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Title of Case Study: Using Personal Photographs of Childhood

Name and email address: Mel Gibson and Kay Sambell and

University: Northumbria University

Key Concepts/Threshold Concepts/Approaches to Teaching: visual literacy, values and ideology, symbolic representation of childhood, artifacts, student voices, encouraging student writing, working with large groups.

Background: Module - Perspectives on Childhood.

  • Key theory module on BA Joint Honours in Childhood Studies

The module introduces first year undergraduates to key theoretical perspectives on the academic study of childhood. There are usually around 120 students participating in this module, many of whom could be considered ‘non-traditional’ students, lacking in confidence and unsure about what to expect.



Many of our students have simply never thought about the values, attitudes and assumptions that underpin their own and others’ views of childhood. The overall tendency is to see childhood as a stable, homogenous entity and students often unreflectively assume that their own childhood is ‘the norm’ (unless their own childhood is one they see as ‘problematic’). In addition, arguably, many of these students could be seen as not having had the time or space to develop a critical distance on their own childhoods.

Getting students to think beyond a fairly basic, often emotive, set of ‘common-sense’ ideas about the child is a challenge, but it is equally important to find ways of challenging these assumptions in a way which does not undermine the confidence of the students by making them feel inferior or ‘wrong’. This is particularly important because many of our students are worried that they do not ‘belong’ at university and are extremely anxious about whether they will be able to ‘make the grade.’

What we are trying to achieve

Ultimately, we are trying to encourage the students to see that photographs are not simple texts conveying one meaning to all viewers, but complex ones, which can hold many meanings, depending on the viewers’ perspectives, based on the knowledge, values and assumptions they bring to it. Further, we want to flag up the importance of reflecting more generally upon power issues, particularly in relationships between adults and children.

The personal photograph activity, however, is a first step in seeing that, very clearly, not everyone shares the same view of childhood.

This activity, then, has been designed to help students

  • Begin to analyse values, attitudes and beliefs about children and childhood
  • Ask who constructs and owns images of childhood?
  • Perceive that various messages (subtexts) lie behind images of the child
  • Explore inequalities between adults’ and children’s views of childhood


At the outset of the module we ask students to bring in two photos of themselves as child and teenager, advising them strongly, however, that they should choose ones they are happy to share. They are told that they will be discussing the photos, and their personal writing (which they do before coming to the session) in class, and eventually may reflect upon this as part of the assessed work for this unit of study. The directed study task  (in the box below) is published in the unit handbook to give students a few pointers:

“Write up to a side of A4 about your photos. To get you started you could think about the following questions:

  • What can you see in the image? What do you know about this child? What does this photo make you feel or think about? Does it remind you about anyone or any incident?
  • What is the child doing? Where are they and who are they with?
  • Who took the photo? Who would this photo be shown to?
  • What would an auntie say about this photo? What would your friends say about this photo?

Be prepared to show your personal piece of writing to another student as the basis for a class activity next week.”

In the session we ask students to exchange their photos with someone they don’t know, and the stranger is asked to write about what they see in the photos. These pieces are typically fairly descriptive, and concentrate upon the surface details or ‘facts’ that can be seen: ‘It is a child with fair hair, sitting on a swing,’ whereas the person who brought the photo is likely to draw upon insider knowledge of the family, school, the special occasion and so on.

There is, though, often much hilarity over the photo-exchanging episode, which not only importantly breaks the ice, but is used later in the session as an interesting reaction to reflect upon - why are photos of our younger selves often so funny, or embarrassing when shared with people? Does this laughter reveal anything about the status of childhood as a period to be dissociated from, or perhaps indicate some dominant ways of seeing the child, as amusing, or cute, or inferior to adult selves?

We do this by showing some (admittedly pretty hilarious) photos of our child-selves, which leads to a useful discussion of common themes we can then use to analyse all of our photos. We form these around a series of questions about, for example

  • Clothing (Who chose it? How do we recall our child-selves feeling about that?).
  • Who are we pictured with? (Is this a commissioned professional photo, or a natural snapshot?)
  • Can we remember where this photo was kept? (Was it displayed, or stashed in a box in the attic? How did we feel about that?)
  • What do we, as the child in the photo, know about where, when and with whom the picture was taken? (What knowledge or personal baggage do we bring to our own photo, as insiders to our personal histories that an outsider cannot see?).

