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Teen Photographers Focus on Health

UCLA/Rand project gives youngsters a voice to effect change in their communities.

August 02, 2004|Daffodil J. Altan | Times Staff Writer

All La'Shield Williams asked for was one week. One week without Cheetos, soda, chili cheese-coated French fries or Fritos. One week, instead, of summer strawberries and cool salad greens.

And she got it.

Armed with photographs -- of her high school's fat-and-sugar-laden menu fare, rows of soda machines, potato chip bags and Skittles -- the Lakewood teen walked into her advisor's office at St. Mary's Academy and asked that something be changed.

Her advisor agreed.

"So for a whole week we had no junk food," Williams said, smiling shyly on a recent morning. "Then they added granola bars and salad as a second entree." Before that, choices included such things as tamale pie. "It was crazy," she said.

The catalyst for her request was a pocket-size digital camera handed to her when she was chosen for the Teen Photovoice project, a research study built on the premise of using community participation to effect change.

UCLA pediatrician Jonathan Necheles designed the study, which was done through the UCLA / Rand Center for Adolescent Health Promotion, sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The traditional approach is that people in the ivory tower come up with the question, do the research and put a paper in a journal," Necheles said.

About 20 years ago, public health scientists became interested in how they could involve regular people in research projects with a goal of fostering change within communities.

That approach never gained momentum among researchers, health officials said, until it produced good results. But as communities confront a number of serious health issues, including obesity, teen depression and violence, interest is growing.

For his study, Necheles asked Williams and 12 other Los Angeles-area minority teens about the main health issues in their lives. Stress, they said. And food.

With Necheles' guidance, they set out to document how these issues were manifested in their daily lives. For six months the teenagers took thousands of photographs, created piles of prints and talked about common health themes.

"As pediatricians, we can see someone in the clinic, but it's very hard for us to understand the social context that creates or perpetuates their health problems," Necheles said.

The project was designed not only to have the students identify health behaviors in their neighborhoods, but also to produce something tangible and visual, something that would promote change.

"You can talk about changing things all the time, but once [people] see something, it's different. That's what advertising does," said Jamila Shabazz, 18, who plans to pursue a degree in public health.

So the students created ads of their own: three giant glossy posters that have been reprinted to distribute around their neighborhoods. The three framed images -- designed by the students, with the help of a graphic artist -- were unveiled Tuesday at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, where they will be displayed through Aug. 31. Necheles hopes young people will relate more closely to the posters than they would if they were created by adults.

One depicts a balance-type scale. The heavier side is loaded with images of potato chips, cookies, doughnuts, soda and McDonald's arches, while the lighter side shows fruit, orange juice and water. Above it is the question: "What side of the scale are you on?" Beneath it: "More people are overweight than ever ... Tip the scale to a healthier America."

The concept of using cameras and community participants in health research to foster change originated with Caroline Wang, a public health professor at the University of Michigan who coined the term "Photovoice."

Her first project involved women in rural China whose photographs of difficult working and living conditions led to the building of the community's first day-care center and clean-water facility.

"The people who participate in Photovoice are often people who are excluded from public policy conversations," Wang said. "[Photovoice] enables people to use their photographs and stories as personal and political voice.... It's a way to change policy."

Necheles said he hopes the experience will give the teens the confidence to continue to push for change in their communities.

"It's pretty cool," said Kathy Hernandez, 17. "You go through with it and you're like, 'Wow. It's not that hard to make a difference.' "

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