Addressing Cultural Competency in Counselors: The Photovoice Project

By Melissa (Missy) Wheeler and Janelle Cox

Clients seek career development services for a variety of reasons. Clients represent intersecting identities that shape how their concerns are presented and which resources might be available to support them. Client barriers to job-seeking, accessing resources for career development, and workplace satisfaction impact their ability to find, secure, and maintain decent work (Diemer & Ali, 2009; Juntunen et al., 2013). Career counselors and practitioners who practice within a more culturally competent framework have been found to hold fewer biases related to systemic barriers faced by clients (Clark et al., 2017). Systemic barriers such as poverty, legislation, and education access bias as well as societal barriers related to discrimination can be hard for a client to describe to a counselor, though the impact on the client and the client’s work with a counselor is real. Likewise, individual client barriers to career training and employment can be difficult to comprehend if the counselor has no prior experience to help frame how the experience may represent a barrier. Students in training as counselors who hold privileged identities may experience difficulties shifting perspectives to contextualize a client’s identities and communities beyond those the counselor has personally experienced. Counselors who are not able to understand the client’s worldview may operate from their experiences of privilege and miss important client contextual factors, client support, and opportunities for advocacy (Evans & Sejuit, 2021).

Counselor educators are responsible for including training in culturally competent skills in the career development curriculum (NCDA, 2015). The American Counseling Association (ACA) also places social justice, advocacy, and cultural competence at the forefront of counselors’ ethical responsibilities (ACA, 2016). The counseling classroom can be an opportune time to begin encouraging and modeling perspective-taking and broaching career-related barriers. Counselor educators with dominant cultural experiences and backgrounds may find it intimidating or risk engaging in stereotyping when introducing topics related to identities they do not hold. Meanwhile, counseling students may be asked to self-disclose and do more emotional labor to challenge stereotypes or misrepresentations of identities they hold.  

As career counselor educators, teaching both perspective-taking and client-centered advocacy behaviors can be challenging to navigate. How can counselor educators connect the voices of others in a classroom and teach students about ethical advocacy with clients? Counselor educators can turn to innovative, evidence-based strategies to help students explore perspectives beyond their own (Williams et al., 2016). Photovoice can be a method to help with this connection. Photovoice uses photographs as a tool to develop a visual narrative about a selected topic, such as gender advocacy or limb-affected veterans, which may be experienced by clients or students; essentially, the photos serve as a visual representation of portions of a narrative and offer physical evidence to support a larger story. Photovoice is a teaching tool that has been used in the counseling classroom to contextualize self-awareness (Zeglin et al., 2019), research topics (Patka et al., 2017), explore developing empathy in counselors (Lenz & Sangganjanavanich, 2013), and teach counselors to be social justice advocates (Choi & Fandt, 2007; Williams et al., 2016). Photovoice can provide a visual bridge between the counselor’s perspective and the client’s experiences, therefore promoting discovery and dialogue.

Overview of the Photovoice Project

Photovoice projects in the career development classroom can be used to explore client barriers to services, career development, and job-seeking. Both authors have utilized photovoice in synchronous and hybrid courses to promote the perspective-taking and advocacy competencies of counselors in training. In our classrooms, we ask students to complete the following as a course assignment:

  1. Consider a problem related to access or equity barriers in career development.  
  2. Speak to someone you know personally who represents an identity that is different from yours, conduct outside research on barriers published in peer-reviewed journals, seek out someone whose identity is different from yours, or self-disclose a barrier they have experienced based on an identity they hold. 
  3. Find or take a picture that demonstrates or represents this barrier and present the photo in class.
  4. Develop a presentation or write a paper describing the problem and client-centered advocacy efforts the counselor or the counselor and client can take to support the client’s career development or the community.

Project Tips for Faculty and Adaptations

  • Introduce the project in class with photo examples, such as the ones in Figures 1 and 2.
  • Provide opportunities to work on the project in class to allow students additional opportunities to ask questions.  Faculty can also use this time to consult with students about their projects and redirect student ideas as needed.
  • Support students as they work to narrow down project options through consultation conversations and discussion of the barriers they may encounter completing the project.
  • Coach students through classroom role-plays or paired student practice on how to discuss issues of diversity with clients prior to engaging in conversations about possible barriers experienced.
  • Student project presentations can be adapted to fit different classroom styles.  Photovoice projects can be shared both as part of in-person or live Zoom instruction or the projects can be developed as PowerPoint presentations with notes to convey presentation content.  Additionally, students can be asked to record a narrated presentation to submit with their presentation files.
  • Instruct students on how to include alternative text for photos to improve accessibility.

Figure 1

Employment Application Questions Can Introduce Bias

Wheeler Cox Figure 1

Note: Employment application highlighting the required disclosure of felony convictions.


Figure 2

Bus Stop on Sidewalk for Dialoguing on Barriers

Wheeler Cox Figure 2.Png

Note: Picture of a bus stop highlighting difficulty with transportation to work, constraints due to the bus schedule, having the financial means to take the bus to work, and lack of shelter offered at bus stops.  There is also no curb cut for easy access for those with mobility needs.

