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The Effect of Photography on Student Awareness of Social Issues

Kimberly Raskin
Minnesota State University, Mankato


The visual arts are an important part of critical thinking for students and a school system as whole. This
essay shows different ways that photography can have an impact on the social consciousness of
students. Historically, the truthfulness of documentary photography brought change to the lives of
people. Inside the classroom, students are able to understand a subject through deep exploration of
taking pictures. Viewing photographs brings awareness of something they normally would not have
seen. Taking and viewing photographs creates an emotional connection for a students, which brings
about understanding and a call to action.
Keywords: social issues, photography


The Effect of Photography on Student Awareness of Social Issues

How often are you drawn to and captivated by an picture that you see? During our day, we are
inundated by images and the power of a photograph can be long lasting. Photography is a captivating
medium that conveys the reality of someone or somewhere else that is unknown to us. For that reason,
photography is a medium that can be used to teach students about the world around them and heighten
their understanding and awareness of social issues. Research by Boulay & Lynch (2012) says that, A
photograph taken with a purpose can convey a sense of place, evoke emotions or memories, illustrate
what is at risk of lossexpose abusesinspire or even disgust, thus heralding a call to action (p. 103).
When social justice curriculum is implemented into the classroom, that call to action is initiated by
children taking time to care about the people who around them. This guides students in their
knowledge that their personal, civic, and social actions can make a difference (Serriere, 2010).
Whether a student is the photographer or simply viewing a photograph, the impact is evident.
Historical Impact of Documentary Photography
With the onset of the daguerreotype in 1839, the ability to capture true-to-life images allowed for
everyday events to be preserved (Szto, 2008). It became an instrument that provided visual evidence
as a way of seeing and analyzing social problems. The straight forward and truth-telling qualities of a
photograph allowed it to affect change because psychologically it created a link between human
experience and personal compassion.
During the Progressive Era of 1890 to 1920, science was used for social reform and problem
solving, therefore documentary photography was a medium that was embraced for its realistic qualities,


seemingly truthlike (Szto, 2008). During a time when the United States was preoccupied with
production and wealth at the expense of child labor and immigration, Lewis Hine believed his use of
social photography was the best strategy to influence social reform, which is exactly what he did. In
1905, he brought his students from the Ethical Cultural School in New York to Ellis Island to
photograph immigrant life firsthand. This firsthand contact made poverty much more real for Hine and
his students. With social justice in mind, Hine continued work with the National Child Labor
Committee. Having images that were published and available for the public to view was critical in the
advancement of child welfare. Owen Lovejoy, chairman of NCLC, believed, The work Hine did for
this reform was more responsible that all other efforts in bringing the need to public attention (as cited
in Szto, 2008, p. 102). The public demanded change after seeing the truth.
Ray Stryker was another photographer who used visual evidence of photographs to expose the
harsh realities of social life problems. His aim was to reach the common people so they could see the
necessity for social change. Working with a dozen other photographers, they focused on documenting
the human spirit despite the harshness of the Great Depression. By the end of the documentary
photography project, 270,000 photos had been taken of rural poverty. These photos were published in
magazines in order to educate the public and positively alter social and political misperceptions of New
Deal initiatives. Historian Robert Bremner noted, As the images were able to to make their way into
public domain...the public began to respond favorable to the photographs. The pictures were
working (as cited in Szto, 2008, p. 107). The images entered the American consciousness and
challenged the publics perception of social well-being. It was the work of these historical
photographers that created a movement of photography to engage the emotion of the viewer.


Using Photography in the Classroom

Photography Based Service-Learning
The Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Oregon focused on using visual arts and
service-learning together. It believed that the arts are an important part of the learning because the arts
can engage the hearts as well as minds (Boulay & Lynch, 2012). In one case study of students
participating in the Environmental Studies graduate program, photography was the primary source of
communication for a service-learning project. It chose photography as the medium because it can be a
universal language that is able to go beyond cultural and social differences. Photographs can capture
the personality of an ever-changing place and show a fresh perspective on something that has become
These ideas were applied to a photography based service-learning project. Students created
and interpreted images to made-up a portrait of the McKenzie River, with the goal of promoting
conservation from multiple views: the people, fish and wildlife. Students created their own project
mission and objectives, key messages, photographic themes, types of photographs to take, and specific
places to visit. This allowed the student to become fully invested in the project because they were
making all of the decisions around it. Students took 6 different field trips where they photographed the
McKenzie River and interacted with residents who lived there. This was a vital part of the project, as
they were able to personally connect with their project concept. The final outcome of the project was
to create an exhibit of twenty images to present to the public. They created posters that described their
project and themes, along with personal reflections about each photo. They also encouraged viewer
interaction by putting out blank postcards and pens. When photography was incorporated into service


