Visual Epidemiology is a non-profit media and research company that creates innovative media projects to advance pressing global health issues. If you are interested in working on a project with us, or would like us to help you articulate your cause through visual media, please contact us.
Fifty or sixty years ago our barriers to disease were largely medical – many disease processes eluded even the most seasoned researcher. Decades later, modern research is built on the foundation that these pioneering men and women laid before us. Today our barriers to overcoming disease remain clearly evident, however such barriers are shifting away from the biomedical and towards the political and social. Now, our barriers are man made and self-imposed. The barriers are not the unknown, but the unwilling.
Our vision is to overcome these barriers by changing the global conversation – to show the lives behind the research. Through both narrative and documentary filmmaking, we convey the way diseases impacts one’s life as a whole. Beyond the individual, we show how the introduction of disease changes the entire infrastructure of family and community – that a disease is never relegated to simply one individual.
And we seek to show this directly, by providing researchers with content and media to present alongside their data at conferences and in the classroom, and by creating positively cathartic feature films approachable by a wide audience.
In this unique, dual approach, Visual Epidemiology creates a two-way bridge between academia and civil society by:
Bringing relevant lived experience into academic discourse
Many scholars attempt to include the stories and perspectives of marginalized groups in their scholarship, but representation of these voices in print is limited at best. Film can fully integrate the images and voices of individuals who live out the consequences of the health situations faced by the population: it can make vivid the costs of a health decisions and inject a new insight into intervention decision-making, directly sharing the ever-present voice of those affected by disease.
Making scholarship and findings more accessible to the public
Academic scholarship goes largely unread by the general public. This scholarship often addresses problems that have a direct impact on individual lives, yet most individuals would not recognize themselves in the discussion. By creating relatable bonds with viewers on common aspects of life, not simply disease, we can investigate a nonlinear mode of communication and understanding with the audience.
Building Relatable Bonds Through Nonlinear Connections
Almost all films or videos dealing with global health issues focus very linearly on the disease. Even if it is those affected by disease speaking out on their illness, there remains a barrier to creating a meaningful connection. This approach simply repackages information and presents it in a slightly different manner. This is a common pitfall in using visual media to spark motivation – it can bore civil society and is not telling researchers anything they do not already know. Saturated with today’s media, people do not have to think for themselves, or draw their own conclusions. They are simply “told” about the issue. Ultimately, a linear approach creates a weak bond between the viewer and the global health issue at hand. They don’t feel it.
Knowing something is different than feeling something.
When people draw their own conclusions, the bond grows stronger. When people can relate to the individual, the bond becomes meaningful. We create films that step away from the discussion of disease, sometimes entirely, to explore the impact of the issue in the broader context of an individual’s life. We peel away the cover of the disease and explore common threads of humanity that all individuals experience. A husband fibbing about liking his wife’s cooking, a father getting onto his son for listening to music to loud, the anticipation of a wedding – and the daughter that follows – these are universal bonds that we all share. By emphasizing such relatable aspects of life, in a nonlinear fashion we are free to demonstrate how these bonds can become affected by the course of disease. Drawing their own conclusions, viewers become galvanized to act. It becomes visceral – an emotion. Once we turn an epidemic into an emotion, we motivate change.
Our goal is accomplish this with positive messaging. People know that diseases cause morbidity and mortality – it is all to easy to focus on despair. Our web browsers and television stations are saturated with negative messaging. Negative messaging often seeks to polarize issues, which is often counter productive. Our grandest challenge is to turn this human suffering into a positive catharsis – conveying a message of hope and providing a way forward.
Targeting Key Audiences
Visual Epidemiology uses a project-based format to approach a variety of global health issues. For each project, Visual Epidemiology has defined three key audiences: researchers, decision-makers, and civil society.
For each of our projects, the end product is not simply a film. We use visual media in a highly strategic, diverse manner to promote continued academic research, enact appropriate policy changes, and motivate civil society on the project’s issue.
There is no doubt that these three components are always occurring in global health, but rarely are they truly threaded together on a unified front. Using a diverse set of tactics – all targeted to a single ‘project’ – Visual Epidemiology provides a center point for mobilization on the issue.
