Almost everyone has experienced the boredom of sitting through someone’s vacation photos, forcing a wan smile as a friend hands you picture after picture of beaches, museums, and old buildings. But if you’ve been to the same destination as your friend, there’s an allure to seeing how their experience of a particular place compares to your own. Discussing a gelato stand you both visited outside the Uffizi gallery in Florence or debating the merits of ocean-side vs. sound-side in the Outer Banks can bring a friendship closer. But can that communal photo-sharing power be captured and channeled into improving people’s health?
That concept is a novel component of assistant professor of medicine Arshiya Baig‘s pilot project to improve diabetes outcomes in the Chicago Latino community, Picture Good Health/Imagínate una Buena Salud. Designed in cooperation with churches in the predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Little Village, Baig’s program offers focus group classes with Latinos diagnosed with diabetes, seeking to improve their diet, exercise, and disease control. At each of the eight weekly sessions, participants go through education, counseling, and activities to help manage their diabetes. But each meeting begins with a novel concept, called “photovoice,” that puts the storytelling potential of photography to use as a stimulant of healthy discussion.
“We thought we would do something fun, so we are giving disposable cameras to everyone in the intervention group, and they get to take photos of their life with diabetes,” Baig said. “Then each class starts off with a conversation around those photos. People can share stories, they can problem solve, and our class leader is trained to facilitate a conversation. It’s probably the most innovative part of the study.”
The concept of photovoice was not created by Baig, but it is typically used by researchers for different purposes. Typically, the idea of giving subjects cameras and asking them to document their situation is used as a “needs assessment” to help design an intervention. For example, one project asked teenagers in an urban area to photograph negative elements in their daily life and community. Researchers or policy makers could then look at those photos to find places where an intervention could make the largest impact, such as cleaning up abandoned buildings or providing more supervision during walks to school.
However, in Picture Good Health, the photovoice method is the intervention. Participants are told only to document things in their life that are relevant to living with diabetes. After the photos are developed, they can choose which ones to share with the group during the first half-hour of each week’s session. The photographer explains what the photo means to him or her, and then the group discusses from there.
Second-year Pritzker medical student Matthew Stutz joined Baig’s project this summer to start analyzing the photovoice component of the focus groups. He found that the participant’s photos covered a wide range of topics, from the obvious (food, diabetes medications) to more general influences such as their home, workplace, neighborhood, and family. A photo of loaves of white and wheat bread might kick off a group discussion of health grocery choices, or a picture of an ashtray could trigger participants to talk about the methods they have used to try and quit smoking. One man shared a picture of a park and said it reminded him of his deceased daughter, inspiring the other participants to talk about family members they had lost – a topic that wouldn’t typically be on the agenda for a diabetes intervention.
“I think of photovoice as an easy mechanism for someone to convey emotions, experiences, losses, gains, without having to verbalize it,” Stutz said. “By having a prop or a mechanism to share, I feel we can gain a lot more ground and depth and conversation.”
So far, Picture Good Health participants have given the photovoice technique rave reviews. A focus group facilitator wrote that “”[Participants] would not change anything. Because they [the photos] helped us remember the good and sad times.” Others commented that it made them feel more like a family with their fellow participants – who were strangers before the group classes started. As part of Baig’s project, the subjects will be surveyed again six months after completion of the course to measure both their diabetes control and the lasting impact of the sessions. But as the first 100 subjects go through classes, the photovoice intervention appears to be successful as both an icebreaker and an intervention.
“I was really impressed by the openness that people felt among strangers in this group, to share something so deep,” Baig said. “In the discussion, participants used the word ‘family,’ we’re a family now, and said ‘thank you for sharing’ to a participant; this is what we’re here for.”