Like many academic studies, international affairs and human rights have a strong focus on written materials. However, the use of photography can help to better assess the material, to deal with it empathetically and to gain insights into the diverse forms of visual representation of politics, society, economy and culture – especially in the media.
Photography can help students bridge issues that feel distant and abstract, be it in time, geography, or culture. It is a particularly helpful tool for cultural education. It can provide insights into individuals and communities that existed before, during, and after a specific historical and political event, such as a war or genocide. In this way, it can humanize history and make it more vivid and perceptible.
We live in a world that is inundated with images, so educators need to carefully curate photography. They need to find photographic resources that address the specific topics their courses explore, in a way that encourages discussion and understanding of complex issues.
How to choose images that encourage discussion and understanding
It is important to take care to provide students with photography from a variety of sources to allow for a variety of perspectives. to ensure that photos do not exploit their subjects; and that they come from organizations that adhere to ethical codes of photojournalism and high standards of ethical reporting integrity.
Photos need to be shared with students in a way that contextualizes them historically and politically, allows for critical perspectives and questions, and facilitates discussion and analysis, rather than presenting dogmas and didactics.
Photos can complement texts in a meaningful way, but they cannot replace the detailed, differentiated and extensive knowledge of the scientific literature, which is a prerequisite for further scientific studies.
In my teaching, I generally combine photos with the scientific content they illustrate. For example, in a class on children’s rights and wellbeing, I would provide students with links to photographs that illustrate the subject while they read basic scholarly texts on the subject. The same is true for historical subjects, where the use of photography can bring to life themes such as civil rights movements, colonization and its aftermath, war and refugees fleeing conflict and violence.
Photographs as an educational tool
Photojournalism covering wars and humanitarian crises such as those in Yemen, Afghanistan, China, Syria, Ethiopia and now Ukraine helps students see current events through the eyes of the individuals and communities experiencing them.
Reporting on ongoing challenges such as authoritarianism and government corruption, causing starvation and medical shortages in Venezuela, for example, allows for the personalization of injustices and government failures that, due to their chronic nature, risk being forgotten.
Photography allows educators to expose their students to self-representative images of people in marginalized groups who rarely have the opportunity to control their own representations, including women; ethnic, racial and sexual minorities; and indigenous peoples.
This is a valuable opportunity to critically examine the differences between popular depictions of such communities and individuals and their self-depictions – and what this illustrates about the role of power, politics and prejudice in photography, journalism and media culture in general.
In all these ways, photography is a powerful complement to books, scholarly articles, journalism, first-hand accounts, audio and video. It provides an opportunity to discuss and analyze the way events, conflicts, problems and communities are portrayed, and the implications for global affairs, public order and human rights.
Useful sources for photojournalism
A helpful resource is the weekly newspaper Guardian Photographic global summary presenting images from around the world dealing with a wide range of human rights issues. The guard also regularly offers themed photo essays on its website, many of which are relevant to international affairs and human rights. By offering free and full access to his journalism worldwide, The guard offers a unique, accessible resource.
Other worthwhile sources for photography are The Christian Science Monitor Weekly Magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, CNN, National Geographic and the BBC.
Noam Schimmel is an Associate Professor of International and Area Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
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