Finding light through story
Public Health students explore art.
We were a few weeks from Spring 2022 finals. In my Global Health class, I heard mumblings like “trying to hang in there,” “stressed,” and “overwhelmed.” The students’ collective anxiety nudged me to do an out-of-the-box, creative exercise called Photovoice, a storytelling tool that helps users ponder questions and emotions, deconstruct experiences, and find solutions to community problems through visual aids like photographs and artwork.
On a cloudy April afternoon, our class walked to the Art & Design Department to see the Sexual Assault Support Organization’s presented art exhibit, Resilience. Most students mentioned that they’d never been to the campus art gallery. Students who couldn’t make it in person were Zoomed in once we made it to the space. I had never used Photovoice before and anticipated it would be complex to manage this synchronous exercise in a class that incorporated remote learners.
Assistant Professor of Art & Design and Gallery Director Melissa Sclafani joined us. She carefully debriefed the students on the art pieces, acknowledging that this was her first time explaining art to non-art students. The experience offered something new for everyone! “As an artist, I always make work that creates contemplative spaces for people,” she explained. “Everyone makes art in their own way; you talk about your daily practice, and that is art.” The Photovoice method was initially developed by health promotion researchers Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris in 1997. Wang and Burris proposed that pre-selected images could inspire viewers to reflect upon and explore the forces that guided the artists’ creative processes. As students took in the art and complementary poetry, they chose a piece that touched them. They chatted about their selection with their thought partner and eventually the class. Discussions were open and non-linear, exemplifying the connectedness between the individual student and the class’s collective mental health.
"The shared space inspired us to continue making connections beyond textbooks and highlighted the power of sharing stories."
As I suspected, their expressions highlighted swings from burnout to resilience: “This poem shows how someone is more than what someone else makes of them.” “I feel good in my body, and freedom in my thoughts.” “There is a freshness in this picture.” “This photo could mean that trauma is historical and present, and we continue to push and live life.”
The conversations lingered as we walked back to the classroom. I could sense a transformation as a student said they felt “the art of waiting for the wind to change.” It seemed this renowned creative pedagogic method had worked. The shared space inspired us to continue making connections beyond textbooks and highlighted the power of sharing stories.