Photopedagogy and photovoice

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Loopmans et al. (2012) observe that photographs incite public debate about place and community. When that public context is the university course and where there is a desire for learning engagement and community building, how can photography empower the learner?

A useful baseline for thinking about media-enhanced pedagogies is Sfard’s two ‘metaphors for learning’ (1998) – learning by acquisition and learning by participation: the learner is user or producer of the media, and in some cases will have both roles at the same time.

The act of making photographs or of seeing representations of what you know, or what you know differently, is under theorised and under practised in higher education. As Marguiles (2019) notes, photography lends agency to the constituent community – we can think of this as photovoice, where ‘voice’ means agency (see also the charity PhotoVoice).

In studies of audio-enhanced learning, I have discussed the learner-as-gatherer driven to interrogate the world (Middleton, 2011). Photography also enables the learner to gather as an act of learning providing “ways of sensing for exploring human relations with other kinds of life and enactments of difference.” (Marguilies, 2019).

The ubiquitous connected camera and the equally ubiquitous screen create a rich and stimulating learning environment for the teacher and the student alike. The photograph captures a moment in time, and whether author or viewer, it demands that we reflect on the significance of the moment. But this challenge is imbued with subjectivity and begs the question, “How do we see the world and how is this different to the ways other people see it?” Photography, then, has an integrity that helps to clarify why learning is a form of perception and interpretation – an ecological force. This is photography’s paradox: apparently fixed, definite and evidential, it demands interpretation and is experienced differently. Susan Sontag (1977) explores this, and also asks us to consider the pre-eminence of the image over the event it captures. Indeed, making the picture is an encounter in itself, as previously discussed.

In this introductory post on photopedagogy, I outline some of the ways we can think about the photograph as a site of learning. Before proceeding, let’s be clear this post is not about teaching photography: we can assume that if we have a screen we must be critical of what we see and if we have camera we have the essential skills to operate it including sharing what we produce. This post is about any discipline and the role for the photographic image in the way it is taught and learnt.


An interpretation of Collis’ Contribution-oriented approach to learning activities framework

Drawing upon the framework presented in an earlier post on co-production and epistemic fluency, I briefly outline some of the ways afforded by photography as a site of learning.



The idea of using the camera to gather evidence or visual information is relatively straightforward. This can be quantitative data (e.g. the number of shoppers parked in an out-of-town supermarket carpark at a time of day) or qualitative (e.g. evidence of the different ways people interact with a place).

Analyse and adapt

The use of photo elicitation as a research method (Harper, 2002), for example, shows how the photograph can be used as a stimulus for analysing a situation and, in Design or Planning, how visual stimuli can be used for mocking up ideas in the course of a development. A photographic analysis of a process as the basis for its enhancement is an example of analysis and adaption; potentially the basis of a student assignment.


Using the camera and photography to create artefacts is well understood. Educationally the challenge is understanding the value of this to any discipline, beyond those usually associated with visual media. In some cases the obvious applications are found again in the act of photography as a stimulus on the journey to creating an argument or a scenario. The making of visual artefacts is easy to do and the creation of visual metaphors can help to open thinking. The assignment to take a picture of something that conjures Winter, for example, will generate a wide range of images that individually or together may provide the basis for a poetry assignment, consideration of childcare, global warming, seasonal business requirements and opportunities, diversity, etc. The photograph, and the decisions involved in its making and selection, all serve to provoke engagement and deepen thinking.

Knowledge creation


Location is immediately associated with ideas of place, experience and belonging (Tuan, 1977). The ubiquitous camera can chart our progress and its retelling. Digital storytelling as a pedagogy incorporates photographs to evoke deep explorations of experience (McLellan, 2007). Whether in the form of photomontage, photostory comic strip, or portfolio, photographs create records of place and experience. Photographs act as aides memoire, or they can be presented to illustrate context or detail, and they can be annotated.


The X-ray of a fractured bone presented alongside a healthy bone is an obvious comparison that, in this case, allows the radiotherapy student to learn about what they should be capturing in the images they make. Other types of change can be photographically recorded for analysis: erosion, development of a process, growth, aging, urban planning, layering of paint on a canvas, and so forth. Visual timelines showing photographs of places as they used to be adjacent to contemporary views are inherently fascinating.

Add and update

The editing of photographs and the superimposing of new elements or annotations onto photographs can be useful in assessment, but also project planning.


Incongruity can be a powerful stimulus for learning. “What is wrong about this image?” can be a engaging opening question. Combining and juxtaposing one idea with another, or editing out or editing in a critical element can, for example, engage students in discussions about critical literacy. Collage – the assemblage of disparate visual elements to create a new image – can help to establish new associations – what happens when the image of a white person is replaced by a non-white person, or a man for a woman? Could that be a basis for discussion!?

Use and value

‘Use and value’ in Collis’ framework, pedagogically, asks us to focus on audience and user of the media. Whether the photograph is found or produced by the teacher or student, it is interesting to think about its use over time.

Single course use

Nowadays immediacy is associated with the digital photograph. Unlike analogue photography, the digital changes the inherent value of the photograph as artefact. Today, there is an abundance of imagery and, should we not find what we need, making a new photograph is technically straightforward, even if the situations we want to capture are inaccessible.

Single use photography brings currency and authenticity. We, the teacher or learner, can vouch for their authenticity and it is that direct association with the image that sometimes matters. As such, photographs are more understood as being ephemeral and inexpensive commodities.

Course re-use

Re-use changes the inherent context of the image. Its author may be forgotten, its currency may fade, but its meaning can be reassigned. As a record of what has happened before on the course, the photograph can help to model expectations and provide insight to previous work, experiments and outcomes.

Non-course use

Photography can have many audiences. The publication of photographs is commonplace. People use social media photography to inform, attract and chart their world: life blogging is part of life itself.

The photograph demands to be seen by others. Academically, then, this public thinking through the media of photography can become a powerful incentive for presenting research and ideas to a general or specific audience.


I have been looking at the photograph and the act of making photographs as a site of learning since the first camera phone came out. I tried to run an academic innovation project in about 2006 called ‘Picture This!’ It struggled. I found it fascinating that we could grab a visual note so easily. But it wasn’t easy then. It is now.

I would love to hear from anyone who has examples of how photography is being used in the higher education curriculum.


Collis, B. (nd). A pedagogy for learners in the co-creation of knowledge and the problems that confront it in practice. Online:

Collis, B. & Moonen, J. (2006). The student: learners as co-developers of learning resources for reuse in web environments. In D. Hung and M.S. Khine (eds.), Engaged Learning with Emerging Technologies, 49-67.

Harper, D. (2002).Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13-26

Loopmans, M., Cowell, G. & Oosterlynck, S. (2012). Photography, public pedagogy and the politics of place-making in post-industrial areas, Social & Cultural Geography, 13:7, 699-718, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2012.723734

Margulies, J. D. (2019). On coming into animal presence with photovoice. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2(4), pp. 850-873

McLellan, H. (2007). Digital storytelling in higher education. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19, pp. 65-79

Middleton, A. (2011). Audio active: discovering mobile learner-gatherers from across the formal-informal continuum. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning (IJMBL), 3(2), pp. 31–42.

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing
just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4-13.

Sontag, S. (1977). On phography. London: Penguin Books.

Tuan, Y-F. (1977). Space and place: the perspective of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Academic Innovation, Academic Innovation and Possibilities, Active Learning, BYOD4L, Creativity, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Media-enhanced learning, photopedagogy, Smart Learning & BYOD, Social Media for Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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