Using a headshot assignment to incorporate critical theory into photojournalism classrooms

Abstract: This case study uses a diversity and critical thinking exercise in a photojournalism class to show how journalism educators can incorporate race and gender conversations about ethics and judgement into traditionally skills-oriented courses. It’s crucial that journalism students learn how to apply their skills properly in an era of social unrest, inequality, and dwindling media trust. Democratic citizenship and journalism are intertwined, but often the bigger ethical conversations are left out of skills-oriented courses. This can lead to a disconnect among the skills themselves and the responsibility of practicing the skills, especially when it comes to matters of power and representation. The field of photojournalism remains predominately white and male, which makes it all the more crucial for students to interrogate their own bases to ensure ethical coverage of their communities.

The assignment asked students to make 36 portraits of strangers, and the subsequent classroom exercise has them confront their inherent biases by looking at the demographics of the people they photographed compared to the general population. Data for this case study consists of observations of the classroom conversations and a reflexive journalism exercise the students completed afterwards. Findings indicated this exercise was a successful way to introduce racial and gender considerations as part of photojournalistic ethics and judgement. Students initially neglected to think about representation and diversity in their selection of people to photograph, but afterwards said they could effectively incorporate reflexivity into their work in an effort to provide more representative imagery and confront their own biases.