Photo story: Pictures measure nutrition

By Ali Hussain

Speech is not the only way people engage with their surroundings.  Information hard to express in words may be better communicated with photographs.

Christopher Bielecki used photography to measure people’s access to nutritious food in rural Guatemala when he was a researcher at Texas A&M University.

“The objective of my research was to take a new look at how we think of food security in terms of how we collect data,” said Bielecki, who now works in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

“I have seen a lot of researchers conducting surveys and I wanted to look at a new way to collect data that uses photographs that don’t require complex statistical knowledge for analysis.”

Bielecki tested an investigative methodology called participatory rephotography as part of his research of the nutrition of people living in two rural Guatemalan villages in 2013.

“People have used participatory rephotography in a sociology context, taking photographs of a town to see changes over time,” he said. “Another example could be looking at satellite imagery to see vegetation patterns, land-use and forest-use. But I wanted to use it to record what people are eating.”

Participatory refers to participants themselves taking photos – not the researcher. And rephotography means taking photographs of the same subject repeatedly over time.

A benefit is that community members themselves collect valuable information about a community’s unique food security situation.

Bielecki trained rural Guatemalans to take photographs of what they ate with disposable cameras and mobile phones.

“It was amazing to see how excited the participants were to learn the basic principles of photography,” he said. “I was humbled watching them help each other during the initial training. Many participants not only expressed their appreciation of learning a new way to ‘see’ nutrition in their community, but they were also grateful to learn how to operate a camera, which for most was a brand new skill.”

Bielecki asked 21 study participants to take one photograph of their midday meal for a month. He has a little more than 400 photographs from the project. Each one was analyzed and sorted into three rough nutritional categories:

  • starches, including corn, maize and potatoes
  • vegetables, with tomatoes, chili peppers and other leafy vegetables the most common
  • proteins, including meat

The photographs revealed information that couldn’t be gleaned only from a simple survey.

“A common question in food security surveys is, ‘How many days a week do you eat meat?’” Bielecki said. “People might say, ’Well two times a week or three time a week.’

“But from the photographs of their daily meal, I realized that the meat they took a photograph of wasn’t something that we might think of. For example, it was common to see little minnows and chicken feet.

“They weren’t exactly large pieces of a steak or chicken breast.”

The participatory rephotography technique enabled Bielecki to see what people actually ate. Asking the same question in a survey might not exactly tell the true nature of things.

“I realized that photographs are not only a great tool to collect data, but can also be used to convey important food security message without the complexity of special data analysis or statistical techniques,” Bielecki said.

The photographs can also be used by local health organizations for health and nutrition educational programs.

You can listen to an interview with Christopher Bielecki here.

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