Analysis of Signs and Symbols of Caring and Nurturing in Photographs of Female Teachers

Nov. 03, 2014

Source: Journal of Visual Literacy 33(2):53-74. 


This study explores how teachers visualize their professional persona. It is based on six case studies of female teachers in Israel, who photographed themselves at work, focusing on images of ideal situations of teaching. The study explores the self-perceptions of the teachers, which led to the construction of the images, by analysis of the signs and visual information in the photographs and through interviews. Uses of body language, visual expressions of physical proximity to pupils and visual signs of gender, are related to. The notion of teaching as a practice of caring is discussed in its relation to visual feminine attributes.


The aim of this study is to investigate how school teachers in Israel perceive their role in their work place, by means of analysis of photographs they took of themselves at work. The analysis is aimed at understanding how self-perceptions of professional personas are expressed visually. This study is based on six school teachers, who were all first year, graduate students, studying Visual literacy in an M.Ed program in Tel Aviv, Israel. They were required to create photographs of themselves in their work place, focusing on ideal images of teaching. The photographs were taken in various locations in and out the schools and during different activities. The analysis of the photographs and related narratives explored the use of signs and symbols in the photographs, chosen by the teachers. It was aimed at understanding and decoding the overt and covert messages conveyed in the photographs in relation to their narratives. The study explores how these photographs can present nuances and unarticulated issues, related to the practice and profession of teaching. The observation of the photographs raised discussions regarding feminine attributes of teaching, of teaching as a practice of caring, and how this relates to the profession of teaching in the eyes of female teachers.



The analysis of the photographs produced an insight as to how the teachers perceive themselves and how they are able to present themselves to the public. The photographs present suggestions and possible readings, each photograph in this research is an ‘incomplete utterance’, a message that depends on some external matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability, such as presented in this study (Sekula, 1982, p. 85). What the contextual framework of the study has brought to light is a phenomenon which is yet to be determined. Do female teachers ultimately choose to photograph themselves at work, professionally, with feminine attributes? Is this a conscious decision which is a result of sex typing and a result of the conception of the profession of teaching as a nurturing, caring profession, suitable for women? All in all, the teachers struggle with the notion of gender, either by embracing it or denying it, but the case studies in this research, the notion of gender was an underlying factor that was either addressed outwardly or indirectly. The notion of teaching of kindergarten children and elementary school children is associated with caring and nurturing; it is associated with teaching historically and culturally and is accepted by the teachers themselves as part of the definition of their role, as described in their narratives. The photographs show that the teachers embrace these notions in a physical form and that they constitute a strong part of their self-perception and personification of female teachers in their work place.


The framework of the study integrated a process of construction of self-portraits as a means of self-investigation, aiming amongst other things, to enable the teachers to claim control over images of teachers in schools, which can lead to personal empowerment in the work environment. This can be achieved by influencing decision making regarding images of teachers at schools in Israel, rather than leaving this to the school board to determine how teachers should be photographed. Friere (1970) calls this a “process of self- awareness through collective self-inquiry and reflection (in Denzin and Lincoln, 1994, p. 328). Over the years, many participants in the course have gone through a process of self-investigation and reflection as to how they are presented in the school media and public relations, and in the eyes of the staff and public in general. The feedback that I have received from them is that the process has changed their attitude and opened their eyes. Some have incorporated changes in the schools’ conventions of documenting teachers and have introduced immediate changes in the school website, so that the choice of photographs is carried out in accord with the teachers themselves. This raises the hope that the visual platform of presenting teachers in schools will be considered, thought out and done with respect and appreciation of the needs of the teachers.

Updated: Jan. 28, 2015