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Images and reflections: photography in the pursuit of public health
  1. Nigel Bruce
  1. Department of Public Health, University of Liverpool, Whelan Building, Quadrangle, Liverpool L69 3GB
  1. Dr Bruce (ngb{at}

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The photographic image has long been used in journalism to document events and circumstances, to attract attention, and to stimulate debate and action. That of itself implies that photography can contribute to change in the social and political climate, which in turn can have a powerful influence on public health. Whether or not photography is also an “art” form, with all the subtlety of expression and interpretation associated with that label, has been a more contentious issue. Whatever the real reasons for London's Victoria and Albert Museum opening the Canon Photographic Gallery in 1998, this development on the part of the Art establishment has been seen as rendering “meaningless any further debate on the validity of photography as art”.1 (Figure 1).

Figure 1

The home environment is a complex yet important influence on the health and development of the young child. Tribal home, northern Thailand.

Consideration of whether or not photography is art is relevant to this discussion because of the growing recognition of the value of art in public health and health promotion. Art is seen as an important and effective means of involving people in activities that promote health, and in mediating between everyday life experience and scientifically based knowledge of what affects health—so that people are “touched rather than indoctrinated” by health messages.2 Whatever direction the debate about photography and art takes, experience has shown that photography has a valuable part to play in community health and development. Furthermore, its use is not restricted to people with professional knowledge and skills. Individuals and groups are able to use the medium to express their health related needs and views, and there are a growing number of examples of this application of photography.3 4

Raising awareness of diverse influences on health

The WHO Health for All strategy has been built on the recognition that …

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