A fotonovela, also known as novela or novelita, is a small pamphlet akin to comic-book format, with photographs instead of illustrations, combined with small dialogue bubbles. They typically depict a simple story enveloped in a dramatic plot that contains a moral.
The documented history of the fotonovela is varied, although it is known that the Hispanic/Latino fotonovela dates back to the early 1940s in correlation with the rise in popularity of film. Initially produced in Italy and Spain, Latin-American countries began manufacturing fotonovelas that featured original stories that were not based on cinema productions. However, during the 1940s, the fotonovela was used as a tactile, visual representation of a film. Unlike the motion picture they represented, fotonovelas did not require special apparatuses to access its content, therefore, they usually enjoyed a longer life than a movie by being loaned, traded and resold throughout a community. By the 1960s, approximately 23 movies were featured in fotonovela format but nearly three times as many fotonovelas with original content were circulating throughout Mexico, Central and South America. Toward the later 1980s, Mexico was publishing approximately 70 million fotonovelas per month. In recent decades fotonovela production has declined although several fotonovelas are reprinted and new fotonovelas are still in development.
The separation of movie and fotonovela led the genre into three distinct styles. The first, novelas rosas with dramatic themes centered on true love, marriage and family. The second, novela suave, usually depicted middle class life and its struggles. The third, and most frequently used style, are novelas verdes. Novelas verdes place a large emphasis on sex and violence and often illustrate pornographic material. The popularity of the novelas verdes sparked a format change for the medium. Since readers wanted to enjoy the pornographic images of novelas verdes without reproach, producers began creating pocket-sized novelas verdes that could be concealed in a newspaper.
The fotonovela in health
The familiarity of fotonovelas in Spanish-language culture makes them an effective vehicle for health promotion and health education. Since the small pamphlets can be traded among individuals, they possess an element of portability that traditional materials lack. Frequently traded fotonovelas reach a wider audience than envisioned. Since the fotonovela concept is familiar to Hispanics and Latinos, regardless of age, health educators have used the fotonovela to champion important health messages. By using the message design and content presentation format of the fotonovela for Spanish-speaking audiences, both health and non-health entities have utilized the fotonovela as informational pamphlets. The fotonovelas produced by these organizations present information in a variety of illustrated forms but usually contain a summation of key points at the end.
The utility of the fotonovela in health education extends further than its familiarity in Hispanic culture. Health educators have also utilized the fotonovela because the medium overcomes issues of health literacy, which is the degree to which individuals can obtain, process and understand basic health information to make appropriate health decisions, in their target audience. Most providers believe that health education materials designed specifically for patients with low health literacy would be helpful: however, written educational materials found in most health settings have been deemed to have serious deficiencies. Health literacy is not simply overcome through the printed translation of health educational messages, but instead, through the accurate transformation of important health information into culturally sensitive messages that the target population can comprehend. Although the fotonovela provides a competent route to the Hispanic population, the information within the fotonovela must be understandable to readers with low health literacy.
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