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5 Ways to Engage Learners with Photography

May 14, 2021 2021-05-14

By Cleary Vaughan-Lee and Elizabeth O. Crawford

One photograph can tell a unique and compelling story, capturing a specific moment in time and offering students opportunities to examine themselves and the world. Learning with photography can support meaningful self-inquiry, creativity, imagination, and expression in students’ lives, especially during challenging times. Photography can be used as a powerful tool for teaching and learning in the classroom and beyond.

At the Global Oneness Project, the medium of photography is used to explore global issues and cultures in the classroom, as well as highlight student voices. The Project’s photo essays document themes including human rights, cultural displacement, environmental justice, sustainability, and climate change. Through ongoing student photography contests, including their current contest “The Spirit of Reciprocity,” the Project challenges students to document their place on the planet, encouraging students to become active citizens and witnesses to the rapidly changing world.

Through photography, students are not only documenting social and environmental changes to their homes and communities, they are also capturing their personal and cultural heritage stories. For example, 16-year-old Gianna Leung from Mississauga, Canada, captured a photograph of a small clay teapot, an entry to the Project’s international photography contest, “The Artifacts in Our Lives.” Leung describes that the teapot has always been a part of her home and a part of her immigrant parents’ story. She writes, “Artifacts are a physical manifestation of the stories of our roots and are symbols we can see, hold, and experience for ourselves.”

Whether you are teaching in person, virtually, or implementing blended learning, integrating photography in the classroom is accessible and adaptable for multiple subjects and grade levels. Based on our work with educators, below are five ways to use photography to effectively nurture empathy, challenge perspectives, and foster connection in students’ lives.

1. Make Global to Local Connections
Photographs can help learners make sense of their local communities and draw meaningful comparisons to distant places. For example, students studying the effects of COVID-19 on health-care workers may examine photographs by National Geographic journalists taken close to home when air travel was not possible. By comparing the pandemic’s impacts to those in their local communities, students glean universal implications, such as distress, exhaustion, insomnia, and resilience.

2. Inspire Environmental Stewardship
A photograph has a unique way of connecting us to place and time, as well as provoking conversations around critical ecological issues. Biologist and nature photographer Paul Nicklen, for example, documents remote, extreme environments like the polar regions and endangered land and sea animals with the goal of raising awareness of the impacts of climate change. Beautiful photographs draw people in, he explains. Through greater analysis, however, they teach us about fragile, interconnected ecosystems and inspire us to protect them.

3. Bear Witness to History
Since its invention, photography has helped us understand and interpret the world. At the end of 2020, National Geographic published “2020: The Year in Pictures” with 54 photographs from an “unforgettable” year. Photographs document the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and climate change, from the desert locusts swarming East Africa to wildfires in California. Photographic analysis tools and discussion prompts from the Library of Congress, The National Archives, the Annenberg Foundation, and Facing History and Ourselves support students of all ages to connect to and understand historical eras and events. Susan Thomson and Kayenta Williams (2008) explain the power of photographs for historical inquiry: They offer “a richness that words alone often cannot accomplish...concise captions normally take the place of narrative written material, giving the photographs the opportunity to speak for themselves.”

4. Gain New Perspectives
How might a single photograph shape students’ perceptions and ways of thinking about the world? The following resources are recommended photography sites that encourage students to consider the medium of photography through the lens of art, history, and science:

5. Photography as a Catalyst for Social Justice
Photography can serve as a form of activism. For example, in 2015, photographer Devin Allen photographed the Baltimore protests for Time Magazine after the death of Freddie Gray. The photograph he took resembled photographs taken in 1968. Allen took photos this past year during the George Floyd protests and, as a young photographer, he encourages individuals to see the Black Lives Matter movement beyond the media. He said, “Black Lives Matter is beyond a hashtag.” Use the International Center of Photography’s resource on integrating photography in the classroom with a lens on social justice. Their teacher’s guide contains learning activities and exhibition images from their collection, challenging students to identify social justice issues and be a part of the solution.

Closing Thoughts
There are many benefits and approaches educators can use to bring photography into the curriculum. Photographs can uniquely evoke an emotional response in learners, such as joy, curiosity, or empathy, as well as invite them to ask questions and investigate deeper meanings beyond first impressions. Importantly, photographs are also highly accessible for emerging readers or English language learners. Further, when selecting images that connect to students’ lives, teaching can become more culturally responsive, nurturing trust between educators and students. As with any curricular tool or resource, we encourage teachers to use their knowledge of learners when selecting appropriate photographs to forge connection, exploration, and deeper understanding of themselves and our planet.

Additional Resources: Photography as a Tool for Teaching and Learning

  1. 9 Photo Composition Tips” with photographer Steve McCurry, YouTube video by COOPH
  2. Lori Wenziger, “A Middle School Photography Project That Develops Interpersonal Skills,” Edutopia, August 19, 2020
  3. Marybeth Jackson, “Photography Can Transform Students’ Perspectives,” EdWeek, April 9, 2015
  4. The Power of Making Thinking Visible, by Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church
  5. Cooperative of Photography (COOPH) YouTube Channel

Arts Environmental Education Global Awareness

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