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Graduate student creates photovoice project

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Project seeks to encourage rural community health

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    Courtesy photos
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Sometimes a picture can be the start to gathering thousands of words to tell a big-picture story of how a rural community’s thoughts – and actions – affect their health.

Grimes County is no different than other rural areas – health resources for residents are not as accessible as for urban dwellers. To combat health issues associated with rural living, CHI St. Joseph Hospital opened a health resource center in Grimes County. They also have partnered with health communication experts at Texas A&M University to engage with residents about what “health” means. Engaging with people one-on-one is the vital first step to improve overall community health, according to the researchers.

The Grimes County Photovoice project has been underway for about a year, said Felicia York, a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Communication. She has finished the initial photo taking and conducted interviews. Now York and the research team will move to transcribing and conducting a thematic analysis of the interviews for the Grimes County Health Resource Center.

“We want to know what their feelings are about being healthy,” explained York. “Health is a socially constructed idea. One person may say they’re healthy and have a debilitating disease, but since they can get up and go to work every morning, they feel like ‘Oh! I’m healthy!’ Although to a doctor, if you have diabetes, you’re not healthy.”

To hear from a variety of individual voices, York started the Photovoice project by asking participants to take a photo of something that represents health to them. York then followed up with an interview.

“The cliché of ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is definitely true with this methodology because it encouraged them to talk about things they normally wouldn’t talk about,” said York. “Photo-voice lets you hear from their voices without giving them a leading or loaded question.”

The project has been a collaboration of Department of Communication faculty with different areas of expertise. The idea of using the Photo-voice approach was originally suggested by Dr. Lu Tang, a health communication expert who is also York’s graduate advisor.

The Photovoice model is a participatory research process that involves research participants in the creation of the research materials, explained Dr. Anna Wolfe, whose research area is organizational communication.

“This is called a photo elicitation model,” said Wolfe. “The idea is that sometimes we are more comfortable telling stories and talking about our lives when we have pictures as an opening for those conversations.”

Once York has completed an analysis of the interviews, the goal is for undergraduate communication students to be involved in creating effective health marketing and education materials, said Dr. Richard Street, the health communication expert Grimes County Health Resource Center originally contacted about developing new community health strategies.

“Step one is the research project,” said Street. “Step two would be, based on those results, to see what we can do to get some students involved to work with developing something that would be a resource for Grimes County citizens.”

It was York’s graduate research on communication strategies for traditionally marginalized populations that prompted Street to ask her to take the lead working with Grimes County citizens. York said she was able to establish a relationship and sense of camaraderie with the rural residents she interviewed.

Working to improve community health in rural areas is something she would like to do again, York added.

“This has been a great learning experience because I have never had the opportunity to be engaged with the community before for my research,” said York. “I am thankful for this opportunity and that I was entrusted to become engaged and participate in grassroots efforts to do something about the disparity in rural communities.”