By Jadwiga Leigh
Experiencing the social work world is a project which began quite by accident. A few years ago whilst in the midst of carrying out ethnographic research I discovered that visual methods could transform the way I looked at a social work organisation I worked for. I had been working there for three years when my doctoral supervisor suggested that I take some photographs of the building. The focus of my research was professional identity and I was particularly interested in how culture could impact on the way social workers constructed their own. The reason my supervisor wanted to see visual data was so that he could gain an understanding of what space and environment meant for me and the others with whom I worked.
Initially I remember thinking that his request was quite bizarre- there was nothing interesting about the building, in fact it was probably one of the most uninspiring places I had ever worked in. Nonetheless, I smiled and nodded and said something along the lines of “Hmmm yeah, I’ll think about it” but then left the meeting thinking that there would be no way I would actually do anything about it.
However, my study was not just that of an ethnography but a comparative ethnography. And the other site that I was planning to visit, as a participant observer, was a child protection setting in the North of Belgium. The first day I arrived at that site I remember looking at the outside of it thinking that it was just as dull as the place where I worked. But as soon as I stepped through the front door my views started to change. The way the Flemish used their organisational interior was visually stimulating, it had meaning and it was meant to capture your attention. It certainly captured mine. It made me realise that work environments could provide a particular kind of back drop to social work practice – one that encouraged social workers to draw from a specific type of discourse which not only affected the way they constructed their identity but also shaped the way they then went on to build relationships with the families they worked with.
Since that study I have become ever more fascinated with the concept of using visual methods in research. I think it is because I realised that the photographs I used made the invisible suddenly visible. They not only captured the viewers’ attention but they also required the observer to employ a certain mindfulness which usually involved both conscious and unconscious thinking.
Andrew Clark and Lisa Morriss (2015:1) have suggested that visual approaches can convey powerful messages because they provide a particular way of ‘experiencing, expressing, sensing, and of course seeing social work worlds’. It is this quote in particular which has inspired the title of this project because the main aim of this site is to offer all visitors the opportunity to delve into and visually experience parts of the invisible social work world.
Over the next few months I, along with my good friend, Lisa and our arts expert, Matt Morriss, will be developing this site to explore how social work is represented in the media (newspapers, television, magazines) and seen by different groups in society. But we don’t intend to stop there. We also want to explore other people’s views and experiences of ‘being’ part of a social work world. More information about these different themes will follow in due course but in the meantime, I just want to say “Thank you” for visiting and if you have the time please do leave us some feedback.