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 knowing something 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.