Photo Contests and Study Abroad


A year ago, I posted about photography in study abroad in a blog entry focused on students and travelers. Since then, I have continued to think about this topic and engage in discussion with peers and colleagues and have seen that many institutions are failing their students by not taking the opportunity to use the study abroad photo contest as a tool for deeper engagement.

There is certainly a push in international education today to focus on ethics. NAFSA’s Statement of Ethical Principles states that “We, international educators, declare our commitment to the following statement of ethical principles to… inspire international educators to infuse all of their work with ethical principles and practices.”

The Forum on Education Abroad also mentions in its Code of Ethics for Education Abroad that institutions should engage host societies while demonstrating “awareness of the program’s impact on the local community, a commitment to creating sustainable local relationships that are mutually beneficial, and an effort to minimize any negative effects on the host country.

Additionally, a publication from the Center for Capacity-Building in Study Abroad synthesizes a key goal of global learning by stating that “the goals of democracy, freedom, equality, justice, and peace encompass the globe and demand deep understanding from multiple perspectives. Such problems can effectively integrate student learning across the essential learning outcomes, demonstrating for students the deep connections between knowledge, skills, and personal and social responsibility. And study abroad can provide a laboratory experience for exploring these connections.”

If these are some of the accepted goals and responsibilities of our work, then do we not have the responsibility as international educators to ensure that every program, even something as seemingly trivial as a photo contest, involves discussion and integration of ethical practices and personal/social responsibility?


When thinking about how an institution’s study abroad photo contest address these issues, it might be helpful to consider:

  • Does the photo contest involve any information, guidelines, or requirements that discuss ethics in photography and the need for cultural sensitivity?
  • Do students have the opportunity to submit photographs that might have been taken without the subjects’ permission? Are students held accountable to their social responsibility in the process of their photos?
  • Does the photo contest include categories that are challenging and involve reflection? Involve a description of student learning from the catalyst for the photograph? Connect the photograph with intercultural competencies? Allow students to reflect on personal growth?
  • Are the photographs judged in a way that takes student learning into consideration, or is a simple voting process that may result in prizes awarded for aesthetics or for being able to engage friends through social media to get the “most votes?” (which can denigrate into a popularity contest)?
  • Do students have the opportunity and responsibility to go beyond stereotypes in their submissions?
  • Is the photo contest structured in a way that discourages students from “Othering,” or depicting a culture or host country in a neocolonial gaze that represents culture through a colorful picture of a minority or low-socioeconomic group without understanding or reflecting on the implications of their actions and portrayal?

There are some very simple ways of creating intentionally-designed, ethical photo contests that do not create considerably more time and effort from an often busy study abroad office. For example, The Center for Global Initiatives at UNC-Chapel Hill has a model that would be relatively easy to adapt in other programs and that addresses many of the questions above. The instructions include guidelines for taking culturally sensitive photos, they allow a caption, and the criteria are simple—entries must convey knowledge, explore the under-represented in traditional media, and demonstrate artistic merit.

Duke University’s Global Education Office’s photo and video contest is another model that brings in key elements of global learning, as is indicated by the program’s mission:

GEOReflects challenges students to examine their time away from Duke by bridging artistic expression and educational experience. Through photography and video, GEOReflects encourages students to use their off-campus experience to develop a deeper understanding of other people and of themselves. The contest seeks work that challenges perceptions of life in a host community and creatively conveys the student’s experience.

Rather than use categories, the instructions for students are simple: they require a 100-200 word reflection, and the work must “creatively convey and reflect on an aspect of your experience in a host culture. The camera becomes a tool for deeper engagement and understanding.”

Other ways to enhance global learning and ethics in photo contests might include:

  • Revising categories so they include prompts such as “My culture shock,” “My proudest moment,” or “The most important person during my time abroad.” Combined with a reflective caption, this can invite articulation of learning while also creating tools for marketing or even training. For example—the “culture shock” moment photographs and reflections might be a useful tool for a training for faculty who are leading programs abroad for the first time. An example of a student’s “proudest moment” abroad with a quote about empowerment might be more effective on a brochure than a simple image of a student with their university t-shirt in front of the Great Wall of China.
  • Requiring a non-artistic photo (even a “selfie”) of the student posing with his or her subject if they submit a photo of an individual. This requirement would ensure that the student at least engaged with his or her subject, and demonstrates that they had permission to take the photo.
  • Including a statement of ethics, similar to the UNC model, to bring awareness of the need for ethics and photography abroad, and making a quick reference to this at the pre-departure orientation to get students thinking about the implication of their actions.

In the world of higher education plagued with budget cuts and politics, the Study Abroad photo contest is often relegated to a marketing tool that hasn’t changed with the times. Making changes to engage students in global learning through intentionally-designed programming is a cost-effective way to reach students and inspire reflection, engage ethically with the host culture, and work towards institutions’ goals for education abroad outcomes.


About the Author:  Katy Rosenbaum is an Innovation Associate at Melibee Global.  You can read more about her here.