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Michael Wallengren Lynch (Doctor of Social Work) Senior lecturer, Department of Social Work, Gothenburg, Sweden

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Anna Ryan Bengtsson PhD student, Department of Social Work, Gothenburg, Sweden

A pedagogical tool to promote student engagement with social justice issues.


This short article presents photovoice, an exciting method of teaching social work students to find creative ways to engage with the world around them with respect to social justice issues. The article briefly outlines the rationale for the approach in the context of a course on engaging with communities and structural based approaches to social work practice at the Department of social work, Gothenburg and concludes with presenting an example of a student’s photovoice work.

Rationale for photovoice

It is well documented that social work students, and indeed social work academics, are often slow to engage with technology and the arts in social work practice and teaching. It is also suggested that classroom activities that promote individualized learning and reflection can foster intrapersonal learning during the duration of a course, as well as assist students in recognizing diversity in human experiences (Taylor & Cheung, 2010). Educators need to provide a safe space for students to explore such issues and to also provide them with the methods to carry out these personal and social investigations. It has also been argued that photovoice can help students engage with communities around social justice issues over a longer period of time than what is offered on our course (for example, Peabody, 2013). Photovoice is the use of photography as qualitative methodological tool to document and reflect reality. Common research and practice uses are concerning community issues, social justice concerns and public health barriers.

Considering the above points, for us, photovoice represents a practical example that bridges the technological and the artful and gives students hands-on-methods to reflect, explore and express themselves on issues related to social work. A ‘photovoice methodology allows participants to describe their own constructs through narratives and photographs, reveal their own histories, and offer diverse perspectives related to the topics under consideration’ (Mulder & Dull, p 1018). The method promotes active participation and can be used in research, education, and as a tool for social mobilization and social change. Our initial reflections considered that this seemed ideal for a social work classroom and was something which could be seen to incorporate ‘the potential for critical reflection, developing self-awareness and the integration of creative processes, particularly arts-based processes for students who may express themselves well visually and seek various outlets for expression’ (Mulder & Dull, p 1021, see also Moletsane et al 2007). Wang, Cash, Powers (2000) summarizes the purpose of photovoice into three areas,

  1. enabling people to see and reflect on their communities’ strengths and challenges
  2. to promote critical dialogue and to raise awareness of key issues for communities through group discussions on images
  3. reaching decision makers and others who can mobilize change.

The course builds on the premise of challenging traditional knowledge production by including service users from a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). As such, in our experience photovoice has proven a useful tool that enables different life experiences to be shared democratically. In other words, photovoice has proven useful to construct, in other words a positive space in which conversations can happen between all course participants and teachers (Wang, Cash, Powers 2000). The photovoice seminar

In order to give the reader a sense of how we applied the method to a teaching setting we have included the scheduling of the photovoice seminar. We acknowledge that using the method over the course of one day cannot compare to using the method over a longer period of time (as in Peabody, 2013), however we believe that it does give the students an experience of using creative methods in social work settings that promotes conscious action. In order for the participants to see the links between the learning goals and the course and get the opportunity to commute between the practical and the theoretical level, all the students prepare for the workshop by reading one of three suggested articles that use photovoice (Elmgren & Henriksson 2013 p.20f, p.182).

Scheduling of photovoice seminar

12:00 - 12:20

Welcome and introduction (including discussion on ethics)


Take photos / produce photos. Going out individually to take photos based on your own experience and thoughts on the theme of the day

13:00 - 14:30

Group reflection & analysis of images

  1. The reflection process begins with each student selecting two images which represent the best of their thoughts / ideas / experiences
  2. Reflect in the group around everyone's pictures using the SHOWED framework (Wang, Cash, Powers 2000). What do you see here? - What's really happening here - How does this relate to our lives? - Why does this problem, concern, or strength exist? - What can we do about it?
  3. Select two pictures that represent the group's thoughts and ideas regarding preventive work against mental ill health among young people. Also, gather your thoughts and ideas so that they can be briefly presented to the other groups. Send the pictures to the teacher (by mail) by14:30 for printing.

14:30 - 15:00


15:00 - 15:45

Presentations of pictures and suggestions for action

Example of student work

The following is an example from one of the workshops, addressing the theme of mental health amongst students at the university, held in the autumn of 2017. The process followed the schedule above and presented here is an analysis based on the five posters that came out of the student´s work with photovoice and notes taken by one of the teachers during their presentations. During the presentation the student´s experiences and their suggested interventions, as well as the photo-voice processes, were discussed. With regards to the topic for the workshop, three themes can be analytically created and addressed as key issues for the student community with regards to mental health (Wang, Cash, Powers 2000). Three photographs chosen from three different posters are used as examples and illustrations of the three themes that appear in our analysis of the posters and presentations.

