Social Dialogue Magazine
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Inspiration for the use of Photovoice by students
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Mohamed Safodien Department of Social Work, University of the Western Cape, South Africa

Using photovoice as a reflective tool with first year social work students

The use of imagery can be a powerful instrument in telling the story of a person’s lived experiences. According to Berger (2011) as cited in Childs(2011) “the most simple image can deliver an emotional wallop.” Vesely & Gryder (2007) further comments that visual imagery is supported in research literature as being as an effective means of supporting and improving the acquisition of academic knowledge. This paper examines how a Photovoice assignment, offered in a first year academic skills module afforded students, an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and opportunities experienced at a South African based public university. According to Palibroda(2008,p.8) “Photovoice equips individuals with cameras so that they can create photographic evidence and symbolic representations to help others see the world through their eyes.”

The Context

The South African based public university is located in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. The Eastern Cape province is best described as province of contrasts. It has immense natural beauty that stretches from snow-capped mountains and green valleys in its rural hinterland to golden sand beaches. The province also serves as the birth place of many illustrious people but non more so than the political icon , the former freedom fighter turned president , Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa stated that “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” These words have continued to inspire young people from all parts of the province to seek higher education in order to change the world and their circumstances. The Eastern Cape has four comprehensive universities that was established during the colonial period. From an economic aspect the Eastern Cape is also the location for a number of major international motor vehicle production sites such as Mercedes Benz SA and VolksWagen SA. This provides significant employment opportunities for the local residents.

The contrast of the Eastern Cape is reflected in its poor education and the high levels of poverty experienced by many residents of the province. Many students who pursue university education in the province come from the communities that experience high levels of poverty and poor education. According to Saal (2017) more than 40% of the Eastern Cape population live in various degrees of poverty. This is the highest level of poverty in South Africa. In terms of the education system many rural schools are poorly resourced and at a national level the matric (secondary school exit point) results of the province has been the lowest in the country for a number of years. Students’ life experiences are thus framed by these societal challenges.

The trigger to use Photovoice

Whilst doing planning for the module the lecturer discovered two images that really made him realise the power of imagery. (See opposite page) The first image was inscribed (“University of Frustration & Hunger”) on a desk in a lecture room by an unknown student whilst the second image was the banner image of the FaceBook page of the regional daily newspaper. The image was taken during the #Fees Must Fall student protests of 2015. Both images presented a very strong message of the struggles experienced by the students at public universities in South African. These images inspired the lecturer to seek a more creative medium to allow students to demonstrate their ability to infuse Information & Communication technology (ICT) in their training as student social workers. The lecturer was part of a multi-university research group that used action research tools such as PhotoVoice (PV) to gather data. The lecturer realised the value of using PV in allowing students to reflect on their experience of being students at university.

The Use of PhotoVoice to tell Community Stories

Equity Project of SA government & US Agency for Internation Development did a Photovoice(PV) project in 2001 in Mdantsane, a community in the Eastern Cape, entitled “Pictures that Talk” which allowed local youth to describe their community issues.

Sonke Gender Justice facilitated a PV project in 2006 in two provinces of South Africa namely, Kwazulu Natal and Eastern Cape. These PV projects focused on creating awareness on the major health issue of HIV/AIDs and its impact on the lives of children in these provinces.

In 2016 a group of learners from local schools in the Eastern Cape did a PV project.The exhibition was set up outside the offices of the provincial education department in Zwelitsha.It coincided with government’s self-imposed deadline to implement minimum standards for school infrastructure. However, more than 20000 schools nationwide still remain in appalling conditions.The photovoice project exhibited photographs taken by high school pupils across the Eastern Cape.These pupils were members of the more than 1200 “Equalisers” of advocacy group Equal Education. These powerful use of PV inspired the lecturer to use this tool to tell the story of the social work students in his programme.

