Photovoice is becoming an increasingly popular research method in the field of Community Psychology (CP). This is, in part, because it reflects some of the values of CP, including respect for diversity and participation and collaboration. More recently, photovoice has also been used in undergraduate classrooms as a way to actively engage students in their learning, to enable students to investigate and address social problems of importance to them, and to help students develop self-efficacy skills. There are few extant studies in the CP literature, however, that describe how this has been done in undergraduate CP classrooms specifically, and in what ways it has influenced students, from students’ perspectives. Accordingly, in this article, an Assistant Professor of Community Psychology and six of her former undergraduate students reflect on their experiences of the Community Psychology, Research, and Action course she taught at an urban-serving university in Washington in spring 2016, which was centered around the learning and implementation of a student-directed photovoice project about their campus. The instructor describes her objectives in centering her course around photovoice, including that students would learn this method well and add it to their toolbox, while also developing a stronger sense of community. Students then reflect on the aspects of their learning that most significantly influenced their development as students and people more broadly. Reflections suggest that participating in photovoice throughout a CP course has the potential to help students learn about CP- including its core values and principles- and experience some long-term empowerment-related outcomes on campus and in their communities. Implications for educators at similar universities, who may also want to experiment with photovoice in their undergraduate classrooms, are discussed.
This article was originally published in a Special Issue of GJCPP titled, “Developing Undergraduate Community Psychology Pedagogy and Research Practice,” edited by Eylin Palamaro-Munsell, Lauren F. Lichty, & Jen Wallin-Ruschman. Download the PDF version to access the complete article, including Tables and Figures.
Photovoice is a community-based and participatory and action research method that has been used to communicate the voices and experiences of minoritized individuals and communities to policymakers, organizations, and institutions that have decision-making power (Wang & Burris, 1994, 1997). In the last two decades, photovoice has also increasingly been used in a variety of undergraduate classrooms as a pedagogical tool and as a means for facilitating individual and collective empowerment processes for students (Goodhart, 2006; Wang, Morrel-Samuels, Hutchinson, Bell, & Pestronk, 2004). Empowerment processes are described as those that enable people to gain greater control over their lives, in part, through developing skills for addressing unjust social conditions in their communities and society more broadly (Ballard & Ozer, 2016; Zimmerman, 1995). One of the key skills identified in this research is critical consciousness, wherein individuals develop a more critical understanding of unjust systems and how to combat them (Foster-Fishman, Nowell, Deacon, Nievar, & McCann, 2005; Freire, 1970).
Given that the field of Community Psychology (CP) views such processes (e.g., critical consciousness) and outcomes (e.g., community betterment) as essential to the research process, it is perhaps unsurprising that photovoice is one research method that has been used more frequently by community psychologists in the last several decades (Lykes & Hershberg, 2012). Community psychologists specifically are also turning to photovoice as a popular pedagogical tool for introducing undergraduates to the field and practice of CP. However, few exemplars of how this has been done, and/or of how it has impacted students from students’ perspectives, are available in the extant community psychology literature (Lichty, 2013).
Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is (1) to present one example of how an Assistant Professor of Community Psychology used the photovoice method in the undergraduate community psychology course she taught for the first time at the University of Washington Tacoma, an urban-serving university with a distinct mission of providing access and facilitating success for nontraditional students, and to serving the community in which it is based (i.e., Tacoma and the South Sound Region more broadly) (see USUC, 2018). We hope that community psychologists and educators in similar fields will be able to draw on this example as they try to integrate photovoice into their undergraduate classrooms in the future. Additionally, drawing on the photovoice literature, the professor’s reflections about how she developed the course, and reflections from six former students in the class about which components of the class most significantly impacted them, we aim (2) to describe how this pedagogical experiment facilitated students’ interest and engagement in learning about and practicing CP values, (3) helped them add a practical skill to their toolbox for use in- and outside of the college environment, and (4) enhanced their sense of community as well as their individual empowerment.
We begin by presenting a review of the literature about photovoice’s varied uses in the social sciences and CP, and its specific use in the classroom to date. We then describe our university and classroom, and thus, the research context for this investigation. Here, the instructor also notes her specific learning objectives in centering the course around photovoice, describing in particular how the unique context of the school informed her objectives. Following this description, all major components of the curriculum, insofar as the photovoice project was concerned, are presented. Students then reflect on which particular in-class and out-of-class experiences most significantly influenced them and their engagement in CP, as well as their empowerment immediately after the project ended, and several years later. We conclude with a discussion of some encouraging implications and lessons learned for instructors at similar campuses who might want to use photovoice as a pedagogical tool in the CP classroom.
The Photovoice Method Historically and at Present
The photovoice method has been used in many communities and contexts around the globe since its development by public health researchers Caroline Wang and Mary Anne Burris in 1994. Wang and Burris turned to photovoice (initially described as photo novella) when they recognized that conventional research methods would not be the most effective tools for engaging village women in the Yunnan Province of China in a systematic analysis of reproductive health concerns in their communities, or in related social change processes. Wang and Burris (1994, 1997) described that when doing community-based and participatory research with communities comprised of multiple languages, identities, positionalities, and, accordingly, varying levels of familiarity with the written word, different kinds of epistemological methods were required. In their initial writings about this method, Wang and Burris described photovoice as involving several basic steps, such as training community members in photographic techniques, engaging in group dialogue and discussion about the photos participants take and shared experiences represented therein, and communicating findings to policymakers. They noted that through this process, women also experienced one element of empowerment, specifically, “access to decisions.” Through their photos and captions, their voices were heard by policymakers and informed policies affecting their communities.
Since this time, researchers and practitioners in other fields, and working with diverse communities throughout the world have also turned to photovoice as a means for knowledge generation and dissemination within and across groups. These projects are numerous and varied, including the work by Umurungi, Mitchell, Gervais, Ubalijoro, & Kabarenzi (2014), which focused on centering the voices of teenage girls who live on the streets of Rwanda regarding their perspectives of safety and security vis-à-vis sexually-transmitted diseases, or research by True, Rigg & Butler (2015), which included veterans in the U.S. as coresearchers and highlighted their experiences (and specifically, barriers to) accessing mental health treatment.