Student Insights

After completing this assignment, students have reported a range of positive learning experiences, including the following:

  • Both the process of creating a project and listening to peers presentations have increased their knowledge of barriers experienced by clients in career development.
  • By discussing the process of creating their projects, students have learned skills in how to begin conversations with clients about the barriers they have experienced.
  • Students feel that sharing what they have learned with their peer community is a form of advocacy.
  • Researching barriers and advocacy efforts has increased their knowledge of steps related to advocacy and advocacy actions they can take as counselors. 

In summary, Photovoice can be a valuable tool for teaching students perspective taking related to career development and client-centered advocacy steps. Faculty can adapt this teaching strategy to a variety of classroom modalities and projects.  In the career development course, the photovoice can be an innovative way to introduce and reinforce both the ACA Advocacy Competencies (Lewis et al., 2003) and the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (Ratts et al., 2016).



American Counseling Association. (2014). Code of ethics. ACA. https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/ethics/2014-aca-code-of-ethics.pdf?sfvrsn=fde89426_5

Clark, M. C., Moe, J., & Hays, D. G. (2017).  The relationship between counselors’ multicultural counseling competence and poverty beliefs.  Counselor Education & Supervision, 56, 259-273. https://doi.org/10.1002/ceas.12084

Choi, V. C. M., & Fandt, P. M. (2007). Photovoice in the diversity classroom: The engagement, voice, and the “eye/I” of the camera. Journal of Management Education, 31(4), 484-504. https://doi:10.1177/1052562906288124 

Diemer, M. A., & Ali, S. R. (2009).  Integrating social class into vocational psychology. Journal of Career Assessment, 17(3). 247-265.  https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072708330462

Evans, K. M., & Sejuit, A. L. (2021). Gaining cultural competency in career counseling (2nd ed.). National Career Development Association.

Juntunen, C. L., Ali, S. R., & Pietrantonio, K. R. (2013).  Social class, poverty, and career development. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 245-274). Wiley & Sons.

Lenz, A. S., & Sangganjanavanich, V. F. (2013). Evidence for the utility of a photovoice task as an empathic skill acquisition strategy among counselors in training. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 52(1), 39-53. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1939.2013.00031.x

Lewis, J. A., Arnold, M. S., House, R., & Toporek, R. L. (2003). ACA advocacy competencies. www.counseling.org/resources/competencies/advocacy_competencies.pdf

National Career Development Association. (2015). NCDA code of ethics. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/asset_manager/get_file/3395?ver=738702

Patka, M., Miyakuni, R., & Robbins, C. (2017). Experiential learning: Teaching research methods with PhotoVoice. The Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision, 9(2), 11. https://digitalcommons.sacredheart.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1183&context=jcps

Ratts, M. J., Singh, A. A., Nassar-McMillan, S., Butler, S. K., & McCullough, J. R. (2016). Multicultural and social justice counseling competencies: Guidelines for the counseling profession. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 44(1), 28–48. https://doi.org/10.1002/jmcd.12035

Williams, J. M., Greenleaf, A. T., Barnes, E. F., & Owens, T. W. (2016).  Photovoice as a teaching tool for client/student advocacy. Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy, 111-123. https://doi.org/10.1080/2326716X.2015.1124816 

Zeglin, R. J., Niemela, D. R., Rosenblatt, K., & Hernandez-Garcia, J. (2019). Using photovoice as a counselor education pedagogical tool: A pilot. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 14(2), 258-268. https://doi.org/10.1080/15401383.2019.1581116




Dr. Missy Wheeler, NCC, ACS, is a remote, clinical assistant professor in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Sacred Heart University.  She has taught online for two other university clinical mental health counseling programs where she oversaw the teaching and revision of the Career Counseling course to online graduate students.  Her experience includes work in college career development centers, student success counseling, college student affairs, and academic advising.  Missy has been an active member of NCDA, serving on the Research Committee, the Committee on Diversity Initiatives & Cultural Inclusion, and the Leadership Academy Development Committee. She can be reached at Wheelerm2@sacredheart.edu and on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/melissa-wheeler-phd-counseloreducator/ and at the Sacred Heart Faculty page: https://www.sacredheart.edu/phonebook/melissa-wheeler.php


Dr. Janelle Cox is an Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator in the Mental Health Counseling Program at Bowie State University. She is also a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Approved Clinical Supervisor (ACS), Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), and Board Approved Clinical Supervisor in the State of Maryland. Dr. Cox is the CEO/Owner of Journey Counseling & Consulting, a practice focused on serving Black clients through telehealth mental health services. She can be reached at Jbettis@bowiestate.edu LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/janelle-bettis-lcpc-5b099a10/ Bowie State University Faculty page: https://bowiestate.edu/directories/faculty-and-staff-directory/jbettis.php


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