We asked university students to tell their own stories in photos: here’s why


In South Africa, university students who come from low-income households in rural areas are at a disadvantage. Having generally attended poorly resourced schools, they’re not well resourced or prepared to participate in the processes of making and sharing knowledge at tertiary education level.

When they enter universities, they tend to have lower English language proficiency than middle class, urban students. They also tend to be less comfortable using the modes of expression that dominate South African universities. They may find it difficult to speak directly to lecturers, or answer questions in class. This may be due to their lack of confidence in speaking English. It could also stem from being unaccustomed to speaking directly to authority figures because African cultural norms typically discourage this.

Research shows that academic staff are often unaware of the socio-linguistic barriers students from rural backgrounds face. For this reason, university students from rural areas can be wrongly seen as inarticulate or less intelligent. They may be treated as if they have nothing valuable to add to the world’s body of knowledge, or as if they cannot benefit from it.

The philosopher Miranda Fricker describes this as a form of injustice – where a person is wronged in their capacity as a knower and speaker, due to prejudice on the hearer’s part.

What we know about students and what they value

The Miratho project is a longitudinal, mixed methods research project. It aims to explore what needs to change to make South African universities more inclusive, particularly in relation to helping students from low-income backgrounds to succeed. Since 2016, researchers have been investigating the university journeys of young people from rural and urban homes across the country. The methods used include a survey, secondary quantitative data, four annual life-history interviews with 65 students, and participatory workshops.

The first two interactions (2017 and 2018) were life-history interviews with all 65 students, but our first publication focused on data from 30 students who migrated from rural towns and villages to three large urban universities. Our findings highlighted what students valued most.

Based on their accounts, students valued:

  • Being included. This means being respected and recognised by all members of the university community, having good friendships for emotional support, peer study support and being able to navigate the university.
  • Mutual care and reciprocal support in their university community.
  • Academic achievement. Getting distinctions and passing each year, getting a qualification and navigating a path to success.

But students didn’t all have the same opportunities to go to universities, participate well within them, or complete a degree. This can result in students being pushed to the margins of university life.

For example, many of them experience “unbelonging” at university. Some of this is income-based (worries over fees, accommodation, not having a laptop or suitable clothes or enough food). It can also be about their experiences of teaching and learning, or feeling excluded from student life.

We conclude from these findings that universities could do more to support these students. They should also do more to recognise the potential, agency and determination that low-income students bring to the challenges they face.

To complement the data from the life-history interviews, we used a variety of approaches – including photovoice – in the research. Photovoice is a participatory visual approach to conducting research. It’s based on the idea that photographs can be used to stimulate dialogue and explore solutions.

Doing research differently

In photovoice projects, facilitators usually give cameras to research participants and ask them to document various aspects of their lives through photography. The photographs are then used to start discussions.

Typically, photovoice involves working with small groups over a period ranging from days to weeks or even months. It usually concludes with a public exhibition of the photographs, where policy makers are the key audience.

In the Miratho project, photovoice was used with 19 student volunteers who were also life-history interviewees. The students researched experiences of exclusion and inclusion at university, and how these experiences affected their learning outcomes.

Students produced individual photo-stories and one collective photo-book titled: “The Bitter Truth of Success”.

They talked about their individual stories at a public exhibition. Their stories had titles like My Journey of Thorns and Roses and Thriving Through Tough Times.

Some photo captions read: “Munwe muthihi a u tusi mathuthu” which is a Tshivenda proverb meaning “One finger cannot pick up a maize kernel” (signifying the importance of collaborative effort to ensure success).

Doing research this way allowed the students to showcase how articulate they are. It also allowed them to recognise themselves, and be recognised as valuable knowers and tellers by other people.

Disrupting power dynamics

Epistemic injustice has to do with knowledge. It happens when factors such as race, nationality, gender and socio-economic class are used to skew knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing processes in favour of those who are in positions of power and advantage.

This results in knowledge that is produced in ways that can silence marginal identities and voices. This means that knowledge production can reinforce inequalities that linger in wider society.

Participatory approaches to research can help to disrupt unequal relationships. They allow for more equal participation in the creation of knowledge between those who have power – such as researchers – and those who have less of it, the research participants.

There are three things that university lecturers and researchers can do to promote fairer participation:

  • Use teaching and research approaches that enable students’ narrative capability. This is the freedom to tell one’s story, have it acknowledged and learn from others’ stories.
  • Listen to students who are likely to be victims of epistemic injustice and encourage them to speak. It’s important to focus on what young people bring with them instead of their deficits.
  • Identify what gets in the way of sharing knowledge. This is likely to point to wider structures of inequality but also individual habits that fuel stereotypes and prejudice.

Author Bio: Mikateko Mathebula is Senior Researcher at the SARCHI Chair’s Higher Education and Human Development Research Programme at the University of the Free State