It’s a simple request: take photos to answer questions about your life like “Where do you sleep?” and “Where do you get your support?” Then talk about how the images make you feel.
Simple, but the results can illuminate larger themes or community challenges.
It’s called Photovoice, and it’s a qualitative research method that’s been used for more than 20 years with groups of refugees, health workers, adults with brain injuries and after-school programs. WSU College of Nursing undergraduate student Halle Schulz chose Photovoice for her Honors College research project working with a group of homeless and low-income adults at the Women’s Hearth drop-in center in Spokane.
“I was interested in learning more about the homeless population from a nursing perspective,” Schulz said. She wants to go into emergency nursing, and knows that homeless people will be among her future patients. “I thought, why not learn about the population I’m going to be serving?” she said recently.
Schulz used a small grant from the WSU College of Nursing to buy digital cameras that she distributed to women who participated in the study. The women were given assignments like, “What do you eat for dinner and where does it come from?,” then had a week to take photos answering the question. They were encouraged to write down their thoughts, then they discussed the assignment as a group.
Schulz used the photos, the written answers and transcripts of the group discussions to identify themes related to participants’ health. She concluded that despite homelessness or insecure housing, the participants in her study “convey a strong ‘sense of place’ within their community.” The women also acknowledged the potential to improve their health, leading Schulz to suggest “motivational interviewing” might be useful in changing health behaviors in that population.
After the study was over she donated the cameras to the Women’s Hearth, which offers photography classes to its clients. Her project won an award at SURCA, WSU’s university-wide showcase of undergraduate research.
Schulz said the conclusions of her study didn’t surprise her, but did open her eyes to the challenges faced by homeless and low-income women. “I grew in that experience,” she said. “It will help me remember that patients are people first, regardless of their backgrounds or choices.”