2018 Jackie Bruce

Leadership PhotoVoice: Application in Action

By Jackie Bruce

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Jackie Bruce is a leadership educator in the Department of Agricultural & Human Sciences at NC State. Jackie teaches courses in theory, teams, and organizations, advises students and tries to find good parking every day. She serves as a Co-Coordinator of the Oaks Leadership Scholars, is an LGBT Center Advocate, and a member of the CALS Diversity Council. Jackie is the editor of the Journal of Leadership Education where she works with a vibrant community of leadership scholars and practitioners. Jackie is wife to Danny, mom to Ainslee Mae, and kibble provider to Maggie the family’s Bernese Mountain Dog.

Leadership educators are often tasked with guiding students who have few formal leadership experiences to understand and make meaning of abstract leadership theories. As Viktor Frankl (1963) and Krauss (2005) note, meaning is essential to our lives. As humans we want to understand and make meaning of our experiences. “Meaning is the underlying motivation behind thoughts, actions and even the interpretation and application of knowledge” (Krauss, pp. 762-763). In connecting meaning-making to learning, Mezirow observed “learning is defined as the social process of construing and appropriating a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience as a guide to action” (Mezirow, 1994, pp. 222-223). Utilizing PhotoVoice as a method, we created an assignment that asks students to construct or revise their interpretations of leadership to better understand its proximity to their own lives.

The Assignment

Students taking an online introductory leadership theory course were charged with making meaning of abstract concepts from the classroom and applying them to real life. To help engage students in this work, we utilized PhotoVoice as a method to enhance this application. Based on the work of Walter, Baller, and Kuntz (2012), whose students used PhotoVoice to evaluate health and environmental impacts of tobacco use on college campuses, this assignment was adapted for use in a leadership theory course. Walter and colleagues reported students seeing their environments from new perspectives and an increase in awareness of the effects of alcohol and tobacco use among students on college campuses. In adapting this practice for the leadership course, the aim was to help students make connections between course content and their own lives. In addition to this assignment, students read Peter Northouse’s Leadership Theory and Practice (7th ed.), viewed PowerPoint presentations, and watched supplemental videos to reinforce essential concepts.

Directions for the Assignment

Photovoice Guided Reflections (PGR) practice

Part One: Go out into your world and take at least one photo (more is better) you believe accurately depicts leadership concepts we’re studying this week. Photos must be original (taken by you) — no Google Images, Getty photos, etc., and must be taken in the two-week period of the unit we’re studying.

Part Two: Post your photo in the appropriate forum each week on Moodle [an open source learning platform] and answer the reflection questions posted.

Part Three: View and reflect on at least two of your classmates’ entries each week. Answer the reflection questions, include relevant comments, your own questions, or other insights. Posts must be related to course content to inspire leadership discussion and reflection! Our goal here is to come as close to “real time” discussion as possible in our asynchronous environment.

You must take pictures in public settings, that is, anywhere not restricted (club meetings, political rallies, are public settings; someone’s private home is not). If you take photos of people, they must be of public figures in their public roles (in other words, don’t be a paparazzo with a long lens). If you take pictures of individuals, you must have express permission from them or you need to blur faces or take photos from enough of a distance that faces are not easily distinguishable.

PGR reflections will be guided by these questions:

  • Describe what is happening in your photograph.
  • Why did you take a photo of this?.
  • What does this picture tell us about leadership and this week’s topic?
  • How does this photo show leadership challenges or opportunities?.
  • How can you act in your leadership journey based on what we see in your photo?.
  • Did you use at least one citation from the textbook in your responses?

Documented and/or Measurable Student Learning Outcomes

Overall, students enjoyed the assignment. Several students commented in formal course evaluations that taking photographs allowed their instructor and classmates to get to know them in real ways despite the online environment. Others remarked it was fun to “show off” family, friends, and communities. Many also appreciated the unique, creative outlet to demonstrate understanding of course content. An example of some of the writing from the PhotoVoice posts (used with permission from the student) is excerpted below:

For this week, I wanted to focus on my new friends, Amanda and Jason [names have been changed], and the conference we all met at — the Cultivating Change Summit. I've already spoken about the summit once before, but I wanted to go more in-depth about it this time, as I think it really fits into the culture theme this week.

Queer culture is a very diverse and unique culture, as it combines different aspects of ethnic cultures with the creative [sic] and uniqueness of queer people. We celebrate all types and walks of people, and it is very easy to get lost and involved with the culture and history of LGBTQ+ people, because there is so much to learn about and to get involved in. I used the photo below [a selfie of the author with “Amanda” and “Jason”] because it was only taken a few hours after we had met, and we had all come from different walks of life, but I knew immediately that we would be close friends because we all shared a really strong passion for both queer culture and issues and agriculture issues. Jason, Amanda, and I talk daily, and I can't wait to go back to the conference next year because I'll get to see them again.

