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Why pictures with dialogue work: 'Fun, easy to read'

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct 27, 2008 *

DURHAM -- Ana Consuelo Matiella has spent a lot of her life dealing with fotonovelas.

The Santa Fe, N.M., resident grew up reading them in Mexico. In 1984, when she was working as a health educator at the University of Arizona, she decided to create a fotonovela after she was asked to translate into Spanish a pamphlet that she found "long and incomprehensible" in English.

"I thought, why not do something that is fun and easy to read?" Matiella said. "So that's how I got started."

Matiella now owns a social marketing firm that produces English and Spanish fotonovelas for clients all around the country. Recent customers include the federal Centers for Disease Control and Stanford University, she said.

There are several reasons why fotonovelas are effective educational tools, according to Matiella.

"Because it's a story, you can model healthy behaviors -- I guess that's the simplest way of putting it," Matiella said. "And people learn from each other, modeling and watching other people's successes and stuff. ... The second advantage is that they're fun. You don't want to bore people to death. And the third is that they're easy to read. It's fun -- it's dialogue!"

Fotonovelas have been produced locally as educational tools on child-welfare issues in Durham and household safety issues in Orange County. Around the nation, fotonovelas have been used to communicate public health and safety messages in California about methamphetamines, in Virginia about statutory rape and in Charlotte about drinking and driving.

Robin Lewy understands just why fotonovelas are so useful.

"The combination of the visual images with the very succinct dialogue makes a tool that's enjoyable to read and can really put the focus on people recognizing themselves within the material," said Lewy. Her organization, the Rural Women's Health Project in Gainesville, Fla., produces fotonovelas for educational purposes and trains others in production techniques.

Fotonovelas are an obvious choice for Spanish-language education because they were so popular in Mexico. Also, Lewy added, "when we're working with the immigrant population, we're working with such a variety of literacy levels."

The form suits other audiences too.

"The fotonovela works beautifully in African-American communities, in white communities and with youth and with older people," Lewy said. "People being able to see themselves -- that's what's the joy of it. And it's amazing that a low-tech technology can make as much or a bigger impact on a community than video and MP3."

/© 2008 by The Durham Herald Company. All rights reserved./