Jessica Spence’s thesis project didn’t quite turn out how she pictured it.

A student at Texas A&M University at the time, Spence gave cameras to 10 female farmers in Northern Uganda and asked them to take photos of their daily lives for 10 days in the summer of 2019. Along with pictures of tools, crops, garden pests, and children, each woman also returned several portraits of themselves taken by someone else.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, no! I’ve done something wrong,’” said Spence, who is now a Virginia Tech Ph.D. student studying agriculture and life sciences in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education. “But after that initial reaction, I thought, this is so awesome that they are so proud and feel so much ownership in identifying as farmers.”

Spence is now hoping the project will help bring into focus the complex realities of female farmers across the globe. She is scheduled to speak about this insight, as well as others gained from her research, during the Women and Gender in International Development Discussion Series on March 16 at 12:30 p.m.

“I really learned how important participatory action research is and how important letting participants tell their own story is,” said Spence, who is also a fellow with the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “When I analyzed this data, I was not the one defining what the photos meant and deciding what the story was. By letting them tell their own story, it was less predictable, but I also think more honest.”

Organized by the Center for International Research, Education, and Development and an InclusiveVT initiative of Outreach and International Affairs, the discussion series highlights scholars and practitioners working in the gender and international development field. The event corresponds with the university’s Principles of Community Week and Women's History Month.

Spence was invited to speak at the series by Maria Elisa Christie, the director of Women and Gender in International Development at Virginia Tech. Christie said not only was Spence’s research topic in line with the group’s mission, but her methodology also lined up with its values.

“Putting a camera in people’s hands, that’s really important,” Christie said. “Her goal by focusing on these women is to bring resources and attention to women’s needs at work, but not only is she bringing attention and valuing their work, she’s also bringing attention to and valuing their words and stories through this innovative research method, photovoice.”  

Photovoice is a qualitative research method that uses participant-taken photos to guide interviews and inquiry. By empowering participants to select imagery with minimal guidance, authentic depictions of reality from the participants’ perspectives can be collected and jointly explored by the researcher and participant.

Spence’s combination of interests naturally drew her to the methodology. Spence earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture communications and journalism and, at the time of the project, was working toward a master’s degree in agricultural leadership, education and communication.

“I’m passionate about working with women, and I’ve been passionate about agriculture my whole life, so that’s what led me down this road,” she said.

Spence said she chose women working smallholder farms – family-owned enterprises – in Northern Uganda in part because of her connection to the nongovernment organization, Field of Hope, as well as the known strife of the region.

“Northern Uganda especially has had some hardships with the Lord’s Resistance Army. The development has been held back because of that in comparison to other parts of the nation,” Spence said. “We know the region is very dependent on agriculture and we know that women do the majority of the agricultural work there, while also taking care of the home, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of their children, etc.”

Person standing among sunflowers.
Along with her farming duties, Ruby, one of Spence's subjects, is also responsible for the care of 16 children. Photo courtesy of Jessica Spence.

Spence said Field of Hope partially supported her travel in exchange for her collecting visuals. The group also connected her with the women in two villages and a Field of Hope staff member aided as a translator.

Because a majority of the participants were already familiar with smartphones, Spence was able to supply digital cameras to each with minimal instruction. This also helped to eliminate the researcher’s influence on the photos taken.

Ten days later, the women returned with a combined 858 photos, and Spence asked each to pick out one or two that really represented their lives as female farmers.

“They each picked two, and they all picked the self-portraits,” Spence said. “I was not expecting that to happen at all, and it was very interesting that it happened at two villages that are about a two-hour drive apart.”

When the phenomenon was explored during interviews, a unifying motivation was revealed.

“They said they were proud,” Spence said. “Proud to be women farmers. Proud to be the ones taking care of their families and proud to be the ones providing for their kids.”

It was also revealed that this collective pride occurred in the midst of unifying challenges.

“Physical, emotional, and financial abuse also came up in the focus groups,” Spence said. “The women do the majority of the farm work, but when the product goes to market, that’s typically when a man takes control. I asked them, ‘What happens if you tried to keep your money?’ They said, ‘Oh, well he’ll beat you.’”

Christie first saw Spence present these findings during the 2021 Women and Gender in Development Conference and said she was drawn to the researcher’s passion for women’s work and their stories.

“That’s how I got to know her and then I helped recruit her to Virginia Tech … and that’s why I asked her to speak for this series,” Christie said.

Along with Christie, Spence said Tracy Rutherford, who was appointed head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in 2019, was instrumental to her arrival in Blacksburg. Prior to becoming a Hokie, Rutherford was a professor whom Spence worked closely with at Texas A&M.

“She has been a shepherd of my education and my mentor for almost nine years now,” Spence said. “She is also the one who applied me to the ICTAS fellowship, so I would not have had that opportunity without her either. She is a wonderful leader, and thankfully, a very persistent Hokie recruiter.”

Spence said being at Virginia Tech and being an Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) fellow will greatly bolster her research as she pursues her Ph.D. She hopes that work will continue to help others see the realities of female farmers worldwide.

“This project may have just been 10 women in Northern Uganda, but they’re representative of a similar concepts and hardships that are happening across the globe in many ways,” Spence said.

Spence’s talk will be held in the Newman Library’s first-floor Multipurpose Room. Attendees may also register to receive a Zoom link. Both the in-person and virtual options are free and open to the public.

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