Kaitlin O’Brien, junior nutrition major at Central Washington University, has always loved being creative with art and taking pictures. When she heard CWU’s Wellness Center was launching a photography project to explore attitudes about drinking on campus, she knew it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“I saw this as a way to mix art and science,” she said.

O’Brien was one of eight students to sign up for a project called Photo Voice in which participants used cameras to document viewpoints about alcohol. Gail Farmer, director of the Wellness Center at CWU, and Rebecca Pearson, an assistant professor of health education, said the goal was to creatively gather information about student drinking.

“You tell a story of your experience through pictures,” Pearson said.

The results

All together, the students took close to 100 photos and narrowed it to 21. A narrative was written for each photograph, and they were shown at the 420 Loft Art Gallery downtown and on campus last month.

O’Brien hopes the project helps people see the norms on campus rather than the exaggerated parties. Initially, O’Brien thought about going to local bars to take photos. Instead, she arranged Jell-O shots into a smiley face and took a photo at a friend’s get-together.

“People think alcohol will make them happy, but it’s not a lasting happiness,” she said.

O’Brien said the project revealed diverse perspectives on drinking. Participants were over and under 21. Some drink; others do not. One photo showed a student playing in the leaves. Another showed a refrigerator full of food and one six-pack of beer.

“In this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, there’s more to life than beer,” the narrative reads.

O’Brien said Farmer kept the instructions for the project vague, but it was a good thing.

“The point of the project was for us to come up with the data,” she said. “If they would have told us in full detail, it would have cheapened the data we got.”

Michael Hadfield, sophomore economics major at CWU, said it was exciting to see what the social norms for alcohol were and to see his peers’ perspectives.

One of Hadfield’s pictures was of a trumpet, representing music students. Another photo showed a plate of food with a beer bottle and cigar on the side.

“I wanted to express what a day would be for a student,” he said.

Hadfield’s favorite part of the project was listening to people interpreting each other’s work.

“It’s interesting to see how everyone can see the same picture, but walk away from it with a different meaning,” Hadfield said.

He hopes this project will make students think a little more about the issues surrounding alcohol.

Health campaign

The Wellness Center typically does an assessment of student behavior every year, and uses the information to develop health programs. The center has done traditional assessments for a dozen years, but wanted to do something different this year.

“Instead of us doing the assessment we want the people that we are going to have an impact on do the assessment and give them a voice,” Farmer said.

Six of the photos were chosen for a health campaign, and paired with data about student behavior at CWU. Among the information conveyed: more than two-thirds of CWU students make low-risk choices and have four drinks at the most, a majority of students drink once a week at the most, and a majority of students never get in trouble and put school before partying.

Farmer said the project was a grassroots way to affect social change.

“Giving a voice to the population that you are trying to have an impact on is brilliant,” she said. “Instead of us telling the students the lay of the land, they are telling us.”

Steve Jackson of CWU’s communications department talked with the students about how to take photos, and Patsy Callaghan of CWU’s English department provided advice about composing a narrative. Photo Voice was funded by the National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia.

“There is drinking on campus and there always will be,” O’Brien said. “But it’s not as crazy as the media perceives it to be.”

Outside perspective

Mollie Edson, owner of the 420 Loft Art Gallery on Pearl Street in downtown Ellensburg, hosted a Photo Voice exhibit last month about student perspectives on alcohol. She said she was intrigued with the idea and curious to see what the photos would look like.

“It was a totally different view of what I thought it was going to be,” she said.

Edson said she has had problems with college students damaging the outside of her business late at night downtown. She said the Photo Voice project changed her perception of college students.

“I realized that they are the exception, and not the rule,” Edson said.

She said there are 9,000 students on CWU’s campus and many of them are focused and hard-working.


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