Social Dialogue Magazine
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The Survivor Arts Project, based in the Institute of Applied Social Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK
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Sonia M. Tascón, Western Sydney University, Australia

Visual Ways of Knowing: Beyond Art Therapy and Towards Social Change

Social workers have been engaged with the arts for a considerable time in their professional lives, although a great deal of that work has centred on the therapies. In this article I want to bring out an important feature of the use of the arts in Social Work, and that is, to make things public and their potential for creating social change. I will use a visual arts projects in which a Social Work academic and her students were involved in the UK. This is the Survivor Arts Project (University of Birmingham online n.d.), on permanent display in the corridors of the University of Birmingham.

I want to use this project as but one example that illustrates the possibilities posed by the visual arts to provide voice and promote social change. It is the act of making things public, that final act where the artwork is presented to a community for reflection on the topics displayed, which brings both the voice of the maker/ artist and a public together, an audience who represents a wider community whose knowledge on the topic may be limited.

I do not want to critique arts therapy in any way, I am often inspired by the work developed in these areas, but here I want to focus on the public-ness of the act of making artworks. Even where the work simply seeks to act cathartically for the person to express something, to bring it to light for themselves alone, in this there is a need to bring forth something that has been lurking without articulation. Its articulation becomes the act of public-ness in the sense that it enables individuals to finally contract with themselves to make visible the previously un-viewable.

I am here more centrally interested in the use of the visual arts as acts of public-ness that go beyond the individual therapeutic purpose and enter into the public sphere to reach others to share the stories with others and for social change more broadly. I will not be outlining how this particular project created specific forms of social change, but simply pose that the act of public-ness is necessary to begin the process towards social change. I will centre this article on a project where a Social Work academic and her students were involved in the production and exhibition of visual works of art in order that those whose stories they represented could have a public voice. That voice was not simply for the individuals’ needs of expression, but as the social worker involved described, to create a space for a new kind of dialogue to emerge between service users, social work students, academics and practitioners...encouraging them to pause in its hallways, taking the time to learn more about the issues confronting the profession and those it serves (River 2016 p.759)

The Visual for Social Work

I have been writing for some time on films for social change and activism (Tascón 2012; 2015; Tascón & Wills 2017), but only recently took up the topic of visual communication for social work practice. In a forthcoming book (Tascón 2018) I provide an extensive discussion and theorisation of the need to think about the visual as a form of knowing, and a form of communication for social workers. And this is not only because social workers are already engaging with visuality for teaching, training, and social change; it is also because we need to understand the visual and its effects both critically and creatively. The visual communicates differently, and for this reason some social workers have been using it in their work. The visual relies on the senses, heightens our senses, forces us to be aware of our surrounds and listen to those we are helping in languages of the non-verbal.

Social workers have been using visual forms in different guises for, possibly, all the time that the profession has existed. There is, however, little recognition that they are doing so, and even less understanding of why they do so; written and oral ways of communicating knowledge have been so dominant and persistent as valid forms of knowledge for the professions that there is no language for understanding what has been, up to now, intuitive ways of knowing and doing for many social workers.

In the project I discuss here social workers used visual expressions to enable individual voice and story, social participation, and a product that could enter the public sphere to begin a life beyond the individuals. For social workers interested in social justice, having an impact on social policy, and advocacy and social activism, this project will speak to them.


My interest lies in how visual art-forms are being used to provide a public voice, both for the individuals whose work is being exhibited, but also for the public understanding of the issue for which the exhibition becomes a conduit. The notion of public-ness is what interests me, as it is not simply individual transformation or acceptance, or even coping that must draw social workers to the visual, as important as this is in our work. It is the ability to have an effect within the public sphere where some of the most important work with the visual lies.

Visual forms of communication have a significant role to play in democratising knowledge because of the types of knowledge they are. Not only is the visual a symbolic means of communication that has closer correspondence to the world in which we live, but it also has embodied, emotive, and multivalent characteristics that are more amenable to express the messiness of the work in the social; indeed, is able to express the messy everyday- ness of our lives. This type of communication opens expression that does not rely entirely on language.

For groups of people for whom language – spoken or written – is problematic, the visual opens up other/ added ways of expression. For example, for migrants and refugees, for those suffering many forms of disability and mental health conditions where speaking or writing may not be possible, for children, for the traumatised, illiterate or semi-literate, etc. But it is the possibility of public exhibition of the visual forms produced, which elicit some of the greatest satisfaction for participants, because it is their work, their knowledge, their stories, on display. The process of making knowledge usually needs to include a public dimension. Without public-ness, knowledge will largely remain personal opinion, reflection, or rumination, not without its own importance but nevertheless confined to an individual. The possibility of the public exposure of stories, which gave participants a public voice and the possibility that social change might take place as a result, gave many of the participants hope and the greatest sense of achievement. The belief that we can be part of a wider group, and have an effect on that wider group, is a powerful form of belonging.