In general, the premise of public health research is that a collection of individual responses speaks for the population’s need. Rightfully, this premise places data at the foundation of global health: the field is grounded in the generations of numbers produced from our public health research. Data hold the undeniable power to elucidate need and to shape rhetoric, both of which ultimately seek to reduce the burden of disease in the population studied. And because of data, we have made considerable triumphs. Incurable diseases such as HIV are no longer considered a death sentence for many who obtain novel drug therapies, and patients with malaria can be monitored on a cell phone – all because numbers proved a definitive need for these advances.
Yet despite the undeniable impact of data, public health machinery often continues to struggle with the basics of solving our most pressing public health issues; our innovated successes are tempered with our failures in basic public health concepts. In these cases, data and research give us a constant and justified buzz of urgency in public health rhetoric. Simply illuminating need, however, does not always translate to action. More often than not, this amplified rhetoric is deflected by an equally constant and unjustifiable drone of lethargy in public health action.
Inaction and underperformance exist in part because data have allowed us to become numb to what these numbers represent; we fail to recognize that individual lives are embedded in the statistics we so adamantly defend – that data represent people. Instead, we often look at public health as a gain or loss of our numbers. Consequently, we are unable to bring about the full potential and influence of our data without recognizing the human component from which they came. Bluntly, global health often fails because we spend too much time thinking about numbers and not enough time thinking about people.
Visual Epidemiology is a nonprofit organization that seeks to change this misappropriation of focus while maintaining academic rigor. We are composed of expert epidemiologists and filmmakers who recognize the power and importance of both research validity and sensory engagement: dedicated individuals that realize that knowingsomething is different than feeling something. Our goal is simple: return the humanity from which data were derived through the use of visual media and filmmaking.
Simply portraying an epidemic through the lens of a camera has been done before and continues to have limited effectiveness, even when those affected are the ones speaking about the disease and telling their personal stories. Such attempts to portray epidemics fail because they lack a personal connection between the individual on camera and the watching audience. Aware of this potential obstacle, we uniquely take a nonlinear approach to explore epidemics in the broader context of human life, instead of through only a narrow context of their disease. Thus, we portray the life of the individual as a whole, not solely the disease by which they are affected. We surface issues of health, human rights, and legal complexities in the form of life, love, and human relationships. In doing so, our projects create bonding across cultures and paint a portrait of common humanity.
Our products have purpose. Academically, researchers can to add nuance as well as levels of depth and complexity to typically broad public health patterns—we can simultaneously explore psychosocial, socioeconomic, human rights, and other contextual dynamics and contradictions that influence otherwise well-studied, yet programmatically static, epidemics. Visually, high production value, aesthetics, and compelling storylines create a unique bonding experience with the viewer, while concurrently introducing a novel yet powerful emotional vector in which to convey these academic findings. In turn, this brings relevant, lived experience into academic discourse while providing a bridge to place this discourse into the hands of civil society, ensuring that such findings do not remain permanently relegated to the academic realm and medical journals. Placing this discourse in the minds and tongues of civil society empowers them to motivate policymakers and to hold those in decision-making positions accountable, ultimately expediting change and development in the epidemics we face.
Tuberculosis Survival Prize (2011)
Reviewed by a jury working in the humanitarian field headed by Nobel peace laureate Betty Williams, Visual Epidemiology’s documentary film They Go to Die was awarded the Tuberculosis Survival Prize (in absentia) at an awards ceremony in Lille, France. The Prize is an international prize that recognizes innovation in TB/MDR-TB advocacy and social mobilization. The Tuberculosis Survival Project gives the annual award, supported by the Lilly MDR-TB Partnership. http://www.tbsurvivalproject.org
Lowell S. Levin Award for Excellence in Global Health (2011)
Given by Yale University, the Lowell Levin Prize is awarded to work that will address health promotion and global health. The award was given to Visual Epidemiology Director Jonathan Smith’s based on his “experience.. as well as leadership in the academic environment and community involvement.”
Yale Global Health Initiative Field Experience Award (2010)
Given by the Yale Global Health Initiative Award Committee, the Yale GHI Field Experience Award is given to help foster innovative ideas in global health. Recipients receive intellectual and financial assistance to develop groundbreaking projects in Global Health. The Award fostered Visual Epidemiology to grow into the non-profit organization it is today.