learning, students were able to evaluate their learning and reflect on their experiences, which led to
personal growth. The students who participated in the My McKenzie project gave feedback saying it
was deeply meaningful. They appreciated spending collaborating on a challenging project, talking with
residents, and developing a personal voice through the use of photography.
In another case students done by Boulay and Lynch (2012) at the University of Oregon, it
explored how the arts create a way to make an emotional connection with people. They understood
that this emotional connection encourages exploration of personal values and ethics, which in turn can
stimulate and launch new perspectives, and promote a sense of civic responsibility. Students were
emotionally and personally engaged in environmental and social problems by listening to and viewing
photographer Chris Jordans Running the Numbers exhibit at the university. These
photography-based projects allowed students to experience the subject matter at a personal level and
then convey their perspective to others. They required close observations, and therefore promoted
exploration that went deeper into the subject matter.
Classroom Photo-talks
Students of any age can understand different levels of social issues through the use of photography.
Stephanie Serriere studied the use of digital photography in the early childhood classroom and how it
affected students social consciousness (Serriere, 2010). From the three years of data collected, she
noticed that typical adult ideas were present in young childrens work and play. The concepts of
gender, class, language and power were evident as, for example, there was a group of popular boys
who tended to dominate the rules during play.
During their play time, Serriere photographed childrens individual behaviors, as well as their


interactions with other children. After uploading the images to her laptop, she invited students to join
her to look at the pictures during clean-up time. She asked subjective questions to get more information
from them about what was happening in the picture. During this photo talk time she gave the children an
opportunity to imagine a change in their social reality. This visualization allowed for insight into what
social justice meant from their perspective. She also had students choose pictures of themselves as their
best self and how their best classroom would look. The terms fair and equal were also introduced
into the photo talk time. Students were asked questions like, Which choices were most equal for
everyone? (Serriere, 2010). One student noted that in a picture where he meant to be acting funny, he
looked scary, like he was hurting someone else. Even though students didnt come outright and say
they understood the concept of social justice, there was evidence of this understanding as there was less
coercion or tears during playtime. Moreover, photo-talk was a space where students could disrupt the
social norms within their classroom. Serriere states (2010), involving students in wondering about,
re-envisioning, and questioning public life is, after all, the basis for transformative citizenship education
(p. 65). When students try to imagine reality from another persons point of view, it encourages equal
status interactions between members (as cited in Serriere, 2010, p. 66). Carving out time for reflection
of social interactions using photography can be a very powerful way for students to confront inequities.
Participant Photography with Black Male Students
Using photography as a research methodology is a way for participants to share their relationships
between other people and places, as well as express their own point of view. The purpose of
participant photography is to give a voice to the people, allow them to reflect on their images, and ignite
social transformation. At a high school on the Pacific west coast, ten black males were given digital


cameras to document their lives (Allen, 2012). The subject matter of the photographs was left up to the
participant; it just needed to show what their life is like. The participants then met with the researcher
and explained the meaning behind each image they took, which gained an inside look into their lives. In
order to show the importance their images are, Allen (2012) explained to the participants the issues that
black men face and the political and social implications of not including the Black male voice into public
discourse (p. 452). This empowered and excited the students to truthfully document their lives and
bravely share their images with others, including teachers and administrators, with the hope of creating a
better understanding of who they are. They images counteracted the stereotypical idea that black, male
youth are lazy, or violent, but showed their identity of having a masculine, cool demeanor. The visual
documentation of the observation of black males helped create an understanding of the characteristics,
actions and ideals of their culture.
Viewing documentary photographs of social issues during the 1920s and 1930s played a positive role in
shaping American social welfare. The common people needed visual evidence of social injustices,
which it found in documentary photography, to be able to heightened their awareness. In the paper,
Social Photography: How the Camera May Help in the Social Uplift by Lewis Hine (as cited in Szto,
2008), he stated that he believed photography created visual facts as the occasion for awakening the
viewers awareness of and imaginative empathy with the pictured other, and thus views own social
being (p. 103).
The research by Boulay & Lynch (2012) showed that the visual arts increase awareness,
present new perspectives, challenge perceptions, provoke reactions, and stimulate dialogue. It allows


students to examine feelings, gain insights and convey ideas, which ultimately creates an emotional
connection to an issue. This connection to something is what creates awareness and ultimately, change.
Paulo Freire (as cited in Serriere, 2010) believed, that to change the root causes of social injustice,
people must describe their own social reality, analyze the root causes of the situation, and act (p. 66).
Photography allowed students to analyze their own, or other peoples, behavior in order to make
positive changes. The key to creating awareness of social issue for students is to not only view or take
a picture, but to discuss and analyze the meaning behind the photograph. Going beyond surface value is
vital to creating an emotional connection.

Allen, Q. (2012, March 23). Photographs and Stories: ethics, benefits, and dilemmas of using
participant photography with Black middle-class male youth. Qualitative Research, 12(4),
Boulay M. C. and Lynch K.A, (2012). Fostering Environmental Stewardship through Creative
Expression: Incorporating Art into Service-Learning. Interdisciplinary Humanities, 29(3),
Serriere, S. (2010, February). Carpet-Time Democracy: Digital Photography and Social
Consciousness in the Early Childhood Classroom. Social Studies, 101(2), 60-68.
Szto, P. (2008, June). Documentary Photography in American Social Welfare History:
897-1943. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 35(2), 91.