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CYC-Online Issue 135 MAY 2010 / BACK
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Pictures of Praxis

Mark Krueger

It was a clear, spring day. Natalie had taken the rest of the group outside the treatment center to play. Maria, one of the girls was still in her room. She did not want to join the group. Kent, another worker, talked to Maria for a few moments. She got up from her chair. Together they went outside and joined the activity.

What Do Pictures Want? the Lives and Loves of Images is the title of a book by professor of art history and literature W.J.T. Mitchell, a scholar of images and their meanings. Recently I heard him speak. During the lecture he talked about how one way to look at images is with a fresh set of eyes, as philosopher Foucault had suggested. The viewer attempts to cast off preconceived notions, based on early interpretations or meanings, and instead looks at the picture for what it evokes. Or, said another way, the viewer tries see it for what it is for him or her with an open mind.

Last month I wrote on this same theme from another perspective. I referred to how many artists, philosophers and writers tried to see the world through the eyes of their child. This in part allowed them to look once again with innocence of a child. This was not to suggest that they could really attain this state again, but rather to say it was helpful to try. All of this reminds me of something I learned early in my child and youth care career: our subjective/objective observations of youth and what they do should be as free of stereotypes as we can make them. We were to report what we saw and felt, free of biases, academic jargon, and/or behavioral stereotypes. This of course is also good advice for the reflective researcher, searching for meaning and understanding in the images, pictures, and interpretations of his or her reflections. In good literature it is akin to the notion of making our work ring true.

Take the situation at the beginning for example. The challenge is to paint this picture with words the way it was, and then talk about it or interpret it for what it is in the context of that moment for that youth and adult. While we can never be free of our biases and histories, we can try to see it as innocently as we can before we “load” it up with analyses based on theory and professional interpretations.

Recently after rereading for my youth work class, Jennifer White’s (2008) chapter, Knowing, Doing and Being in Context: A Praxis-Oriented Approach to Child and Youth Care , in Standing on the Precipice: Inquiry into the Creative Potential of Child and Youth Care Practice, I thought how relevant this was to practitioners and researchers who wanted to show praxis, as White suggests, as a way of knowing, doing, and being grounded in responsible, ethical, self aware, and accountable process of action and interaction. If we want to know praxis, then we should try to show it as it is. According to Mitchell, at least the way I heard what he said, there are no models, boxes, or steps to fit this way of looking and understanding into because each picture, image, sketch stands for itself.

During a lengthy classroom discussion about touch we compared the White chapter to an article titled A Moral Praxis of Child and Youth Care (Magnuson, Baizerman and Singer, 2001) in which the authors speak about youth as an ends rather than the means as temporal agents of change. We interpreted this as meaning that our work was really about valuing and being in and with youth. To do this we had to take each incident of touch on its own merits and not attempt to apply or make rules that regulated touch. Our challenge was to first see a specific situation as it was as a way of knowing, doing, and being, and then let in some of our biases and the theories we had learned. These things are never separated of course but the challenge is first to try to see the situation as it was experienced, or show the picture: “the youth got up from the chair and joined the activity.” Or, “as the worker walked along he gently put his hand on her shoulder, removed it, and said I am glad you decided to come along,” in all its details with sensitivity to the meanings that worker and youth make of it as an every day event (Phelan, 2008; Ward, 2004) with youth.

So my answer to the question What Do Pictures Want? in child and youth care is they want to be themselves and we should try to accommodate them while trying to learn from and share our experiences. Showing our pictures in their natural state is at the heart of the development of our praxis.


Magnuson. D, Baizerman. M. and Stringer. A. (2001). A moral praxis of child and youth care work. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, 15-16. pp. 302-313.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2004) What do pictures want?: The lives and loves of images. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Phelan, J. (2008). Building developmental capacities: A developmentally responsive approach to child and youth care interventions. In Bellefeuille, G. and Ricks, F. (Eds.) Standing on the precipice: Inquiry into the creative potential of child and youth care. Edmonton, Alberta: Grant MacEwan Press.

Ward, A. (2004). Toward a theory of the everyday: The ordinary and the special in daily living in residential care. Child and youth care forum, 33, 3. pp. 209-227.

White, J. (2008). The knowing, doing, and being: A praxis-oriented approach to child and youth care. In Bellefeuille, G. and Ricks, F. (Eds.) Standing on the precipice: Inquiry into the creative potential of child and youth care practice. Edmonton, Alberta: Grant MacEwan Press.


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