Enhancing social connections through creative communication

Former HNC research assistant Lainey Martin discusses the Photovoice project and how visual media has the power to enhance both social connectivity and research insights.

Do visual communication approaches have the potential to enhance not only social connectedness but also research into connectedness? Our recent experience suggests the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Over the past two years, I’ve worked as a research assistant on a number of social engagement projects involving collaborations between Simon Fraser University’s Urban Studies, Health Sciences, and Gerontology departments, and the Hey Neighbour Collective. In one small, adjunct project in 2021, we asked participants in several multi-unit buildings in and around Vancouver to take pictures of places that foster or hinder social connection. Residents were also invited to explain their photos through accompanying written comments and through dialogue with researchers and other participants. This research technique is sometimes referred to as ‘photovoice.’

For us, the primary intent of this photo project was to collect more qualitative, open-ended data about what makes spaces successful (or not) at supporting social connections and neighbourliness. We hoped to gain richer, more personalized data than we were capturing through our standard annual resident surveys. In addition, we saw this approach as a safe, physically distanced way to engage residents in a social connection activity during the height of the pandemic.

The project was called, “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words,” and indeed, the images residents submitted were often compelling. For example, one resident described how their apartment’s shared public amenity room was, under normal conditions, “a great place to gather and have social interactions with friends and neighbours and develop a sense of ‘community’ with my fellow tenants.” But the accompanying stark picture of the room’s closed, locked door potently captured the Zeitgeist of the pandemic:

A shared public amenity room showing closed, locked doors.

Another resident suggested that their apartment building’s shared outdoor rooftop gathering area could potentially become a vibrant space for social gatherings during the pandemic, if only it were made to be more “green, clean and inviting.” Their photo aptly illustrated the point:

The outdoor rooftop gathering area of an apartment building shows a single chair surrounded by sparse green plants.

One resident photographed their son using hand sanitizer, required before and after playing outside on the building grounds:

A small child reaches for hand sanitizer in the lobby of a multi-family residential building.

 “It’s good he is following all these rules,” commented the resident who took the photo. On the other hand, the resident expressed concern about how children are becoming trained to live with constant COVID-19 fears, isolation, and strict behavioural rules. “I don’t know how it affects their well-being both physically and mentally . . . [L]ife has changed for this new generation.”

The SFU research team organized all of the submitted images and words thematically into a book and, as the pandemic eased, presented the final photobook back to the participants at a group gathering. 

While much of the photobook content had already been included as part of a longer, more comprehensive analytical report (PDF), we wanted to create something non-academic to thank participants for their contributions. The collection of images and personal commentaries—more creative, emotive, and provocative than a standard research report—stirred many different kinds of reactions and discussions among the resident participants and researchers alike.

Residents told us that they enjoyed seeing in this way that their contributions had indeed been valuable to the team’s research. Furthermore, residents said, the photobook tangibly showed how their individual experiences of isolation and longings for greater social connections closely paralleled those of others in different buildings and different parts of the city—and this itself generated a greater sense of togetherness. Essentially, the physically-distanced, shared creative project successfully created a feeling of community at a time when people felt less able to meet in person.

Many resident participants also reported to us that the photobook and accompanying reflections gave them the sense that they had a unified voice, which in turn promoted for some participants a stronger belief that making changes in our buildings and communities might be possible by continuing to raise collective awareness to promote social connectivity. In that context, many participants said they were grateful to learn that we’d also presented the photobook to landlords and housing providers along with suggestions of agendas for change.  

In all, the success of “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words” suggests that there are likely many other ways for community engagement facilitators and researchers alike to employ visual or other creative forms of communication with residents to enhance both social connectivity and research insights.