All the groups expressed the experiences of being under a lot of stress and pressure. An “achievement-culture” within their education is described and both students and teachers are fostering that this, which causes both anxiety and stress. The students related this to a lack of ‘down time’ between the different courses on the undergraduate program. This has the effect that the students feel continuously ‘switched on’. Furthermore, the culture of achievement is not only being related to the education as such and to pass the exams with the highest grades. Also, to take an active part in the society through e.g. volunteer work and to gain practical experience from the field is referred to as stressful and filled with anxiety. In this sense, the constant reference by teachers to the necessity that students are to be critical agents of change causes more stress than feelings of pride.

The photo-voice process promotes critical dialogue and the aim is to enable people to see and reflect on their strengths and challenges and allow for the community to raise awareness of key issues. In this respect, the students reflected on the wider issues of ‘being a social worker in a grown-up world’. They questioned whether they would they be able to cope with their future working life given that they were feeling stressed at this point on their social work journey. The photovoice process enabled them to reflect on stress in a wider context of their lives. This is also related to ‘material preconditions’ for students given that student loans have not increased at the same rate as the salaries over the last ten years. The necessary expense of housing and course books has the effect of forcing students to work many hours to meet the costs to the determinant of a more balanced life.

The picture of the student experience that emerges from photovoice seminars appears to be a disconnected group of individuals who struggles to identify a sense of belonging or purpose. They describe being left on their own to cope with these issues individually and how the lack of close social relationships with other students makes their student-lives lonely. They identified that feeling of loneliness are also related to emotions of shame due to idea that the university years should be ‘the best of your life’ where you make new friends and build networks for the future. The students identified that one course of action could be encouraging the department to take on a more active role in the fostering of an inclusive environment in their educational practices. For instance, stop changing the working groups around every new course, since this makes it harder to build a strong and lasting social relationship among the students. Furthermore, how a stronger student union or the implementation of student sponsorships could be another way to strengthen the student community in the future.

With regards to the photo-voice process the use of photography as a means of learning seems to have fostered another type of discussion among the students. For instance, the participants express how the photo made these discussions about a “hard topic” easier to discuss. The process created a space for reflection that would have been harder to achieve if they would have just been given the same questions to discuss amongst themselves. By working through the process, taking the photographs individually and then move into group reflection and discussion, opened for other interpretations and associations. Also, how they recognised themselves in the pictures taken by other participants in their group and how this allowed for them to target shared concerns and experiences. The photography in this sense also created a space to discuss sometimes shameful or difficult experiences, without having to become personal or share private details. Enabling a discussion of emotional issues without “becoming emotional” which made it easier for them to identify some of the key issues involved, to reflect critically on their community, as students, and detect measures for of change.

Concluding thoughts

Photo-voice is a process-based method where the point is to enable a movement between individual experiences and the community through dialogue and discussion. In this short paper, we are able to show that both students and teachers considered that photovoice is a helpful tool to promote critical reflection, open spaces for dialogue and create a forum for planned joined action. After the seminar, we exhibited the posters in the departments’ corridors. This was our way to bring the knowledge produced in the workshop to the decision makers, as well as the other teachers in our department who are in the position to mobilize some of the changes that were identified by the students (Moletsane et al 2007, Wang, Cash, Powers 2000). How to present the knowledge created through photovoice is of course a crucial dimension in the process, where also other creative tools, besides the photographs as such can be used and developed further. The examples presented above illustrate the feasibility of the method in a social work education context. While more exhaustive research is required to understand the impact of using this method to promote social justice issues, we believe that the approach has potential to enable social work educators and students to use the creative arts as a means of deepening an understanding of the critical issues at play in ‘becoming a social worker’.


Elmgren Maja & Henriksson Ann-Sofie. 2013. Universitetspedagogik (2:a upplagan) Studentlitteratur AB, Lund.
Mulder, C & Dull, A. 2014. “Facilitating self-reflection: The integration of Photovoice in Graduate Social Work Education”. Social Work Education: The international Journal. Vol. 33, No. 8
Moletsane, R, de Lange N, Mitchell C, Stuart J, Buthelezi T, Taylor M. 2007. “Photo-voice as a tool for analysis and activism in response to HIV and AIDS stigmatisation in a rural KwaZulu-Natal school”, Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health. vol:19 No:1 pp:19-28
Taylor, P. G., & Cheung, M. 2010. “Integration of personal/professional self (IPPS) through reflective/experiential learning”. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, Vol. 30, No. 2. pp. 159–174.
Peabody, C. 2013. “Using Photovoice as a Tool to Engage Social Work Students in Social Justice” in Journal of Teaching in Social Work, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp 251-265
Wang, C. Cash, J. & Powers, L. 2000. “Who knows the streets better than the homeless? Promoting personal and community action through Photovoice”. In Health Promotion Practice, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp 81-89