Walla Walla students' anti-smoking effort gains voice through photos

Local students turned to art to make a point about tobacco use.

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One of Stephanie Cook's images and captions show the mixed messages created in the modern world in relation to tobacco---a pink cancer bracelet and a lit cigarette in hand form a conflicting relationship. August 31, 2010

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Wa-Hi senior Drea Retherford shows one of the displays depicting snapshots of children who have been given cigarettes that was being hung at Metropolis (gallery) on S. Colville Street Tuesday afternoon. The board was one of a collection produced by students to present tobacco prevention stories through photography and captions. Caption info was to be placed in the blank red square as students finished preparation of their work prior to hanging the exhibit. August 31, 2010

WALLA WALLA -- It was a certain picture that particularly turned his stomach, explained Drea Retherford, pawing through a stack of mounted photos.

"Here, this is it," the Walla Walla High School senior said, pulling a rectangle out of the pile. Mounted on the colored poster board were photos of three very young children. All with cigarettes between their lips; two appear to be actively smoking them.

"This isn't cool, people having their children smoke," he said, his eyes momentarily glued to the images. "What kind of parent would let their 3-year-old smoke cigarettes?"

Nearly as nasty was a picture Retherford snapped in Walla Walla. Cigarette butts floating in a bucket filled with rainwater made a disgusting soup of sorts. "This was right outside Starbucks," he said.

Those and many more photographs were being mounted on the walls of the downtown Metropolis art venue Tuesday afternoon, in preparation for the evening's presentation and public exhibit.

Retherford was among a group of teens to participate in a project called "PhotoVoice" through a joint venture between Community Center for Youth and the Walla Walla County Public Health Department.

Led by county tobacco prevention specialist Sara Bru, about a dozen youth learned to use photographs -- shot locally and taken from media sources -- and captioning to express their thoughts and the facts they've absorbed through research about smoking.

Even facts that seem well published are new to every generation. "I didn't know four million people die of smoking every year," Retherford said.

The innovate idea pulls together art, media, language and social change agendas to work with hard-to-reach groups, Bru said. The mission behind PhotoVoice, a charity founded in the United Kingdom, is to effect positive changes in society.

Bru and her group are hoping the change in this case is in smokers, notably teens addicted to tobacco.

Like the faceless girl in one photograph. Her denim-jacketed arm sports a pink rubber bracelet, indicating a stand against breast cancer.

A few inches down her hand, however, a burning cigarette dangles between her fingers, seeming to state the opposite.

She took that picture, said Stephanie Cook, 15, marveling at the dichotomy represented in a single image.

The Wa-Hi sophomore found herself surprised at how easily her subjects acquiesced to being shot -- smoking was no big deal to them, Cook said.

Equally surprising was that people "were shocked we were wanting to do it," she added.

In turn, Cook found herself taken aback at some of statistics she learned. "Tobacco is the No. 1 killer in America. I learned how much junk you get in your lungs ... it's disgusting."

For her, the project became personal. Cook's best friend smokes, she said. "She hid it from me. When I found out, I cried. She feels bad, but I wish she would stop."

In the upstairs balcony area, kids steadily taped up 1,200 identical images of a puff of smoke¬? -- one for every person who dies every day in the U.S., Bru said. The visitors who attend the evening presentation will have the chance to write the name of someone they know who died smoking-related deaths.

About three dozen people came to the event, Bru said the next morning. "The students were proud, you could tell they really had a sense of accomplishment."

She hopes the exhibit can travel to area schools, to stretch out the impact of the photos and captioning integral to PhotoVoice. As well, Bru is ready to take the next step, underlining the work with an action plan for local tobacco use prevention, she added.

"I'm really excited. My hope is that people will use this model in similar context."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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