The process of using PV in a first year social work module

In 2015 and 2016 the lecturer used the PV exercise as part of a module entitled “Academic Literacy using ICT” and involved first year students enrolled for a B Social Work programme offered at the Eastern Cape based public university. The task was administered in the third term of the academic year. At this stage students had experienced 9 months of the academic year and was thus in an ideal position to reflect on their experience at the university. Students were required to select a picture that best represents their experiences of a being a student at the university. The students also had to include a written reflection of their experience. Gould (1996) and Dewey (1933) regarded reflection as a process through which learning from experience takes place. Fook (2004) also further comments that the term reflection in its most broadest use refers to a way of understanding one’s life and actions. In this specific context it was an opportunity for the first year student social workers to make sense of their experience of university. It also focussed on engaging them in a process of reflecting on the challenges and opportunities they encountered during the academic year. In total 153 students submitted their PV assignments on the class online site.

The PhotoVoice Shows & Tells

According to Denzin & Lincoln (2005) researchers are encouraged to present data in such a manner that the “subjects speak for themselves” These are some of the voices and images that was produced by the students:

These selected PV images (next page) convey a powerful evaluation of the student’s experiences at the university. The challenge of digital technology was certainly a most surprising revelation from this activity. As a lecturer the assumption was that students entering the university environment, is what NISOD (2014), termed as the digital generation. These are young persons who grew up in an environment that offered a rich exposure to digital mediums. A number of students in this exercise selected images of computers or computer labs to illustrate their complete lack of knowledge and interaction with digital technologies prior to their enrolment at the university. This finding greatly debased the lecturer’s assumptions of the digital generation. Based on the findings from this PV exercise, in South Africa ,there does appear to be a significant inequality in the digital literacies amongst the youth population. Kajee & Balfour (2011) found that even though South Africa leads the continent in terms of information and communication technological use,

“A less privileged majority still come from under-resourced socio-cultural backgrounds where digital technology is rare and access unevenly distributed”

This is consistent with the findings of this PV activity and the lack of digital resources in the Eastern Cape.

The second PV image reflects a student’s experience of human diversity. Since the abolishment of racial apartheid in South Africa in 1994 the post-apartheid generation are still making reference to their limited experience of racial diversity. This was yet again a very surprising finding for the lecturer. This particular theme is consistent with the research findings of Puttick(2011) who conducted research that explored first year students’ perceptions of racial identities in post-apartheid South Africa. Puttick (2011,p.iii) found “that the racialized patterns which characterised apartheid still impact on black and white youth identity in contemporary South Africa.” In terms of the narrative from the student her entire primary and high school experience was characterised by her being educated by an African black educator. The population of the rural Eastern Cape is still predominately African black and the medium of instruction in the majority of schools is is’Xhosa. This may account for the student’s experience. The population in the urban areas of the Eastern Cape are more racially diverse. The selection of this particular PV by the student clearly suggests that race remains a dominant aspect of South African life.

The third PV image focused on the student’s strong sense that being a first year student at university was a de-masculating experience. According to Gibbs,Sikweyiya & Jewkes (2014) black South African males “aspired to a traditional masculinity in which power was conferred to them through economic independence and social dominance. In terms of this student it can be deduced that being a first year student he was not able to assert his male social dominance in relation to senior male students. Gibbs et al (2014) also further states that young men find it challenging in achieving traditional masculinity as their dependence on others serves as an impediment. Based on the student’s comment it appears consistent with the findings of Gibbs et al.


The use of PhotoVoice in a structured social work training context proved to be an effective mechanism in enhancing the teaching and learning experience for both the lecturer and the students. The lecturer was able to achieve the outcomes of the module through using a non-traditional medium of student learning and assessment. The narratives that emerged offered the lecturer a greater insight into the lived experiences of the students in his module. Students in the same programme had diverse experiences in terms of their first encounter in an institution of higher learning. The use of an art medium such as PV allowed students to share their experience not only in a written narrative but also through the use of imagery. In terms of the benefits for the students it afforded them to achieve competence in the use of digital technologies such as PV. It also allowed them to enhance their reflective skills. This experience thus supported the developing notion that the use of visual arts can complement social work training and practise.


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