Common across these studies is a commitment to using photography generated by participants as a means for engaging vulnerable communities in an analysis of their social conditions, and for thinking through what resources might be needed to improve the well-being for such communities. However, these studies, and the myriad others that have been conducted in the last few decades, vary with respect to the degree to which participation and engagement of community members were emphasized, the specific photovoice processes that were implemented, and the outcomes that were prioritized (Catalani & Minkler, 2010).
Accordingly, Catalani and Minker (2010) undertook a review of 37 photovoice studies to identify shared processes within them, and how variation with respect to group participation in particular, appeared to influence participant and community outcomes. Notably, they found that studies that included less group dialogue and analysis among participants yielded less active participation throughout the process. They also concluded that “engaging participants in critical dialogue had a double yield: producing valuable research data in the form of discussion of transcripts and serving as an empowerment intervention that had immediate benefits for research participants and their communities (Catalani & Minkler, 2010, p. 443).” These benefits included participants developing some critical consciousness around the issues they were investigating, and, as documented within some of the studies they reviewed, an increased sense of self-efficacy regarding facilitating social change in one’s community. Although only few of the studies they reviewed described empowerment outcomes among participants (e.g., Foster-Fishman et al., 2005), other important outcomes were mentioned, including enhanced community engagement in action and advocacy (or the potential for it), and improved understanding of community needs and assets. However, as Catalini and Minkler (2010) also noted, many of the studies were limited by not including evaluation of these potential positive impacts; they were described by study authors as likely to occur but not formally assessed.
Despite some variation in processes and outcomes, Catalani and Minkler found that the majority of studies involved the same elements of photovoice described by Wang and Burris (1994, 1997): photography training, research and documentation (e.g., photographing realities), and photo-elicited discussion. Additionally, the photo-elicited discussions in the majority of studies they reviewed were guided by some version of SHOWed method, popularized by Wang and Burris’s research (1994, 1997). After being trained in photography, taking photos, and selecting photos that were most meaningful to them, community members asked these questions of one another’s work:
Their review closes with a suggestion that future researchers continue to capitalize on the flexibility of the method so that it can continue to be used in a variety of settings and with a variety of communities, while taking participants’ needs, concerns, and availability into consideration. They also suggest that researchers and practitioners put more effort into documenting short- and long-term impacts of photovoice on participants and communities.
Photovoice in the Classroom
Catalani and Minkler (2010) also documented that colleges are one setting in which photovoice has been used more frequently. It has been found to be a particularly effective method for engaging undergraduate students in the classroom because of its emphasis on experiential learning experiences; interrogating and addressing social problems that may especially impact students from diverse racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, disability/ability, and linguistic backgrounds; and, as well, because of its influence on critical thinking and problem solving skills (Foster-Fishman et al., 2015; Latz, Phelps-Ward, Royer, & Peters, 2015; Lichty, 2013). Photovoice has also been found to be an effective tool for facilitating more active participation and engagement within a classroom because it prioritizes the co-construction of knowledge, rather than a “banking model” of education that assumes the instructor’s role is simply to impart knowledge onto students (Freire, 1970; Lichty 2013). This aspect of photovoice has also made it particularly suited to the CP classroom, where more participatory learning approaches are also emphasized (Lichty, 2013)
Photovoice has also been found to be a meaningful way to facilitate applied learning experiences and community connections on college campuses where community belonging might be particularly low for students (Latz et al., 2015). This is because it has the potential to enhance participants’ feelings of concerns for one another and for the settings in which such projects take place (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005). Photovoice projects also may enhance participants feelings of self-efficacy in regard to improving their environments, including college campuses (Latz et al., 2015; Seitz, Strack, Rice, Moore, DuVall, & Wyrick, 2017). Through photovoice, students can investigate issues that they identify on their campus or in a community-based setting that they may be connected to, which may, in turn make them more motivated to try and press for change within these contexts (Seitz et al., 2017).
Finally, because of its emphasis on shared dialogue and analysis, photovoice may also promote collective learning and reflection in a way that standard classroom lessons might not. Moreover, with Photovoice students felt that their voices, collectively, were heard and well received by the community. In one example, an undergraduate classroom at a university utilized photovoice to advocate for change in a smoking policy (Seitz, et al., 2017). Through photography training sessions, photo discussion and utilizing the SHOWeD method, students were able to come to shared conclusions about why it was important for administrators to make changes on their campus. They found that there were aesthetic concerns, as well as health concerns for students related to second hand smoke and smokeless tobacco use, that they believed were imperative to address in order to promote well-being among their peers (Seitz et al., 2017). They utilized these themes to put together an exhibit and address the stakeholders in their community, including administrators and their fellow students. They were eventually able to get some policies on campus to change such as moving ashtrays away from common grounds. Students reported that they felt good about their learning experience in this public health class overall, and specifically about their abilities to effect change on their campus as a result (Seitz et al., 2017). However, student outcomes from being engaged in this project (e.g., empowerment), were not systematically assessed.
Photovoice was also utilized as a participatory research process and pedagogical activity that joined graduate students from one institution with community college students from a nearby institution (Latz et al., 2015). The goals of the project were to better understand community college students’ lived experiences prior to enrolling at their colleges, and while interacting with campus agents (staff, administration, and faculty), and to help graduate students learn the photovoice method. Additionally, the researchers hoped that the graduate students specifically would come to recognize the diversity in community college students’ experiences (that all community college students are not the same), and that information from the project could be generated that would enhance community college students’ experiences on their campus.
Community college student researchers were, indeed, able to share their experiences and perspectives about poverty, financial literacy, and relations with faculty, staff, and administrators. They worked with the graduate students to communicate their good and bad experiences with campus personnel, and specifically, that they felt that their voices were not always heard by the individuals on campus who they sought support from (e.g. faculty). Poverty narratives differed between various students in the project. Some were very personal and others focused more on discussions of poverty in the community. At the conclusion of the project, an exhibition was put on, which many community members attended. The exhibition reportedly educated faculty, administrators, and staff about challenges their students faced and how to address them. Graduate students also reflected on the process when it was over and described feeling that the project was an effective way for them (and their coresearchers) to understand photovoice methodology and, simultaneously, to deepen their understanding of community college students’ lives.
