11 Photojournalism: Smartphone Technology in Essay Writing

Ashley Marshall and Natasha Kowalskyj


Teaching communications, or anything rooted in the humanities, often comes with the belief that this field is technophobic. However, depending on the lesson and its objectives, technology can greatly assist in the explanation and exploration of theoretical concepts. My work is occupied with understanding how power, economics, and politics influence social change. Thus, I bring to the classroom a foundation built upon my award-winning thesis (Degrees of Separation), a project interrogating precisely how education, communication and community-based movements advance progressive changes in society. My pedagogy is supported by research offered by Bell Hooks, Henry Giroux, David Harvey, and Stephen Graham.

I developed a photojournalistic teaching methodology while teaching courses such as Communication, Communities and Social Change (COMM 3310) and Persuasion (COMM 3610) at OnTechU. My approach to assessment married well to my teaching Communication for Design  (COMM 1312) at Durham College. At the university, the overarching theme of my course was exploring how language is an instrument of freedom, concentrating on the construction of centre-periphery relationships as polarizing forces of social momentum. Given this context, students critically analyzed how dialogue (specifically, Paulo Freire’s “dialogics”) is a tool toward ethical changes in ideology, and thus society. Specifically, students were tasked with studying how oration (Martin Luther King), rhetoric (Trump), and speeches (Clinton) use the elements of persuasion known as logos, ethos, and pathos to gain acquiescence. Students also explored the tension between mainstream, counter- and sub-cultural capital operating in a cyclic dynamic, using poetry, advertising and urban design as examples. Accordingly, the subject matter I am enthusiastic about teaching is steeped in understanding how power, oppression, ideology, identity, and their various modes of communication influence the world(s) we live, work and play throughout. 

The combination of theoretical and relatable assignments that I bring to the classroom prepared students to think critically about how communication shapes the world they live in and offers them the opportunity to question how to make such a world more inclusive. Photojournalism is an available tool for explaining complex theoretical information at the university level, as well as a way to engage visual learners at the college level.


  • Smartphone/camera
  • Essay-writing software

Steps for Implementation

Step 1.

Teach theory in a lecture or via readings

Step 2.

Challenge students to implement this learning by focusing a critical lens on their communities

Step 3.

Instruct students to use the camera on their cellphones, or professional cameras if they have access, for picture capture. Photos should be unedited, and as original as possible. The amateur nature of these photos adds to the accessibility of this project.

Step 4.

Explain to students that images should be any of the following:

a) Embedded within the body of the essay (wrap text tight): images would be alongside the content they are explaining and cited properly as an original photo

b) Appendicized at the end of the essay. Some students include original drawings and prefer to include their work in an appendix or a “table of illustrations” section

c) A hybrid of both (if there is a combination of original photographs and handmade drawings).

What Can Go Wrong?

Pictures are not always available or are not always the best means of representation. However, neither are words. In the past, I have allowed students to submit essays that included a link to a YouTube video that exemplified the theory better than a picture did. I have also encouraged students to think metaphorically: if they were struggling with how to capture “inequality,” I have accepted work that included a picture of a sidewalk, with the breaks in the sidewalk representing social stratification, compartmentalization, or hegemony. Depending on the topic of the student’s choosing, instructors may have to guide what images are applicable.

Further Reading

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2010).  What do pictures want?: the lives and loves of images. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Digital Resources

Sample Assignment Instructions

Student Testimonial

Essay Example


Natasha Kowalskyj is a graduate of the Communications and Digital Media program at OntarioTechU and is currently enrolled in the Broadcasting and Contemporary Media program at Durham College. For the past two years, she has worked within the Office of the President as a Content Developer for Don Lovisa, and held the same position over the summer for the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network initiative at the College.


Ashley Marshall is a professor of communications at Durham College and former instructor for OntarioTechU’s Faculty of Humanities. Together, our project is to make visible how and why the city is (re)produced in specific ways so that students can better understand the way that built space intersects with social and political forces, and to provide a resource for students to intervene into this system and engage in their own forms of collaborative “city-making.” 


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Technology Tools for Teaching in Higher Education, The Practical Handbook Series Copyright © 2020 by Ashley Marshall and Natasha Kowalskyj is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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