A counterintuitive approach to public health photos

September 14, 2017

Public health agencies and nonprofits are increasingly focusing on how systems, policies, and environments can improve community health. Systems and environment approaches might include introducing community water fluoridation, improving access to fresh and affordable produce in “food deserts,” or helping people live more active lives by building parks and installing sidewalks.

However, the images that health advocates use can undermine their messages about the importance of these approaches. Here’s an example:

Resource Media recently worked with partners in Colorado to develop messages and materials publicizing community water fluoridation‘s links to better oral health. In the creative materials we developed, we were careful not to use images of kids brushing their teeth. Why? It’s not because we don’t support regular brushing – we do, we do!

Rather, we needed to stress that isolated hygienic practices, like brushing, are not enough to ensure dental health– especially for underserved communities that might lack access to regular dental care. We needed to emphasize how systems like water fluoridation are proven and essential for giving many kids, from many communities, a healthy start in life. To stress this, we selected images of kids using water fountains and carrying reusable water bottles. These photos reinforced the idea that the systems around us help us live healthier, no matter where we are.

The same thing holds when it comes to promoting policy, systems, and environmental approaches to access to healthy food. While it’s important for people to make good decisions when it comes to the food they eat, it’s often hard for people to access fresh and healthy food. In talking about access to healthy food, we might be tempted to use a stock photo of a woman eating a piece of fresh fruit.

Again, this type of image reinforces the erroneous idea that people just need to make better decisions to be healthy, when, in fact, many communities don’t have access to nutritious food. A more effective image might show someone at a convenience store, purchasing produce that is in a new fresh food basket—evidence of a systemic change in the community that affects all its members’ access to healthy food. Or show a teenager loading up a plate of veggies at a new salad bar, in her school lunchroom. In other words, highlight the new ways people are gaining access to healthier food options rather than focusing on individual acts of consumption.

As you choose images for your next creative project, think about how you are (or aren’t) promoting the idea that policies, systems, and environments can reduce inequities and provide healthier opportunities for all communities.

Teresa Guillien