Research Context: Bringing Photovoice to the University of Washington Tacoma
For many of the reasons described above, I, Rachel, decided to center the Community Psychology, Research, and Action course I taught at UWT in spring 2016 around learning and implementing the photovoice method. In particular, I believed some of the key assets of the method, including its usefulness for connecting individuals from different racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and language backgrounds together to investigate social issues of importance to them, as well as its focus on the co-construction of knowledge, would complement our campus and student body (Wang & Burris, 1994; Lichty, 2013; Lykes & Hershberg, 2012).
UWT is one of three schools in the University of Washington system. The school was primarily developed to serve students from Tacoma and the South Sound region. As such, students are from a range of socio-demographic backgrounds: 59% are the first generation in their family to attend college, and of the 5,375 students who enrolled for 2018-19, 42% identified as Caucasian, 21% as Asian American, 14% as Hispanic/Latinx, 12% as African American, 5% as International, 2% as Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 2% as Native American (2% did not specify). Over 10% of students are veterans. In addition, our campus is one of 37 universities that is part of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities Coalition (CUSU) (see CUSU, 2018). This means the school has a mission of achieving transformative change through various initiatives, such as “providing opportunities for every student to succeed,” including students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and non-traditional college students (UWT, 2018). Additionally, the school aims to serve the larger community in which it is based through fostering campus-community partnerships.
With these aspects of the school’s mission in mind, I had initially hoped to facilitate photovoice projects with UWT students and several partner organizations in the city of Tacoma. However, time limitations (i.e., quarters are only 12 weeks long), as well as the limitation of me being a relatively new Assistant Professor, with few established community connections to leverage, prevented me from doing this. However, it was also because of my positionality that a friendly colleague informed me that our campus was engaging in the process of developing a 5-year strategic plan that would help the school stay on track regarding putting the values of the USUC into practice. The faculty and administrators who were leading the development of the plan were seeking input from students on campus as well; my colleague suggested I chat with the faculty member in charge of the process to see if there could be any connections between it and my course. If not for my privileged position as a relatively new assistant professor, I may not have been made privy to this important process, or willing to reach out to colleagues who were leading it. I thus began the quarter with the goal of facilitating a photovoice project for students that we could eventually connect back to the strategic planning process, as part of the objective of enabling students to share the work they would produce with decision-makers on campus. This was one of four objectives that guided my use of photovoice in the community psychology classroom, as described below in more detail.
Classroom Context and Participants
As mentioned above, the Community Psychology, Research and Action class was the first community psychology class ever offered at UWT. Sometimes, new courses are avoided by students, so I was particularly pleased when 25 students enrolled in the course. Out of the 25 students, 21 were psychology majors, and all but one were juniors and seniors. Seventeen students (68%) identified as white, and eight (32%) identified as students of color. Among the students of color in the class, three identified as black or African American, two identified as Native American, one identified as Arab-American, one as Indian-Afghan, and another identified as Puerto Rican. Sixteen (68%) students identified as female, and eight (32%) students identified as male. One (0.04%) student identified as gender neutral. Twenty-four students identified as heterosexual, and one female student identified as gay. Students were twenty-four years of age on average. Eight (32%) students identified as parents. Thirteen students (52%) identified as first-generation college students. Compared to our University’s demographics, there were more females, white students, and fewer first-generation college students in our class.
The description of the course, which students had access to before enrolling was: Introduces community psychology, a field examining the interrelationship between individual well-being and the multiple social systems with which individuals interact. Covers the principles and approaches of community psychology, including attention to diversity and equity; social change; and community-based, participatory, and action research methods.
Learning Objectives and Anticipated Outcomes
With the characteristics of UWT and our class in mind, as well as the previous literature, I developed several learning objectives that guided my use of photovoice in the classroom. As noted in the course description above, one goal of the course was to help students learn about the field of CP in general, and guiding values more specifically (e.g., respect for diversity, caring and compassion, collaboration and participation, Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010). I believed that facilitating a photovoice project wherein students would the coresearchers/participants would be an effective way to achieve this goal for two primary reasons (Lichty, 2013). First, participatory approaches like photovoice are, in and of themselves, core to practicing CP. Engaging in them highlights that knowledge is subjective and co-constructed and that minoritized individuals are well-poised to investigate and document their realities in partnership with researchers and practitioners who may or may not be from their communities (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010; Lichty, 2013). CP as a field is committed to these tenets (e.g., Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010). Second, successfully implementing a participatory research project requires not only learning about but enacting CP values (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010). As noted above, for example, photovoice projects that do not include consistent group participation have been found to be less likely to promote positive outcomes among participants (Catalani & Minkler, 2010). Moreover, one of the strengths of photovoice is that individuals from diverse backgrounds, and especially individuals who are from different minoritized communities, can come together and reflect on shared concerns and challenges and work to collectively redress these challenges (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005; Latz et al., 2015; Lykes & Hershberg, 2012).
A second key objective was for students in this course to gain familiarity with and practice photovoice as a systematic and analytical research method within psychology and related fields. Through practicing the method, my hope was that students would eventually add it to their toolbox of research methods for use in their future careers or studies. I myself gained familiarity with the method from being a participant in a photovoice project as part of an advanced Research Training Seminar for Community Psychologists in South Africa facilitated by expert photovoice practitioners Shanaaz Suffla and Umesh Bawa (e.g., Seedat, Suffla & Bawa, 2015. It seemed that “learning this method through doing it” could also be an effective pedagogical approach to use with undergraduates in the community psychology classroom (Lichty, 2013).
A third learning objective I had was for students to experience a greater sense of community through being a part of this class-wide project. As defined by McMillan and Chavez (1986), sense of community is “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together (p. 9).” I was specifically hopeful that students would develop a greater sense of belonging or relatedness through engaging together in a project about their experiences of UWT (McMillan & Chavez, 1986). This objective was important to me because in previous courses, I had heard that some students felt very disconnected from campus, in part because many commuted from far away and did not spend much time on campus aside from going to and from their classes.
Additionally, many students had families and jobs outside of campus that reportedly prevented them from going to on-campus events that might facilitate bonding with other students and even their instructors. Feelings of disconnection and isolation at campuses like UWT, which aim to serve a significant number of nontraditional students who had more of an indirect path to and through college, and have other competing commitments, as well as traditionally-aged students who are fresh out of high school and may seek more of a residential college experience, has been documented (Bensimon, 2007). However, examples in the literature of college campuses where students from these different backgrounds forge relationships and connections to one another, are scarce. Thus, through engaging in this project, I hoped students in this class, who also represent some of these varying identities, would feel more connected to their peers, the classroom, and the campus at large. Furthermore, I hoped this project would at least offer some ideas for how sense of community might be enhanced in classrooms and colleges like UWT.
