By: Diane J. Orton, DPhil, MSW, LCSW
Feeling overwhelmed during field trying to locate resources for impoverished clients during a time of fiscal restraints and cutbacks is a commonly shared issue for both American and international social work students. There is little doubt that these issues are on students’ minds as they cope with the complexities of field work experiences and as they give consideration to what their future holds for them as they begin careers in social work.
Most studies in social work field education have relied on traditional academic methods of written documentation and verbal reports as teaching methods to link classroom content and field work experiences (Bogo & Vayda, 1998, Altman, 2001). I feel what is missing is the opportunity for students to give their unique perceptions of field work experiences using non-traditional methods of expression. In this article, I will share the use of photography, written reflection worksheets, and participation in photo-elicitation interviews, which were used as alternative techniques to garner students’ impressions and perceptions of the field work experience. This combination of techniques was used in a research project that I conducted in South Africa at the University of Stellenbosch. My research produced 110 student-generated photographs, reflection worksheets, and transcriptions.
Eight senior female social work students at a South African university participated in the study during their final field work experience. I gave student participants Polaroid cameras to take photographs of artifacts in their environments. Artifacts were explained as being objects participants chose to represent their individual perspectives and experiences during field work. Students were restricted to taking photographs of artifacts, and no photographs of clients or staff were permitted. This restriction forced students to “look” at their environments and not use intrusive photography of people. The importance of artifacts cannot be underestimated. We interact with artifacts every day, and as a result, we attach meaning to them. These interactions can take on personal meaning and can provide insight into individual concerns, fears, and other personal issues (Fidler & Velde, 1999; Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981). The social work profession interacts with people and artifacts in their environments that shape their identities based on the interaction and activities they have with the artifacts. By understanding the significance of the meanings given to artifacts through photography and reflection, social workers can learn a new way to address their concerns and issues with the university and practice community, as well as the social, cultural, and personal needs of clients and the communities they serve.
I used Polaroid cameras in the study, because the cameras are easy to use and produce instant photographs that can be reviewed within minutes. By using Polaroid cameras, students were able to explore their environments, record their experiences by documenting their artifacts, express their thoughts and emotions through reflective writings, communicate their perspectives, potentially motivate others to change their perspectives, and make new connections in how students approach their problem-solving and critical thinking abilities. For my purposes in this study, the quality of the photographs was secondary to the meaning and significance students attached to the artifacts.
Students completed an accompanying reflection worksheet for each photographed artifact. The worksheet required them to give a title to each photograph, describe the artifact, and reflect upon the significance and to share lessons they learned by their reflection. Reflection is a common method that many disciplines utilize to engage students in integrating their learning and expressing their thoughts and feelings about a particular subject or experience (Bromley, 1993; Orton & Jacobs, 2004). In social work, reflection is often required during field work as a journaling assignment. Students’ written reflections were critical to my understanding and interpretation of their chosen artifacts.
The photo-elicitation interview with me was an important aspect of the study. Because the photographs were student generated and not created by me, the significance of the photographs became more meaningful and significant. The photo-elicitation interview process provided the opportunity for participants to educate me regarding their chosen artifacts and, in doing so, provided more in-depth responses. The process also helped build rapport between myself and the students.
I identified three domains from analysis of the photographs, reflection worksheets, and photo-elicitation interviews: 1) at the agency, 2) outside the agency, and 3) personal domain. Six overarching themes resulted from my analysis of the data and occurred in all three domains. The six themes are: Safety, Environment and Atmosphere, Transportation, Frustration and Stress, Inspiration, Coping, and Hope, and Transferable Skills. In this article, I will share a summary of my analysis of the theme “Inspiration, Coping, and Hope.” The information gathered includes students’ perceived meaning of their photographed social artifacts, written reflections, and participation in a photo-elicitation interview.
Overall, participants were inspired by tangible artifacts for their photograph and reflections. Examples of these tangible artifacts include posters with sayings and colorful pictures that provide students with encouragement and motivation to do their field work. More abstract examples include students’ personal self reflections that provided them with insight to help them cope with their field work experiences. Students’ hopes reflect their anticipation that things will get better for their clients despite the realism that, as students, they cannot change everything and have few resources to offer clients. Both the students and their clients are doing their best to manage with what little they each have.
