PhotoVoices of the Harper Lab: Reflections on the Health-Place Nexus

Written by Alexandra Sawatzky, PhD student Over the course of this semester, members of our lab group have been taking turns facilitating our bi-weekly lab meetings. Jacquie and I were in charge of last week’s meeting, and given that the end of the semester is fast approaching, we thought we would take the opportunity to lead an activity that might help to alleviate some of the end-of-semester stress while also encouraging some self-reflection.

A lot can happen in one semester. The months often fly by without leaving us much time to reflect on what we’ve learned, or how much we’ve grown. It’s easy to feel a little lost and overwhelmed amidst all of the coursework, teaching, travel, and extracurriculars.

“Stress management” techniques such as getting enough sleep, meditation, and exercising can be helpful, but they don’t necessarily help you tackle the root of the problem. Increasing attention has been paid to the benefits of self-reflection, specifically in terms of articulating those “…core values that help us weather the storms and devastations that inevitably rock our lives and careers…followed by action steps to implement those values in interpersonal settings” (Brendel, 2015).

One way to help identify those core values is to reflect on the places that play a role in shaping who you are and how you perceive the world. For example, Basso (1996), writing within the context of a Western Apache tribe, talks about stepping back from everyday experiences and incorporating an awareness of sense of place into self-reflection:

“places possess a marked capacity for triggering acts of self-reflection, inspiring thoughts about who one presently is, or memories of who one used to be, or musings on who one might become” (p. 55).

As such, reflecting on the way certain places make us feel can help us to assess and deal with our current situations, as well as work towards improving our future. Identifying the places where you feel most connected to the world – and to yourself, for that matter – and making conscious efforts to continue connecting with those places can help you to develop your own personal recipe for resilience during stressful times.

Recognizing that we certainly couldn’t accomplish all this in an hour, Jacquie and I came up with a more focused self-reflection exercise, using a photovoice framework. Following an approach laid out by Mulder and Dull (2014) involving the use of photovoice to encourage self-reflection and self-awareness among Master’s of Social Work students, we sought to turn the focus of this method inward, towards ourselves as graduate students.

We asked members of our lab group to share photos of places that were important to them. We encouraged each person to describe why each place was important, how it came to be important, as well as how that place made them feel.

Essentially, these places were important because they told stories. As everyone shared their photos and associated stories, several cross-cutting themes became clear.

  1. We use these places as a means to describe our past experiences as well as our future goals. Often, we choose our favourite places based on where we feel most ourselves, or where we feel the best parts of ourselves are brought out. These are places where we get much of our thinking done. From reflecting on past experiences, to envisioning our future, these places, as one individual stated, are “…where everything comes together – [they] put everything in perspective, and help with making decisions.”
  2. Familiar places instill in us a sense of consistency. We draw a lot of meaning from places we visit often. Even though we may change substantially between the times where we get to visit these places, we can usually count on the environment itself to stay relatively the same. One person even mentioned that, “it’s been many years since I’ve been there, yet I still know it so well.”
  3. Discovering and exploring new places was associated with turning points, or life-changing moments that led to growth, change, and independence. As such, new places can become just as important as places we’ve known our whole lives. It’s a strange but wonderful feeling when you are able to instantly adapt to/fall in love with a new place.
  4. With everything we have going on in our lives, sometimes finding a healthy balance seems impossible. As such, we tend to gravitate towards certain places as a sort of escape from reality. Interestingly, the places each of us went to “get away from it all” were just as distinct and diverse as the things we are trying to get away from. However, these places all served a common purpose: for us to reset, rejuvenate, and renew ourselves.
  5. These places are special, and the people we’re with make them that much more special. Although the relationship we have with these places are highly personal, friends and family have a strong influence on the depth of our relationship to a certain place. Indeed, our relationships with other people can be an integral part of our relationships with places. For example, when speaking about a place she visited with her family, one individual said, “I am really influenced by the people around me. I love being around jovial groups – people who are as excited as I am to be there.”
  6. Certain spots make you feel as though you are in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time. It takes a special place to make us feel fully present and truly peaceful.

Overall, this activity encouraged us to discuss some of the places we hold close to our hearts, and explore how these places helped lead to the development of our values and perceptions. Our discussions combined introspection, creativity, and the integration of multiple perspectives into a comprehensive self-reflection process.

Identifying and understanding those places where we feel most connected can also help us on our journey toward figuring out who we are and what we value. These places serve to remind us where we come from, as well as reveal how much we’ve grown. New places can help us look at old places in different ways, and perhaps understand more deeply what these mean to us.

We need these places for so many reasons – for all aspects of wellbeing. However, these places don’t necessarily need us in this same way. It’s easy to forget that when we’re not in that place, the place is still there. Indeed, our favourite places will be there long after we’re gone. These places give us so much – a sense of connectedness, feelings of peace and tranquility – we don’t think about what or how we can give back. Or if we can give back at all. Maybe the best thing we can give back is simply our pure and utmost gratitude.


Basso, K. H. (1996). “Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape.” In Feld, Steven, and Basso (eds.) Senses of Place. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 53-90.

Brendel, D. (2015). “Manage Stress by Knowing What You Value.” Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from:

Mulder, C., and Dull, A. (2014). Facilitating self-reflection: the integration of photovoice in graduate social work education. Social Work Education, 33(8):1017-1036.