Finally, a fourth learning objective was for students to experience some degree of empowerment through investigating some aspect of their college experience vis-à-vis the strategic plan, and hopefully, sharing their research with policymakers on campus. Through doing this, I also hoped students would feel a greater sense of self-efficacy in regard to affecting change on their college campuses, and perhaps, in their communities more broadly (Catalini & Minkler, 2010; Foster-Fishman et al., 2005). Greater empowerment has been found to be associated with a number of health and well-being outcomes in youth and adults (Ballard & Ozer, 2016). However, when the course began, I was not exactly sure what opportunities would be available for students to present their work to stakeholders on campus. Thus, this was a learning objective I had in mind, but was not as formative in my planning process until the end of the quarter, once students had successfully completed their photovoice project.
Photovoice Curriculum and Assignments
Throughout the quarter, I included multiple assignments and activities that corresponded to each of the learning objectives described above. In Table 1 (download the PDF version to access the complete articles, including Tables and Figures), components and corresponding learning objectives are listed. Also listed are some additional activities I facilitated with the goal of trying to continue to foster empowerment processes for students, particularly regarding their abilities to effect change on campus and in their communities and society. (objective 4) (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005). Here, I speak broadly about how I aimed to achieve these objectives. Student authors then individually reflect on the course components that each found particularly meaningful and connect them back to these objectives, in their own words. We then collectively discuss majors impacts of the photovoice process, and as well, challenges or limitations in regard to achieving each objective within the context of our classroom and campus. Here, we bring in the literature described above. We close with lessons learned for future instructors and photovoice participants to consider.
As depicted in Table 1 (download the PDF version to access the complete articles, including Tables and Figures), throughout the quarter I designed activities and assignments that I hoped would enable students to see how photovoice, as a participatory research method, also reflected the values of CP. I also wanted students to recognize that engaging in a photovoice project, even within the confines of an undergraduate classroom, required enacting some of the values of CP. Between weeks 1 and 2, I helped students make these connections by giving a presentation on the photovoice method historically and its main components, while also assigning chapters 1-3 in Nelson and Prilleltensky’s (2010) Community Psychology: In Pursuit of Liberation and Wellbeing, which introduces readers to the field of CP and overarching principles and values. I also had students complete the assignment of reading the Flint Photovoice Project facilitated by Caroline Wang and colleagues (2004), and identifying how values came up in the project. The post they had to respond to was as follows: Read the article attached to this module about the Flint Photovoice Project. As you read this article, think back to our discussion on Monday, April 4 about values in community psychology and identify a least one value from our discussion (or from the PPT posted for April 4) that seems to be emphasized in this project. In your discussion post, describe the value you identified and note how it comes through in the Flint project (or, in other words, note an aspect of the project that reflects this value). Also identify a vale that you hope is emphasized in our class-wide Photovoice project.
As the quarter continued, I repeatedly reminded students of the main CP values we had read about throughout the quarter. These also come up throughout the textbook, which helped to reinforce students’ learning about them. I described these again as an entree into their engagement in the SHOWed method of analysis in small groups (during week 5). During one group meeting, it also came to the fore that there were disagreements about which photos to use in the next iteration of the project. One student was attached to her photos while members of her group believed that at least one of her photos was not relevant to the class project. When the class came back together, I reminded them of the flexibility in the method, and that individual as well as collective interpretations were essential aspects of the group analysis process. As described below by Wilkinson, these discussions reportedly helped this small-group leverage values of participation and collaboration, and respective for diversity, as they tried to resolve their disagreement.
In addition to helping students learn and practice CP principles and values, I had hoped this project would enable students to learn how to do photovoice and view it as a systematic and analytical method that could be used in the college classroom and beyond. Almost all class components involved some element of learning about photovoice and how to do it. These included having students read empirical articles about the method, giving lectures on photovoice, and inviting a guest lecturer to the class who had used the photovoice method in his participatory and action research with Latina mothers of children with asthma (see Postma, Evans-Agnew, & Capouya, 2015 for more information). This instructor graciously presented about this work and allowed students to ask him questions about challenges and limitations he and his co-researchers experienced during the process. Additionally, to help students learn how to do photovoice, the class involved all major components of the photovoice method described in previous literature, including photography training sessions, topic selection, taking photos, small- and large-group analysis and discussion of photos, and presenting research findings to decision-makers. Importantly, as part of this process, students were also exposed to qualitative research practices more generally, and learned about what themes were, and how to identify themes as salient in a project (we talked about description of salient themes as themes that were recurrent and highly relevant to research questions, drawing from Buetow, 2010). A final component of the class aimed at helping students learn how to do photovoice (aside from students actually engaging in the class-wide photovoice project throughout the course) was that, for their culminating class project, they could choose to do a more conventional research paper about a social issues of importance to them and the field of CP, or conduct their own photovoice projects in small groups and write up a report. Nine students (across four small groups) decided to do this for their final projects (including five of the coauthors). Through engaging in these projects as facilitators, students had the opportunity to enhance and demonstrate their familiarity and knowledge of photovoice as a systematic analytical method. Through multiple experiential opportunities, I believed this method would become a future resource for students.
To address the third objective of enhancing students’ sense of community, we engaged in small- and large-group discussions as part of the photovoice process throughout the quarter. These discussions included conversations about what questions should guide students’ photography; their small-group and large-group SHOWeD analyses; and even on-line discussions wherein students discussed their reviews of photovoice articles, as well as different concepts in CP. When meeting in person, students met in the same groups they engaged in on-line. Through staying in the same groups throughout the quarter, I hoped students would develop additional friendships and ties to one another, and see the value in having different perspectives that could be respectfully engaged in a photovoice project (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005). I also sought to foster these ties for students through bringing students to a regional community psychology conference or Portland State University in October 2016 (Community Research and Action in the West).Through the community psychology conference, and presenting their research to community psychologists as well as students in community psychology programs, I also hoped students would feel more confident about their developing research skills, and as well, about their competencies as change agents in their school. Importantly, this experience built on their culminating presentation to the strategic planning committee in May of 2016. I had the opportunity to facilitate this presentation for students due to previously-established ties, as mentioned above. Nevertheless, students’ presentation to this committee appeared to have a significant impact on students, and on the project at large, as described below.
