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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Examining Common Attitudes and Perceptions of Refugees Through Photographs

Learning Targets

  • I can identify similarities and differences of displaced people and groups across the earth.
  • I can describe the role that community and culture play for all people.
  • I can explain how a sense of community and culture is threatened for displaced persons.


Note: Sections of this background are taken from the Collection introduction because they support the learning targets of this activity.

Resettled refugees must remake their lives in new settings far different from their homelands. Refugees face the trauma of forced separation from family, friends, and homeland; difficulty covering basic needs; anxiety about their lack of control over their future; financial uncertainty; social marginalization; feelings of loss of dignity due to dependence on welfare and social agencies; and the stigma and negative perceptions of refugees in host countries, among other issues. Refugees’ inability to find employment, compounded by language barriers, can often lead to depression. This is especially the case for male refugees coming from patriarchal societies where familial expectations fall heavily upon them.

According to the Cultural Orientation Resource Center, in general terms, the Syrian society is patriarchal, and everyone is under the protection and authority of the oldest man. Women are believed to be in need of protection, particularly from the attention of unrelated men. The fear of sexual violence from other refugees or host country nationals may cause refugee women and girls to stay home, only venturing outside — such as to go to classes or other appointments — when accompanied by other family members.

 Grade Level

  • High School


  • Geography
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • World History

Violence is a major and real problem for female refugees. Refugee women are extremely vulnerable to sexual assault and exploitation, including rape. Displaced women may also be coming from countries where they had little or no access to education or job training, and they will require special programming to help them overcome these barriers. Refugee youth may lack stable housing, or face cultural, linguistic, and educational barriers, which means they are often not in school or employed.

Religious services have been shown to help refugees cope and provide a sense of community. According to the UNHCR, “Praying was the first resource to deal with emotional distress by providing them with peace. Religious practices and structures helped to reconstruct a social network by meeting others and providing participants with information to access work or to obtain practical support.”

Non-profits such as Refugee Transitions develop programs to help refugees in their new countries. For instance, refugees created a narrative cookbook through which they told their stories.

In addition to faith-based organizations and resettlement programs, the Internet can also play a vital role in helping refugees to maintain a sense of community connection. Being able to check the news from home and communicate with other refugees can have a tremendous impact on well-being. In recent years, aid organizations have recognized the contribution online communities can have. For example, REFUNITE offers online profiles similar to Facebook, where refugees can search for lost family members.

In helping adults to become comfortable in the new culture, young people make a real contribution. Children are immediately immersed in the new culture through the school system and can help older family members navigate in the new setting. They work as “interpreters” of the cultural habits and norms in the new country. They often are the ones to introduce other family members to the Internet and social networks.

Questions to Consider

  • How is each situation of displaced people unique?
  • What similarities do all displaced people experience?
  • What role do community and culture play in our daily lives?

Begin the Activity

Place students in groups of three or four, and then hand out a pair of photographs to each group.


  • 10004 and 10027
  • 10022 and 10025
  • 10008 and 10019
  • 10043 and 10024
  • 10021 and 10030
  • 10042 and 10012
  • 10038 and 10018
  • 10031 and 10003
  • 10031 and 10004

Ask students to complete a Venn diagram of the two photographs, where one circle has unique aspects to one photograph, the second circle has unique aspects to the second photograph, and the overlap has where the two photographs are similar. For example, and using general terms, a Venn diagram might look like the following example:

Note: When students produce their diagrams, push them to extract specific information from the images. “Location” and “ethnicity” above are too vague; they are used only as a placeholder. Have students find the specific location, ethnicity, etc. They will need some research time to find this level of detail.

After the groups of students have completed their diagrams, have each group partner with another group. (Be sure it is a group that looked at a different pair of photographs.) Have them focus on the similarities (the space where the two circles intersect), and then answer the question: Based on the similarities, what can we infer about displaced persons?

Community and Culture

A displaced person, a stateless person, a refugee, or anyone who has had their home or community changed must find new communities. Talk about the similarity of all displaced people in regard to losing their sense of home or community. Ask students to reflect on the following four-part question:

  1. How would losing your community and your culture impact you?
  2. What have you learned about the repercussions of losing community?
  3. What are some ideas for how displaced people might try to establish (or re-establish) a semblance of community and culture in their new location?
  4. What challenges do you think they will face when trying to re-establish community and culture?

Extension Activity

History suggests that countries and communities will continue to create situations and circumstances that displace people. While we hope to end humans’ actions such as wars, domestic violence, oppression, and displacement, the world will likely have to continue addressing these issues. Working in groups of four, have students draft a five-point “Declaration of the Rights of Displaced People.” To guide their thinking, have them consider these focus questions:

  • What do they think displaced people deserve?
  • What are basic human rights?
  • What rights are important for all displaced people, regardless of their place or situation?

Allow students time to examine their thinking. They may want to visit the United Nations website, which provides a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to help their thinking. Students should also think about the various photographs they have viewed in this activity. Have groups share their ideas with at least one other group of four to ensure that they are developing five important and relevant points. After each group has checked in with another group, have them write their five points on a sheet of poster paper, and then hang them up around the room.

If time, or if students express interest, conclude their thinking by having them research the mission statements of refugee humanitarian aid organizations and answer the question: How does the work of their chosen organization address the rights outlined in their declaration? For example, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world’s largest humanitarian network, and it reaches 150 million people in 190 national societies through the work of more than 17 million volunteers.

Series Directory

Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. © 2015
Photos downloaded from the Essential Lens site are cleared for educational use only. For other uses, please contact Annenberg Learner for permission.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-905-6