By the tutors talking aloud about ways of interpreting our own and each others’ photos, and who ‘owns’ childhood, we encourage the students to see that every picture does not simply tell one story, but that every viewer re-interprets the stories, according to the ways in which they see it.  Comparing their (by now annotated) initial writing about their own photos with a stranger’s writing, most can see marked qualitative differences between these ways of writing, which relate to the ‘ownership’ of childhood. Childhood is clearly shown to be a complex, shifting phenomenon depending upon one’s perspective, and some useful issues to follow-up have been raised.


Lecturers’ views

This activity works really well in terms of building peer communities, which has obvious benefits in helping students learn from each other and talk about their ideas. It feels light-hearted and approachable, which is important in getting students started and giving them confidence. The activity offers strong messages about valuing and reflecting upon prior experience and each other’s contributions; and demonstrating that everyone has something valuable to offer.

Another positive spin off has been that the activity also acts as an important icebreaker in terms of helping the students put pen to paper. We ask students to keep the writing that they do, and later in the semester they look back over this earlier writing. They can always see a huge difference between this initial untheorised piece and the later pieces that incorporate and build on secondary reading. This exercise also starts students using theoretical constructions, such as semiotics, in a way that feels approachable, meaningful and comfortable.

Students’ views

Looking back on this early episode of learning, one student told us that

‘At first, when I brought my photos in, I didn’t know what to say about them. They were just photos. I just described them, and couldn’t see the point. After the session I realised there was loads to say about them. I could write reams! There was so much going on! There was loads I knew about the photo that no-one else knew. The girl who wrote about mine couldn’t say anything like as much as I could say, because it was really personal stuff, that only I knew.”

You have to be careful because it’s making people look at family photos at a state when some of them could be quite vulnerable, leaving home and trying to find your own way. But it made you stand back and think, well, you think you know yourself, and your own family group, but actually, what’s behind it?. It’s interesting when you swap and say ‘There’s my photograph, what do you make of that?’ So it starts building up skills right from day one. Asking questions. It gives you a bit of confidence away from having to say it in an open forum’

‘When you look at someone else’s picture you just see a person doing an activity, but you need an explanation to know what it was like for the person in the photograph.’

I was worried- in the beginning I was very ‘Oh, am I going to say the right thing in how I perceive this photo, is it what other people are going to say…? It’s fear of failure- getting it right. But breaking into smaller groups, it helps give you a settled feeling, because while you doing the exercise people ask ‘How are you settling in?’ and you find everybody feels the same. But also you’re talking about something you know something about, it’s something you feel you’ve got control over’’

‘I enjoyed the photos session, but I was, like: ‘How can you not see what was going on there?’ My photo was of a really significant event- there was so much behind it. But the woman I was doing it with, she just was, like, ‘Oh, well, It’s obviously you and you are obviously with some people. But for me, it’s, well, that’s my family!’

Advice to others thinking of using this approach

Caution needs to be exercised, as there are always some students who, for one reason or another, may not have photographs of themselves as a child. Students need to be clearly briefed to only bring material that they are utterly comfortable with sharing.

We found this activity very positive as it helped students to perceive us as people, rather than remote lecturers. This was especially important in creating rapport, given a large lecture format (we were teaching 120 students). It is also important given that many of our students are first generation university attendees, who can feel extremely lacking in confidence in feeling at home in the new learning environment. 

The activity also works very well as a team-teaching tool, as the lecturers can clearly highlight the differences between their childhoods as represented in the photographs they bring along.

Feedback: We are particularly interested in finding out about other ways of allowing students a 'get out clause' in relation to gathering photographs for this activity.

Gibson, M & Sambell, K. ‘Using Personal Photographs of Childhood’ in The MEDAL Casebook, MEDAL Consortium (2005).

I've tried this out and would like to offer feedback.

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