Student Reflections on “Strengths and Challenges of Being a UWT Student”- A Photovoice Project Implemented within an Undergraduate CP Classroom
In this next section, we, Halimatue Hill, Olivia Andringa, Sarah Wilkinson, Becca Smith, Katie Camm, and Josh Little describe what each of us consider to be the most impactful aspects of the photovoice project on our learning and development. We also share some reflections about which particular outcomes we believe these project components influenced in us. For ease of reading, the title of each subsection includes the name of the coauthor whose reflections are being presented.
Halimatu’s Perspective: Learning About and Experiencing CP Values and Empowerment Processes through Presentations and Student-led Research
There were two aspects of this class and project that impacted my understanding of photovoice as an important, accessible, and potentially empowering research method. These aspects of the class also helped me appreciate the CP values and principles we read about throughout the course. The first was the visit from a professor from the School of Nursing at UWT. The professor came to our class and presented on his project with Latina mothers of children with asthma. He also allowed for us to ask questions about his work and photovoice more generally. From his presentation in particular, I grasped how the photovoice method can create a platform for addressing social issues among participants from different backgrounds, and how it can be used to effect change in the community. The professor, an expert on asthma, was a White male, for example, while the coresearchers in the project were Mexican mothers. The professor addressed these dynamics and also spoke of challenges that arose during the project, including language barriers (he admitted to knowing very little Spanish while all the mothers were primarily Spanish speakers). He also talked about how challenges themselves enriched the process through honest discussions and reflections. In addition, he addressed the importance of ethics surrounding such a project with a primary concern being not interjecting the researcher’s “voice” into the project but allowing the women to express themselves. He also elaborated that the actual process involved more than just taking pictures. It also included getting funding, meetings, challenges, training as well as the analysis of the photos taken by the Latina mothers. From his presentation, the many steps involved in doing photovoice well were evident, as were the important role that CP values, such as collaboration and respective for diversity, played in the process. The potential for photovoice to also be an empowering process was also clear from his presentation as he described how the mothers on the project have since gone on to educate others about asthma triggers in the environment.
I additionally experienced photovoice as empowering when Dr. Hershberg gave the class the opportunity to decide together what we would investigate, rather than dictating it for us. Dr. Hershberg mentioned that the school was working on rebranding itself and that she thought it would be great if our project could contribute to this discussion. However, she left it up to us to decide what topics we thought were important to investigate related to our campus community. Through small-group and large-group discussion our class of 25 students eventually agreed on three main topics that would guide the project: challenges to building community, challenges and strengths of being a UWT student, and uniting communities. We agreed that these topics were similar enough to ensure that we could eventually put together one cohesive project, but broad enough so that students’ different interests and concerns were accounted for. We also agreed to revise the title of our project at the end of the quarter to ensure it more directly reflected our final product (at the Conclusion of our project, we agreed to move forward with one of the initial topics as our title: “Strengths and Challenges of Being a UWT Student”).
Olivia’s Perspective: Developing Community through Photography and Group Discussion
Out of all of the photovoice steps we engaged in, I found the photography aspect itself, and our initial small-group discussion about our photos, to be the most meaningful aspects. When I set out to photograph our campus with the guiding topics in mind, I felt that I was viewing our campus with a new and critical lens. I also felt that this lens was providing another form of a voice for me to have on our campus. This was particularly meaningful for me as I often am reluctant to voice my views publicly. When students came together to discuss the photos they took and their interpretations of them, this also allowed me to feel that my views were shared and validated, and to recognize similarities and differences among the students in our class. After our group discussion, it was interesting for the class to take a step back and see the campus from a new perspective- one that was collectively developed. Additionally, through developing these new views of our school based on individual as well as shared experiences and interpretations, I realized that our campus offers a lot of positive opportunities (see Poster 1 in Appendix B), but also presents some emotional barriers for students such as loneliness and a lack of community. Using the photovoice method helped us to learn more about one another’s experiences and views, to better understand our campus, and to feel more connected to one another.
Sarah’s Perspective: Learning Photovoice and Enacting CP Values through the SHOWeD Method
As described above, an important part of this project was also systematically going through the SHOWed method in small groups. I found this process to be very positive and validating for me as a student. It also forced us to use the CP values we had been reading and writing about throughout the class. I will describe this experience here; it is also depicted below (see Figure 1, download the PDF version to access the complete articles, including Tables and Figures).
When going through SHOWeD method using one of my own photos (see Figure 2, download the PDF version to access the complete articles, including Tables and Figures), I explained what I saw when I was taking the photo and what I wanted other people to see, which was that students at UWT feel disconnected from one another. The picture I took clearly shows multiple people sitting on the stairs alone, lost in their phones, completely unaware of each other.
When you look at these people, do they seem close to one another? Technology and social media have been huge factors in why people are so disconnected, even with people sitting right beside them.
During our group discussion, my peers brought to my attention how impactful my photo was. Not only was I able to capture disconnection and loneliness from the individuals in my photo, but the lighting and the layering of the stairs in the picture were apparently able to depict that as well. This was something that I hadn’t even realized when choosing this photo. Their recognition of these additional elements of the photo enhanced my confidence in my abilities as a photovoice researcher and helped me to see that my peers also felt kind of isolated and disconnected from one another, even those who did not have multiple children and jobs outside of work like I had.
As part of the SHOWeD process, Dr. Hershberg also instructed each small group to select the five photos that best reflected our shared experiences and concerns as related to our guiding topics (e.g., challenges to building community, challenges and strengths of being a UWT student, and uniting communities). This was hard because many of the photos were so interesting and different from one another. Through some tense discussion, my group agreed that we would alter a caption of a photo (see Figure 3, download the PDF version to access the complete articles, including Tables and Figures) that one student developed so that it included some of the ideas from another caption accompanying another photo that ultimately was not selected as part of our final five photos. We agreed to do this so that all students in our group would have some aspect of their photovoice work (i.e., their pictures or the captions they created) included in the larger project. The end result was a meaningful photo with an equally meaningful caption that reflected multiple voices from our group. This experience offered us the opportunity to witness the importance of prioritizing respect for diversity when using the photovoice method, as well as caring and compassion, values that are also essential to the practice of CP.