At-the-agency domain artifacts included a number of visual images of posters, prose, and thoughts for the day that served as inspiration to the students as they reflected upon these words and meaning to help them cope with their challenging work. The example shown in Figure 1 is a poster of a whale fin that the student titled “My special inspiration.” The student related that this reflected the importance of creating a calm, supportive atmosphere that is conducive to communicating with clients, and this is reflected in the student’s choice of the artifact. The artifact also represents a major goal students in general hope to achieve by creating a warm and inviting environment. Other photographs of green plants, flowers, and furniture arrangement also reflect students’ desire to create a welcoming office environment. Some photographs reflect images and metaphors to illustrate problem solving abilities. This was shown by a photograph of a little yellow preschool chair that the student titled “My Thinking Chair” and reflects the student’s need to “Collect my thoughts. This chair helps me to switch off for a few seconds, just to clear my head, so that I can think straight, professionally, and effective.”
Outside-the-agency domain artifacts that show inspiration and hope were directly linked to clients. Numerous photographs of impoverished clients’ homes not only reflect clients’ desperate living conditions, but also represent the students’ working conditions. Because many clients do not have transportation, students visit their clients in their homes located in townships, pig farms, and wine farms that are often unsafe environments for young women. A photograph titled “Home Sweet Home” in Figure 2 is a pig farm where the students’ clients live. “My clients actually live in a pigsty. They have pigs in front of them and pigs that live to the front of them and to the side of them.” A photograph of a family of seven living in one room without running water and sanitation systems titled “Life” (in Figure 3) further illustrates the poverty and hopelessness students encounter. Students expressed anger and empathy regarding the sustained poverty clients must tolerate and the frustration for wanting to do more to help, but they have limited resources to offer.
The photograph of a statuette of Jesus Christ with a baby titled “Hope” in Figure 1 reminds the student that everyone needs to hold on to something greater than him or herself to survive, and that there is hope, even in the most devastating circumstances. The student attributes a religious studies course that helped her learn how to work with clients with different religious beliefs and states, “If everything in life goes wrong, you must believe that there will be hope and better days.”
Personal domain photographs illustrate more intimate ways of coping. The costs of commuting to the agencies, tuition fees, and lack of time and money were evident. Students report that the peer support they receive from one another, especially during the time they commute together to their agencies, is an important component to the field experience. All students report that they receive inspiration and hope from their clients, who teach them how they live and cope with their environments. “They teach you coping skills and a positive attitude to life. A lot of my clients don’t always have the best of circumstances, but some are trying their best to have food on the table, clean their clothes. Almost every client I work with struggles to survive.”
The photograph of a bottle of beer in Figure 1 titled “Hypocrite” is one student’s acknowledgment that drinking is one way she copes with her field work. She acknowledges that she feels like a hypocrite, because she works with clients on wine farms who have substance abuse problems, but rationalizes her drinking because “it keeps me sane and helps me put my life into perspective. Somehow I make myself believe that it is all going to be okay.” A photograph of a nature scene that is out of focus titled “Perspective” (Figure 4) reminds a student that there is “still some beauty in the world.” The student’s written reflections acknowledge that she tries to gain perspective regarding her field work and that the photograph is out of focus and represents the fact that she is usually rushed.
In summary, the use of photography provided field work students with a new method of visually communicating field experiences that produced new ways of seeing their physical and social environments. Photographs provide a visual impact that words alone would be difficult to convey to faculty and agency staff. The use of written reflections provided the opportunity for students to further explore deeper understanding of their field experiences. Symbolic and metaphorical meanings of everyday objects, scenes, and places became significant in ways student report they had not openly shared or communicated in the past.
Photo-elicitation interviews made it possible for students to take ownership in their work, and as a result, they became empowered in sharing their unique perspectives. Because students generated the photographs, they were intimate with their content and meaning. That made the process of sharing their impressions with me more personal and powerful.
I feel my findings provided students with a “visual voice” to express concerns and challenges regarding field work that they had not experienced before in their coursework. The combination of photography and reflection provided a venue for students to exemplify their thoughts, feelings, and opinions that had not been previously shared with the practice community or university.
Not every photograph or reflection that the students wrote about was positive, therefore making it challenging for them to confront their values, roles, and career decisions. Overall, students seemed to gain a sense of empowerment by participating in a process that they had not experienced before in their field work assignments.
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Bromley, K. (1993). Journaling engagements in reading, writing and thinking. New York: Scholastic.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Rochberg-Halton, E. (1981). The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fidler, G. S., & Velde, B. P. (1999). Activities: Realty and symbol. Thorofare, NJ: Slack.
Orton, D. J., & Jacobs, F. J. (2004). Helping professions journal: A critical thinking and reflection guide. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Dianne J. Orton, DPhil, MSW, LCSW, is Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Missouri School of Social Work. She was the school’s Field Director for 16 years prior to becoming director of the BSW program in 2007.