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MU professor studies photographs taken by HIV-positive women

Monday, December 2, 2013 | 7:06 p.m. CST; updated 11:36 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 3, 2013

COLUMBIA — MU assistant professor Michelle Teti gave HIV-positive women a tool she hoped would empower them — a camera.

In a three-year study, Teti and other researchers provided 30 HIV-positive women from St. Louis, Kansas City and Philadelphia with cameras and examined the photographs they took.

"People wanted a chance to tell their story about living with HIV, but they did not have an outlet to do so," Teti said. 

Teti, who works in the Department of Health Sciences, operated the study through PhotoVoice, a charity with a mission to teach members of disadvantaged communities to express themselves with photography and digital storytelling. 

She has been researching HIV since 2001, looking at prevention and helping the HIV-positive learn how to live a healthy lifestyle. In the course of her research, she found that many HIV patients yearned for a creative outlet.

Teti said she saw a common theme of empowerment in the photographs. 

"We saw a lot of self-portraits and photos that served as analogies for transformations to positive or healthy lifestyles with HIV," she said. "A building under construction and then another photo of the finished building; a dying plant that progressed to a vibrant plant; photos of nature that symbolized resiliency and strength."  

At the beginning of the study, Teti taught the women about the ethics of photography and how to use the camera. After taking the photographs, they shared them with each other and explained their meanings. Then, Teti exhibited the photographs at women's health and public health centers.

"The women gained insight, a creative outlet and a new perspective of strength and resources they may not have known they had before," Teti said. "The study confirmed that people having a voice is just as important as learning a skill." 

Allison Kabel, a medical anthropologist at MU, helped Teti analyze the data they received during the study.

"As a researcher, it's rare to document the process of empowerment," Kabel said. "It seems like a vague thing that happens gradually over time, so the fact that this study was able to do so was pretty special."

The results of the study were published in the Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care.

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.


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