In Tacoma, the military is an important presence. In the military, as is in the University of Washington community group, the LGBT community is a faction that is struggling for legitimacy. Relatively speaking, the short journey of embarking on a college education can be painful, arduous, and for the most part, improbable for the vast majority of young LGBT youth. Despite being one of the most LGBT friendly cities in Washington, newcomers to this area still have trouble assimilating and getting equality, recognition, and consequently, employment outside of college because of their sexuality. Even if they have served in the military their service may be undermined by discrimination they face for their sexual orientation. Every life matters and should be celebrated instead of marginalized on campus and in the larger communities of which UWT students are a part.
Katie’s Perspective: Developing Community through Group Dialogue and Dissemination
I found that our class-wide discussions, though difficult at times, were when we as a class really developed stronger relationships with one another. However, as with any close relationship, this process required some conflict resolution. Specifically, once our small groups had finished discussing their photos, we came together as a class to discuss what themes were most salient across groups. As we began the conversation, we found that some topics were easily agreed upon, such as the issues of limited parking on campus, or the lack of social and community spaces for to use. Other topics seemed to provoke more dissension than agreement, such as what it meant to be a UWT student and how much of an impact UWT students have on the Tacoma and South Sound communities. At times, there was a palpable awkward tension, such as when people disagreed with one another about what themes were salient across groups. Here, Dr. Hershberg acted as a facilitator, asking questions to help us move from thinking about individual impressions of photos, to collective views that also may reflect experiences of other UWT students.
At one point, we discussed how multiple individuals took the same picture of the W, which is our school symbol in our courtyard area, which suggested something significant about the symbol of the W on our campus. However, each person had different interpretations of what the W meant to them. As a class, we agreed to keep all three of the images of the W in the project because each picture evoked powerful, but different experiences such as loneliness, lack of school pride, and students’ feelings that although UWT was perceived as an important asset to Tacoma, it was not recognized as valuable to the wider UW community.
What has brought us all together is a common decision to attend UWT. We are told we are huskies but it doesn’t feel this way. Our W does not really give us a sense of belonging to the entity. I have felt like my degree is less than Seattle’s campus because we have a signifier. We also do not get similar perks and are limited in many aspects, such as the graduation debacle that has happened recently. Punishing people with larger families by only affording 5 tickets. We spent money on a metal W to be on our campus, but we cannot afford to have a larger venue? I am a husky, I deserve to have all of the rights afforded that amazing signifier.
We also noticed an overwhelming number of pictures that depicted the problems related to parking around campus (e.g., limited spaces, too expensive). As a group, we came to a decision to leave some of these repeated images in our project to give more power to those specific concerns. By engaging in a class-wide discussion that was facilitated by a community psychologist like Dr. Hershberg, it seemed we were about to create a stronger sense of cohesion and community in the class, while also recognizing the diversity of our group.
I also felt a strong sense of community through this project when I had the chance to present our research to the university’s strategic planning committee at the end of spring quarter (depicted in Figure 5, download the PDF version to access the complete articles, including Tables and Figures). During the discussion with the administration, we displayed our posters on the walls of the meeting space, and went through our Method and our five overarching themes: (Potential) Strengths of UWT, Disconnection from UWT, Parking as a Barrier to Academic Engagement, Lack of Community Space, and Isolation and Loneliness. There was one poster dedicated to illustrating each theme (see Appendix B).
During this presentation, I was pleased to see so many administrators and faculty attending to what we were saying. Furthermore, after the presentation, administrators approached us to ask clarifying questions about our research and discuss solutions to the challenges we had presented. Following the colloquium, the strategic planning committee also emailed the group a response stating that our presentation was one of the most vivid and moving moments in the past ten months of the committee’s work and that the presentation “brought data they had collected previously and separately, to life.” Parking, for example, had been identified as a significant student barrier to academic success. They said that our presentation had made this issue a more tangible reality. They spoke about continuing to make student engagement a high priority in response to the isolation that students were feeling as well. The committee wanted to make sure that students continued being engaged, so that they were more likely to graduate and live a fulfilled life. That administrators attended to our research during the presentation, and followed up with us after, made me feel like they actually cared about us students, and took us seriously as budding researchers. Through this experience, I also felt more connected to and invested in UWT.
Becca’s Perspective: Gaining Confidence in Photovoice and my Research Skills through Presenting at Conferences
One of the most impactful experiences that I had with photovoice was presenting to our fellow students and professors at the UWT Undergraduate Symposium. The presentation was very well received. Students who we spoke with agreed that many of these topics were issues on campus. They hoped this project would help the administration see what could be improved. Many of the professors who I interacted with said that these were problems that they also dealt with, especially in regard to parking on campus. They engaged me in conversations about how this method could be used within their classrooms and across campus, and what we might be able to do as a group to include quantitative data collection in this process in the future. This enhanced my confidence in the photovoice method and its ability to accurately capture individual and collective experiences. It was helpful to understand the profound impact that these issues had on other students and faculty at UWT. Having conversations about our research and the future possibilities for photovoice in other communities was an enriching experience that has continued to influence me. I am currently utilizing photovoice and the SHOWeD method within my research at UWT in the Urban Studies field. I feel confident that this method is a great way to address stakeholders and to work toward needed changes in one’s community.
Joshua’s Perspective: Experiencing Empowerment throughout the Photovoice Process
Similar to Katie and Becca, I too was significantly and positively impacted by having the opportunity to co-present our research to administrators and faculty on the strategic planning committee in May 2016, and in other forms, including the community psychology conference we attended in October 2016. However, I first began to feel a sense of empowerment through the photovoice project when walking around the campus early in the quarter, looking for a photograph to capture. It was when I saw the abandoned building, and had the idea of how that building represented myself as a Black man in our society, in my community, and as a student. As seen in figure 7 (download the PDF version to access the complete articles, including Tables and Figures) you have this old abandoned building with broken windows and deteriorating paint that is scheduled to be remodeled. Right next to this abandoned building are buildings that the university had remodeled, so the building in the photograph sticks out on campus and doesn’t look like it belongs. Sticking out and not belonging is what I have felt and have been implicitly and explicitly told my whole life. But that is only the surface, the first thoughts one has when they see this building, and therefore, when they see me. At second look, and under the layers, a full story worth knowing can be told. Making these connections between the building on campus and my own experiences reminded me that my story is unique, worth being told, and like this building, not finished.