Example poster for Exhibition of Survivor Art. Courtesy of
Example poster for Exhibition of Survivor Art. Courtesy of

Survivor Arts Project

This project was started in 2006 by Dawn River, a Social Work academic at the University of Birmingham, and developed since then together with survivor artists, social workers, allied professionals and community activists. A conversation with J, a fellow mental health service user, had made Dawn aware not only of the recuperative potential of the arts but also of the power of the arts to tell their stories. In this conversation J had said that attending an art class had “helped save his life” and he wanted “social workers to understand this [and for] people outside the centre to recognise the creativity of those hidden within” (River 2016). It was his wish that the art created by those struggling with mental ill health could be displayed more publicly so people would see and come to value this work and in doing so better understand the experiences of the ‘artists’. Following her own recovery, Dawn took up an academic Social Work position and worked to create a public space at the University where J and fellow mental health service users’ work could be displayed (River 2016). Whilst the Survivor Arts Exhibition opened with work created by ‘mental health service users’, it was clear from the start that the people whose work was on display did not want to be perceived as ‘service users’ but rather as ‘survivors’ – and so their ‘survivor artist’ identity was born.

Since its beginning, the Exhibition has grown to include work from a variety of ‘survivor artists’, each deciding how they would define their own survival - whether linked to domestic violence, child abuse, living with a disability or living as a refugee or asylum seeker. The project gave survivor artists a place where they took a risk exposing their story, but also the possibility of joining with others. The provision of a space where those suffering from some form of marginalisation, exclusion, or voicelessness, could ‘explain’ their lives to others, the everyday- ness of their conditions, and have others recognise that experience as either something new or which connects to their own experience of grief, exclusion, and survival, begins to shape a community bonded by diverse experiences. Further, that recognition has the possibility of multiplying itself beyond the exhibition, and enable it to ‘educate, challenge and inspire’ as one artist survivor was quoted as saying (op. cit.). The intensity of feeling conveyed by the images produced by activists is unable to be reproduced through words, which become cumbersome in trying to capture the immediacy and ineffability of its essence.

Its excess escapes rationality and clear categorical precision.

By Way of Finishing

Social change is often understood as taking place from above, through governmental policy, or from below, through pressure from interest, or lobby, groups. Social change has other pathways, however, which are more organic and diffuse but are nevertheless as potent, and these courses can also then go on to affect social policy, of direct interest to social workers. These routes are often created outside the usual governmental processes or political lobbying, through cultural changes that occur as people are exposed to ideas and debates that slowly filter through as more people are convinced by the force of the arguments. For good or bad, these developments take place within what has often been called the public sphere (Habermas 1962/ 1989), and social change occurs unevenly and often at different sites, contested and debated, and not simply at the sites of governmental operations. Although much social work education focuses on official governmental processes that affect the welfare state and its functions – that is, within the scope of social policy – here I am interested in highlighting that aspect of social work that might be concerned with social change and social justice in broader terms. This opens us up to recognising that social change can take place in many sites, and in diverse manners, and that social change is not even or immediate, there is often a delay in the consistency of a message and the preferred changes. The visual arts provide a ready means to enter into someone else’s world and life, and to show publicly the issues involved. In the project described above its public-ness has made possible the possibility of having it showcased by the university as visitors attend. Dawn River, in private communications, has related how this opportunity then enables the Social Work department to direct the gaze of the visitors, and to the stories behind them. When the visitors are powerful members of government who can influence social policy, it can then be a direct opportunity to re-orient public discourse and policies.


Habermas, J. (1962/ 1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
River, D., Thakoordin, J. & Billing, L., 2016, ‘Creativity in social work education and practice: reflections on a Survivor Arts Project’, Social Work Education, vol. 36, no. 7, pp. 758-774.
Tascón, S. M. (2012) ‘Considering human rights films, representation, and ethics: whose face?’, in Human Rights Quarterly vol. 34(3), pp.864-883.
(2015) Human Rights Film Festivals: Activism in Context. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan
(2018) Visual Culture and Communication for Social Work Practice. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Tascón, S. & Wills, T. (eds.) (2017) Activist Film Festivals: Towards a Political Subject. Bristol, UK: Intellect
University of Birmingham ‘Survivor Arts Project’ online source, accessed March 13, 2018