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Documentary Arts

Sujal Manohar, ‘20: Collaborative Photography Project on Asthma and Allergies

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2020

High school and college students took ten photographs that described their everyday experiences with asthma and/or allergies. Depicting foods, asthma inhalers, seasonal allergies, and lifestyle adjustments, their images illustrate the multifaceted and diverse impacts of these chronic conditions.

About the Project

EpiPens, Benadryl tablets, and inhalers are prominent markers of asthma and allergies, invisible conditions which affect millions each year. Asthma and allergies are of particular importance to me, as both my brother and I live with these conditions. Through my Benenson project “Beyond the EpiPen,” I wanted to share the stories of asthma and allergy patients. Photography seemed like the natural choice to depict these experiences, especially since it would be an accessible medium during the COVID-19 pandemic and capture visual narratives.

This collaborative documentary photography project focuses on the multifaceted experiences of students with asthma and allergies. The project is accessible through the Dallas-Fort Worth Youth Chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) website to raise awareness within the local community. Inspired by the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique, where participants take photos related to a certain topic, students captured photographs with cameras or cell phones that depicted their daily experiences. All participants were asked a simple question: What comes to mind when you think of your experiences with asthma and/or allergies?

The resulting photographs, along with their accompanying captions, offer insight into the daily lives of asthma and allergy patients. Some participants use separate pans to cook allergen-free food in their homes. Others highlight pollen and seasonal allergies, fears of getting infected with COVID-19, and the various medications they use to manage their health. At first glance, some photographs appear unrelated to asthma and allergies, but their captions reveal important connections. By providing insight into another person’s visual stories, “Beyond the EpiPen” fosters empathy, awareness, and connection.

When designing this project, I hoped that viewing the images would show others with these conditions that they were not alone. However, while taking photos myself and communicating with participants, I realized that photography also served as a valuable reflective practice. Participants commented that they had never given much thought to the ways in which asthma and allergies impact their lives, and this project provided a unique opportunity for reflection.

My Benenson project has inspired me to continue health-related creative projects in order to shed light on medical issues and improve patient experiences. As an aspiring physician, I believe that the arts can intersect with medicine and health care in meaningful ways.

Lastly, I’d like to add that this project is ongoing – if you are a student with asthma and/or allergies interested in participating, please email me at Sujal.manohar@duke.edu or use the contact form on the project website!

Reflecting on Art Amidst Covid-19

The Benenson Award allowed me to pursue my first collaborative photography project and grow as a photographer and storyteller. In particular, meeting with other Benenson recipients and Dr. Odendahl-James kept me motivated to find creative solutions to modify my project due to COVID-19 restrictions.

It was helpful to brainstorm ideas with other Benenson recipients and consider how to continue our art-making in these unpredictable times. My project initially included in-person interviews with patients and visits to a local asthma and allergy clinic, but transitioned to a photo-based documentation of participants’ experiences. I believe that photography allowed participants to tell their stories in a way that would not have been possible with words alone.

I am incredibly grateful for the support of the Benenson Award, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. I would also like to thank all of my participants for their contributions to this project.