Having the opportunity to talk about this photo, and the caption I included with it was a powerful experience for me and reinforced some of the ideas I had when first taking the photo. Additionally, the opportunity to present the project and talk openly about this photo and my analysis to administrators and faculty inspired self-confidence in me. Having the chance to contribute to the discussion on changes to come in the university’s trajectory made me feel like I could make a difference on our campus. Furthermore, standing in front of the committee members, who are were all various chancellors and deans of different programs and departments, allowed me, a young Black male, to share thoughts and feelings with people I would have otherwise never come in contact with. Seeing the way they all were focused on what I had to say, and hearing their positive feedback, made me feel like what I had to say mattered. This experience, and the conference in Portland, also made me realize that I might have a talent for public speaking.
Since graduating from the University of Washington Tacoma in spring 2016, I have been involved in several other public speaking opportunities. One of these opportunities was facilitating a Washington State Youth Leadership Training at Green Hill School, a maximum Juvenile Rehabilitation facility. In doing this training, I shared my experience with Photovoice and presenting it to the Strategic Planning Committee with 24 youth, incarcerated at Green Hill, who attended the training. The purpose of me sharing the story was to inspire these youths that someone like them can have a voice. In conclusion, the opportunity to speak about concerns and strengths I saw within the campus, to an audience of powerful but seemingly committed authority figures, gave me a sense of accomplishment that did not exist in any of my other college courses. What started off as just another course towards my Bachelor’s degree turned into something more. It set the mental foundation that I could not only bring awareness to issues, but also conduct myself as a leader and articulate those issues to people in power to create change. I have come to recognize that these empowering experiences have been vital in my career and personal development ever since.
Discussion of Findings and Implications for Instructors
Photovoice as a research method that is becoming increasingly popular in CP also holds promise for revolutionizing the college classroom, and the psychology classroom in particular (Lichty, 2013). As presented here, Hershberg experimented with focusing her CP class on the development and implementation of a photovoice project by students, and it seems to have yielded several important outcomes, in relation to both students’ learning about the field of CP and participatory research methods, and their development as students and people in the world. We discuss these outcomes in regard to the literature reviewed above, and identify some lessons learned for future instructors to consider as they too begin experimenting with photovoice as a pedagogical tool in the undergraduate classroom.
One of the great insights from student reflections was that by engaging in the photovoice process from start to finish, they experienced some of the tensions that come up in participatory research projects more generally (such as how to ensure equal participation among participants is promoted throughout the process, and shared decision-making, e.g., Lykes & Herhsberg, 2012). To address these challenges, students also then had to directly engage with some of the CP values they were introduced to throughout the quarter- namely collaboration and participation as well as respect for diversity. By refocusing their concerns on the goals of respective for diversity (i.e., respect and appreciation for diverse social identities and perspectives) and collaboration (i.e., seeking and honoring input from all participants), students were able to respectfully come to some agreement about which photos and themes to select for the photovoice posters, both in small and large groups (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010). These experiential components of the photovoice process were able to “bring to life” the course content (Lichty, 2013, p. 96) in meaningful ways for students that appeared to stick with them long after the process ended. One lesson learned from student reflections in this area is that instructors should be open from the beginning of a course about how challenges will come up when engaging students in a participatory research process. Dr. Hershberg was upfront about this, which helped the group productively address concerns as they arose…rather than letting them simmer or boil over. Additionally, placing an emphasis on values and principles regarding engaging in participatory research- throughout the duration of a course- can make such values and principles a resource for students as they embark on resolving conflicts within their group processes. As Dr. Hershberg noted, learning about and enacting CP values was, indeed, a goal of this course, and one that seemed to be achieved.
Another important insight was that students seemed to really come to understand what a rigorous photovoice process entailed (learning objective 2). They successfully articulated this process in multiple forums, and having the opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in these ways also seemed to make students more confident about their research skills (as Joshua noted, such experiences “inspired self-confidence” in him). However, when reflecting on the most impactful aspects of the course, students did not reference their final photovoice projects, even though five of the six student coauthors engaged in these projects. It is possible that this last element of the course did not help students crystallize the components of the research method in the way that Hershberg had imagined it would. The guest lecturer’s presentation about his photovoice work, for example, appeared to make more of an impact on students’ learning about the method. It’s possible that assigning final photovoice projects at the end of a course may not be necessary for helping students learn about photovoice as a systematic and analytical method…but perhaps presenting students with different examples of photovoice projects, across disciplines, and engaging in multimodal techniques to present such information (e.g., empirical article reviews, guest visits) is.
Additional course objectives that also appeared in students’ reflections on their photovoice experiences related to enhancing their sense of community in the classroom and on campus. Previous research has also identified that these are some of the ways in which photovoice projects can benefit the participants, particularly on college campuses (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005; Latz et al., 2015). In regard to developing a sense of community, Olivia and Sarah described that opportunities for group analysis and discussion of their photos with one another enabled them to see some of the ways in which they were similar to their peers, but also different from them. The majority of students in the class agreed, for example, that one of the challenges of being a UWT student relates to parking expenses. They also agreed that parking expenses conflict with UWT’s value of providing access to students from lower-income backgrounds.
Other students identified the challenge of achieving balance in one’s life regarding being a full-time parent and student. Although, as Olivia noted, not all students had to deal with this latter challenge, knowing that their peers did, however, reportedly made them feel like they had a better understanding of their peers and their student body overall. It also helped them to understand why students seemed to feel so disconnected from one another. In this way, it appeared that the SHOWeD method of analysis was also a mechanism through which students came to better understand and value diversity within their classroom and on their campus more broadly (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005). This suggests that the photovoice method may be particularly effective in classrooms and universities that specifically recruit students from an array of socio-demographic backgrounds, and as well, with very different life experiences. urban-serving universities in particular aim to attract and support both traditional college students who begin their college experiences right after graduating from high school, and nontraditional students, who often include students who transferred from community colleges as well as working parents. The photovoice method may be particularly useful for helping these members of a student body develop a greater sense of connection and community to one another, outcomes that are also believed to be essential for academic success (Bensimon, 2007; Latz et al., 2015).
