most importantly, they are a conduit for self-expression and community development through the mode of art. Her work is a unique way of presenting research back to First Nations communities in a visual way, as opposed to presenting them with academic reports.
Through photo voice projects, a process whereby community members use cameras to explore issues such as finding voice and vision and documenting the human experience, communities are able to find expression of a shared sense of purpose and vision. Sherry’s photographs are not just pictures. They are a living record of a community’s needs, priorities, dreams and aspirations. She uses her work to build communities, to raise awareness of those in social situations of need and ultimately, to bringing about change in the world we live in. Her work has entailed travelling across the globe to places such as Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Sierra Leone, all in the name of creating a better, more humane social order.
Yet Sherry’s work is most compelling in terms of its impact on the lives of individuals, in touching a human life to the point that it steers off a course of destruction and reignites a sense of belief in humanity. One example of this is when she met James, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone. She was at a community celebration where everyone was jovial and partaking in the celebrations. “I noticed a boy of about fourteen standing on the side, separated from what was going on and he looked very dejected. I enquired and was told that because of what he had done as a child soldier, he was not accepted back in his community. He had been kidnapped when he was 9-years old and forced to become a child soldier.
James eventually was able to return, to his community. The villagers, however, were unable to forgive him. Sherry was greatly moved by James’ story and recognising that he too was a victim of enforced violence, wanted to find a way of doing something for him. With the help of a translator, she reached out to him and encouraged him to use her camera. He was reticent and reluctant to engage. She persevered and taught him how to use the camera, but he was wary at first and would take a few pictures and put the camera down. “But at the end of 3 days, I did not know where James was with my camera. He was out and about, experiencing some joyful opportunity. At the beginning, I asked him if he would be comfortable with sharing some stories of the war and he said no, he had not even spoken of this to his family.
At the end of 4 days, he indicated that he would like to share his story with me. And so we went to a quiet space behind a hut and James began sharing his story through a translator. The stories rolled out of his eyes as he sobbed. He told unimaginable stories of the things that he had been forced to do. He sobbed, I sobbed and the translator sobbed. I asked James if there was anything that would give him hope of recovery from this. Through very heavy body sobbing he said ‘If God could forgive me. Because the devil runs through me, the devil is in my blood. And maybe education. But my parents are too poor to send me to school.” Sherry was determined, in that moment, to find a way of sending James to school. He asked her “What do you want out of this? Why are you doing this?” Sherry told him that she wanted nothing, except for one thing, that he returned an act of kindness to another person, something that he had to determine for himself.
James went to school, learned to speak English and became a teacher and leader in his community. On one occasion when Sherry visited Sierra Leone, she was greeted by a bunch of children who ran out to tell her to come and see James and learn what he had done. She was told he had asked the local chief for access to a piece of land which he had used to plant and harvest produce that could be sold at a market. In this way, he had financed an education for 29 children from both his village and surrounding villages, focusing on those most in need. The ripple effect of Sherry’s act of humanity opened the door to so much more than she had envisaged.
Sherry’s work in Sierra Leone has resulted in her becoming a fully initiated traditional chief in the chiefdom of Gbonkolenken Tonkolili district where she has been involved in community capacity building projects in education, women’s entrepreneurial development and the building of a school in Mathombo.
I met Sherry at a time when I was asking some very deep questions about how we find meaning in doing what we do and how we use our lives and work to step outside of ourselves and contribute to a greater social cause. Her heartfelt joy in spending time with and using her skills to assist those who are most in need shows us all that we just need to look around us and see that there is always a way of using our skills and talents to not only create a more equitable, just world around us, but to add meaning and purpose to our own lives. For essentially, we are all connected to each other in the broader tapestry of life and all we need do is show up and carry the intent to make a difference.