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Using Photolanguage to Encourage Expression

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About 15 years ago, I discovered an innovation from Australia called Photolanguage, a set of black and white image cards depicting various slices of Australian life. While the Photolanguage process is rooted in the popular education and humanist psychology movements of the 60s and 70s, I and other facilitators have adapted these image cards to draw out deep metaphorical expressions from participants during different points in meetings.

Each participant is invited to choose one or a few resonant photos which metaphorically answer a question or address an issue. These evocative images encourage the imagination with symbolism that speaks to each viewer in unique ways. When presented in group settings where self-expression is critical, they enhance communication and encourage greater appreciation of diverse perspectives, helping to build healthy group norms.

I generally use Photolanguage at these times:

  • To assess the readiness of a group to engage in a project or process.
  • At the beginning of a group process to help build understanding and highlight diversity and commonalities in a team that is just forming.
  • At the end of a session to focus on what was accomplished.
  • To gather evaluation data from program participants.

Some real-life examples of when I’ve used Photolanguage:

  • During the first day of a 10-month leadership institute: “Pick two cards – one that reflects how you see your natural leadership style right now, and one that reflects your vision of yourself as a leader in the future.”
  • At the end of the first in a series of daylong strategic planning sessions: “Pick an image that represents what is most important to you from today, when looking forward to the rest of the strategic planning process.”
  • At the beginning of a community stakeholder event to gain input on a five year action plan to improve the health of residents: “Pick an image that represents something unique to this community that promotes the health of families.”

Sample responses follow, from a recent meeting opening a series of listening sessions with staff of a State agency seeking to develop best practices and performance standards. What kinds of responses might I have gotten if I simply asked people to go around the room and respond without the images?

“Pick an image that represents your current comfort level with the draft Standards and how they might guide your work.”

That’s what we are doing, but we’re not just crossing the bridge, we are also building the bridge as we go, in terms of defining the standards, putting them down on paper. We are paving the road.
There’s sometimes resistance from technical staff to making things accessible. I feel a little trapped by some of the standards.
Knowing [the agency’s] history, we have big shoes to fill in future work, and a lot of challenges with resources. We’re aspiring toward goals, and the boy is still moving ahead.
We are the parents of this project, handholding. We still have to look out for the things that are going to come our way. It’s not going to be easy; we have to be careful.
We’re growing, and part of a larger eco system that is hard to see sometimes. We don’t always know what else is happening in the forest. But, growing, we will hopefully get there.
I love risk and opportunities. And I feel like I am higher up in this process, whereas the others are all more intimately involved. I’m hoping that when we jump, we’ll soar, and not crash. I’m optimistic that we can soar.

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