Academic journal article Social Work

The Big Picture: How Social Work Can Effectively Utilize Photographs

Academic journal article Social Work

The Big Picture: How Social Work Can Effectively Utilize Photographs

Article excerpt

Social work is a profession that is widely misunderstood. While social workers attempt to address social injustice and need, the severity of these conditions and the importance of social work services are often lost in presentations to the public. Huff (1998) blamed this loss on the overuse of statistics, tables, and uninteresting essays, noting that "much of the emotion is lacking in our appeals, and this diminishes the important mission of educating the public" (p. 582). The nature of social work in combination with public misperceptions of the profession have led some to wonder whether social work should be considered a "profession in crisis" (Asquith, Clark, & Waterhouse, 2005). Among the various crises confronting social work is a lack of professional recognition, deterioration of professional boundaries, limited resources and poor funding, fragmented service delivery, impossible workloads, increased bureaucracy and use of the private sector, and delivery of social work services by nonqualified workers (Asquith et al., 2005; C. Jones, Ferguson, Lavalette, & Penketh, n.d.).

Although organizations like the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the Association of Social Work Boards can address some of these critical points through political advocacy, changes to licensure requirements, and title protection laws, many of the problems confronting social work stem from unfounded negative stereotypes and stigmas about the profession, including beliefs that social workers earn little to no income and often are incompetent and that the profession is less prestigious than other helping professions (C. A. Jones, Vela, Vang, &Walden, 2006). In a national telephone survey of randomly selected people, LeCroy and Stinson (2004) found that citizens generally believe that social workers make a positive difference in communities, but many do not understand the full spectrum of social work roles, and most would discourage their children from entering the profession. Even within social work education, C.A. Jones et al. (2006) found that many students majoring in social work hold negative attitudes about and misperceptions of the profession. Clearly, such notions have debilitating effects on the profession's image and also diminish the effectiveness of social workers, social work services, and social work education.

The need to overcome such image problems and misperceptions of the profession has received increasing attention during the past decade. Among the different strategies that have been proposed, Healy and Meagher (2004) suggested "reprofessionalizing" social work by forming more professional associations and trade unions. In their opinion, this would help to overcome the limited support and even resentment expressed by many in the general public. In another strategy, NASW recently launched the National Social Work Public Education Campaign to educate the media and general public about the importance of the social work profession (NASW, 2007).This strategy calls for use of positive images of social work and social workers to educate the punic and lobbying of politicians and policymakers (O'Neill, 2004). It is expected that such a multifaceted approach will effectively counter the negative depictions of social work that dominate both popular opinion and typical television and movie portrayals of the profession (for example, Freeman &Valentine, 2004).

THE POWER OF PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES

Despite this growing movement to identify effective mechanisms for changing social work's image, photography remains one technique that has not been adequately studied. However, research done in disciplines like communications and social psychology clearly shows that photographs have the ability to alter society's thinking about topics. Photography thus might be an especially powerful tool for shifting negative attitudes or flawed perceptions of social work practice. According to Sontag (1990), photographs have a strong influence on how society constructs reality. …

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