Man writes at a table outside.

How Photovoice helps veterans gain new insights

Josh Collier normally breezed past the many “no guns” signs affixed to university buildings. But one day, while finishing up his UWM master’s degree, he paused at one of them. The sign was on a glass door, and upon seeing his reflection, he snapped a photo and considered the many life changes he’d experienced.

Ginny Stoffel
Ginny Stoffel

When he’d started working on his master’s, he was fresh off a four-year tour in the Navy. “I was thrown into a new environment with absolutely new rules, and it could be overwhelming,” he says. Now, he was about to graduate, in search of a job and participating in research on the challenges faced by student-veterans.

The study used a research methodology called Photovoice, which asks people to take pictures of their everyday lives and reflect on them in writing and interviews. Participants create something akin to a photo essay, mixing images and writing, which they also discuss with researchers. “It’s sometimes easier to talk about a picture than it is to talk about yourself,” says Virginia “Ginny” Stoffel, an associate professor of rehabilitation sciences and technology in the College of Health Sciences.

“I live in the present, not the past. If you see me as only a veteran, you only see a reflection of the past.” Josh Collier

Stoffel has used Photovoice since 2005 to study the lives of people who are experiencing difficult transitions or living with disabilities, mental illness or substance use disorders. She also trains graduate students to use the Photovoice methodology. She’d trained and advised the team doing the study Collier participated in. It was led by grad student Caitlin Dobson and identified how relationships can be important for student-veterans in easing their transition from military to academic life.

Man's reflection shown on a glass door
(Photovoice photo courtesy of Josh Collier)

For veterans, moving from the military to college means a change from constantly being around familiar people and routines to a place where it can be hard to make connections. Veterans also are older than average undergraduates, who sometimes ask inappropriate questions or make uncomfortable remarks about their service. Stoffel remembers one photo a participant took of a parking lot – empty except for a single car.

“Photovoice helps us get into the nitty-gritty of social participation and how that affects veterans’ transitions,” says Stoffel, adding that it helps researchers tackle important questions: “How does this mental health condition affect this person who’s living their everyday life? And how can we help them have a life of meaning?” She emphasizes that Photovoice is a research methodology, not a mental health intervention. But study participants say that using Photovoice can be life-changing.

Collier says the study helped him unlock coping skills that he uses in his daily life as an occupational therapist at the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee. “Military life happens so fast,” he says. “During Photovoice, I allowed myself to get lost in the present. By letting your thoughts take a natural path, epiphanies bubble to the surface and give you insight to yourself.”