Finally, an additional outcome that student coauthors reflected on was their empowerment experiences throughout the project. Halimatu mentioned that even when initially learning about another example of photovoice, wherein Latina mothers of children with asthma eventually became health advocates in their communities, she saw the potential for photovoice to empower participants from diverse racial/ethnic, economic, and linguistic backgrounds. Joshua especially spoke to these outcomes when reflecting on his own experiences of the project. He highlighted that having the opportunity to capture his perspective about his experiences as a student (though photography), and to then present it to powerful players on our campus who listened to and appeared to value his views, made him feel like his perspective and knowledge mattered. These feelings were reinforced for Joshua and all other student coauthors when they received positive feedback and even words of thanks from administrators on campus regarding their photovoice work. Joshua was also able to draw on this experience two years after the photovoice project ended in his current work as a case worker to young men in juvenile detention, with the aim of inspiring them and helping them recognize that they too have a voice and can affect change in their communities.
One important take-away message is that administrators and other powerful agents on college campuses (faculty and staff, Latz et al., 2015), can make a positive impact on their students by providing opportunities for them to share their perspectives and specific university-based research experiences with them. Such opportunities may also help students feel more confident about their research skills, and more eager to continue pursuing graduate study or career paths that require such skills (Goodhart et al., 2006). This may be an underutilized resource on college campuses that has the potential to significantly impact students’ success while in college and well into their careers (as Joshua described).
Student reflections about their empowerment experiences within this project also mirror some of the findings described in previous photovoice research. It seems that participants may experience photovoice projects as especially empowering when significant amounts of time within such projects are devoted to facilitating group participation and dialogue (Minkler & Catalani, 2010). These elements appeared to be built into the use of photovoice in the community psychology classroom described here. Additionally, research suggests that empowerment outcomes are more likely to be facilitated for participants in a photovoice project when, as part of their participation, they are also given support and scaffolding as they develop competencies and skills that might be necessary for engaging in their communities and larger sociopolitical contexts (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005). More specifically, photovoice projects that also promote participants’ critical consciousness about social and systemic forces that might be contributing to the social issues they are investigating are believed to be effective for promoting empowerment in participants, and specifically, participants coming to view themselves as efficacious and knowledgeable change agents.
It is important to note here that although the class was inherently about understanding social issues and systemic injustices due to its focus on the field of CP, more time could have been dedicated to helping students connect the issues they identified in their projects to larger social and systemic forces on and off campus. Why, for example, were students forced to pay such high parking costs on a daily basis, despite the school’s focus on providing access and facilitating academic success for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds? Although students in the class were able to convey to the administrators their shared concerns about parking, they did not connect these concerns to a more systemic analysis of these challenges. The same could be said for participants’ descriptions of challenges related to being a full-time parent and student. Thus, an additionally important lesson learned for educators who may want to incorporate this method in their undergraduate classroom is to help students connect their projects to more critical analyses of the social and political forces influencing the topics they choose to focus on. In a CP classroom, this may mean making more explicit connections between the photovoice project that students conduct, and previous research and actions that have come out of CP (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005).
An additional limitation of this project was that the impact of the project on each student in the class, and the class as a whole, was not sufficiently assessed. Thus, the outcomes of the project described by student coauthors cannot be applied to all participants in the classroom. However, that all students appeared to passionately engage in small- and large group analyses and discussions of their photos suggested that the majority of the class had some interest and engagement in the project. Additionally, that nine students chose to pursue photovoice projects for their final, suggested to the instructor that students had some comfort with the photovoice method and could add it to their research methods toolbox. Alternatively, students’ enthusiasm could have reflected their awareness that they were going to receive a grade for their photovoice participation. Thus, another lesson for instructors who may wish to bring this method into their classroom is to plan ahead to evaluate its impact on all students in the classroom, perhaps in the middle of the quarter or semester, and at the end. If possible, circulating a long-term assessment tool (even a one-question survey) six months later could also be an effective way to gauge if the project has any long-lasting impacts on students (e.g., regarding their knowledge of CP, sense of community, self-efficacy, etc.) (Foster-Fishman et al., 2005).
Another limitation is that it is still unclear exactly how the project impacted the campus. The project continues to be advertised on UWT’s website as an example of how student experiences have been incorporated in the strategic plan (http://www.tacoma.uw.edu/initiatives/index.html). However, it is not clear which of the initiatives that have been implemented since the May 2016 strategic planning committee meeting were directly or even indirectly influenced by the students’ photovoice presentation. Parking challenges persist for students, for example. However, more community and social spaces have indeed been developed. Building in some mechanism for following up with administrators to assess the impact such projects are having on university may be important for educators who wish to experiment with this method on their campus.
Despite these limitations, we believe that photovoice may be an effective and even inspiring tool for instructors to use in the undergraduate classroom, and in the CP classroom in particular. In addition to learning about, enacting, and adopting some of the values of CP, through doing photovoice students in our class enhanced their participatory research skills and gained a greater sense of community and self-efficacy, particularly regarding their abilities to effect change on our campus and in their larger communities. Moreover, through having the opportunity to present their research to powerful leaders on campus, some students (including student coauthors) were reassured that their voices mattered, while senior faculty and administrators were reminded that our students are researchers and change agents in the making. We suggest that photovoice has the potential to transform the lives of those who do it, but also of those who view it, and hope it will increasingly be used in the undergraduate CP classroom and beyond.
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Figure 1. Small-group analysis using SHOWeD Method
Figure 2. Photovoice Image "The distance between all of us"
Figure 3. Combined caption and photo from small-group analysis
Figure 4. Photovoice Image "The W"
Figure 5. Photo from presentation to Strategic Planning Committee
Figure 6. Photovoice Image "Abandoned building on campus"
Rachel M. Hershberg, Olivia Andringa, Katheryn Camm, Halimatu Hill, Joshua Little, Rebecca Smith, & Sarah Wilkinson
Keywords: empowerment, photovoice, sense of community, undergraduate, pedagogy