When thinking about challenges in leadership and queer culture, I think of what Northouse says about ethnocentrism — "the tendency for individuals to place their own group (ethnic, racial, or cultural) at the center of their observations the tendency for individuals to place their own group (ethnic, racial, or cultural) at the center of their observations” (Northouse, pgs. 428-429). While the queer community is diverse in nature, it is not always diverse in representation. White, cisgendered, gay men dominate the scene in both the community and in media representation. If you've ever heard of the Stonewall Riots, the riots were started by trans people of color, but when the movie was produced about the event, it was whitewashed to only be about white, cisgendered, gay men. This challenge gives way to countless opportunities to getting to know other people in the community that have a different walk of life than you. We all have the ability to challenge our own inherent ethnocentrism, by learning about different cultures, ethnicities, gender identities and expressions, sexual orientations, and walks of life, and realizing that our experience isn't the end all for life.

I used my time at the conference to remind myself that the queer community is diverse and special, but we have a long way to go. I have privileges and opportunities because I am part of the majority of queer people that are represented in the media, I need to use those privileges and opportunities to help my fellow queer people who don't have that same playing field. I don't need to speak for other people, because they can speak for themselves, but I am reminded that I need to give up my platform at times to make sure my friends and fellow queer people have that same chance to speak. One of the most difficult parts of being a leader is knowing when to shut up, and my experience at the conference and what I learned from Northouse this week taught me that I need to make sure I am shutting up at times to allow others the chance to speak up, maybe for the first time ever. 

This assignment was intended to help students bring leadership from ‘outside’ their lives and see it as a part of themselves and their worlds. Throughout the semester, students remarked they didn’t often think of family members or peers, or even themselves, as leaders because of the lack of formal leadership titles or positions. In considering leadership in their own spaces, students discovered people are, in fact, leading in big and small ways. The experience helped students to apply course theories, explain and predict leadership behaviors, evaluate leader effectiveness, and grab hold of opportunities to influence peers and organizations.

Using this practice, I contrasted it with a similar but distinct practice — employing guided prompts without photos — in a different section of the same course. Students using the PhotoVoice technique and PGR wrote more in both initial and reply posts than students in the second section. While anecdotal, these findings show the photos were catalysts for discussion and reflection.

Implications for Future Practice / Lessons Learned

Students expressed initial hesitation about the assignment. If they were not in traditional or formal leadership activities/roles, many worried that they had no subject matter for photos. Others were concerned they lacked the photography skills necessary for success with the assignment, or that their equipment (or lack thereof) would be an impediment.

Significant attention and time were spent discussing what constituted a photo, what content was/not appropriate, and circumstances in which photos could be taken. By the end of the term, students provided significant positive feedback about the experience.

If you’re thinking of implementing this practice here are some recommendations:

  • Set clear guidelines for student photos. Instructions describing appropriate photos should discuss subject matter and permissions for subjects. Directions can be as tight/loose as appropriate. Fewer rules seemed to allow students freedom to make meaning of course content in whatever way made sense to them.
  • Guided reflection prompts and photo parameters may be varied by week or used consistently. In the case of this course, the instructor provided more prescriptive guides to help students focus on making connections between abstract leadership concepts and their own lives. However, advanced undergraduate or graduate courses might include fewer (or no) prompts for more organic and personal reflection.
  • Have students post photos and their guided reflections several days before conversation deadlines/due dates. This structure allows students time to post initial photos, and then think and reflect before returning to view other posts to help encourage discussion


Frankl, V. (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

Krauss, S.E. (2005). Research Paradigms and Meaning Making: A Primer. Qualitative Report, 10(4), 758-770.

Mezirow, J. (1994). Understanding Transformation Theory. Adult Education Quarterly, 44(4), 222-232.

Walter, K. O., Baller, S. L., & Kuntz, A. M. (2012). Two Approaches for Using Web Sharing and Photography Assignments to Increase Critical Thinking in the Health Sciences. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(3), 383-394.

About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at pauseforpedagogy@ila-net.com

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. Her current role as an Educational Developer at York University involves supporting faculty in exploring and implementing innovative best practices for teaching and learning. Her doctoral work examines the relationship between professional identity development and communities of practice. Lisa also volunteers her time as the EDC Institute Coordinator for the Educational Developers' Caucus (EDC). Lisa can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.

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