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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Using Media to Portray the Experiences and Perspectives of Displaced People

Learning Targets

  • I can examine photographs and the descriptions of the images written by the photographer to understand the context of where and when a historical event occurred.
  • I can explain how photographs shape attitudes about events, people, or places.
  • I can determine a public awareness message that will inform about the plight of displaced people and then select an image and text that accurately presents that message.
  • I can formulate questions to deepen my understanding of events and historic phenomena.


Displaced people are associated with many stereotypes, and these ideas permeate media culture. Photography, associated with evidentiary truth and the direct portrayal of the real world, has a special function in shaping attitudes. Studies have found that stereotypes, hate speech, and political rhetoric often influence journalists, and thus audiences are not provided with the full story or journalists overlook the story altogether.

In visual media, photographs and captions may function to support these ideas through various tropes and common formal techniques. Instead of a humanitarian situation, or a phenomenon that has broad and complex roots within political, economic, and social histories, the large numbers of poor displaced people are often labeled as a “crisis” and accompanying photographs can suggest an “invasion.” Displaced people are sensationally characterized as “swarms” or “flooding” into Europe and America. Audiences perceive these populations as threats to their economic livelihood and culture. Photographs vividly portray boats filled with people or long lines. Aerial photographs of large groups create the perception of untold numbers. Race is an important factor here: Displaced people are overwhelmingly non-white people. Media outlets may use a single photograph of a crowd to illustrate a news item, without recognizing the myriad life stories contained in that image. In other words, these media features tend to lump all displaced people together.

Grade Level

  • High School


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

The subject of refugees is one topic that demonstrates the need for more critical media literacy and media habits. As media consumers access, analyze, evaluate, and create their own media content, they need to be aware of how we consume media, and the underlying stereotypes, biases, and political agendas that influence and shape stories about the refugee issue.

At the same time, visual evidence provided by satellite images made through geovisualization techniques can also be crucial to understanding the scale and impact of conflict and displacement. For example, human rights organizations used evidence from the integrative online site Eyes on Darfur in their advocacy work. Today, smartphones allow refugees to make their own images. Using sites such as Instagram, refugees can document their journeys and tell their stories themselves. In refugee camps, photography is also used as a creative outlet and as a therapeutic tool.

Questions to Consider

  • What is a common challenge that externally displaced people face?
  • What is a common challenge that internally displaced people face?
  • How can images and descriptive captions help others learn about displaced people?
  • What roles can photographs play in informing the public about refugees and displacement?

Begin the Activity

Photographs are often used in awareness campaigns as info-graphics to help the public learn about an important cause or situation. The impact of adding text and signage to a photograph helps project a very specific message. Have students view the photographs and consider how one could be used in an awareness campaign to help send a message about displacement, statelessness, or refugees.

In this activity, students will create posters and present them to classmates with an explanation about an event, and why a particular image and message was a good choice for shaping public opinion. Students may want to research a challenge facing refugees in the community or city where they live, or they could explore a challenge facing displaced persons in another city or community. Working in pairs or on their own, have students follow these five steps:

  1. Research photographs that have been designated for this activity about a modern day example of displacement. These questions will guide their research:
    1. What modern example of displacement are you selecting?
    2. What are the main causes for this displacement? What populations are impacted?
    3. Where did this happen?
    4. Recall the differences between “deficit thinking” and “strength-based thinking” in Activity 2. What strengths do the people depicted in your example need or already have?
    5. What is the status of these people today? What does the future hold?
    6. What public awareness message do you want to get across to the world about these people? Do you seek to inform or educate? Or do you want your audience to do something specific (write a letter, make a donation, etc.)?

When developing your message, be aware of statistics. These could be used as text for your poster. Similarly, be aware of any quotations that inspire you, because you could add those words directly to your poster.

  1. Have students select the image for their public awareness message. An authentic reason for students to engage in this activity is the annual World Refugee Day, organized by the United Nations. Student posters could be focused on providing information for this day. World Refugee Day is always on June 20th. This also coincides with Africa Refugee Day. The United Nations provides the following description of this important day of awareness: “In a world where violence forces hundreds of families to flee each day, the Refugee Agency believes now is the time to show world leaders that the global public stands with refugees…” Governments will be asked to ensure the following:
  • Every refugee child gets an education.
  • Every refugee family has somewhere safe to live.
  • Every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.

You can find more information about specific events during a particular year at Students can also track this by using the hashtag: #WithRefugees

  1. Over the course of its history, the UNHCR has created many image campaigns to raise awareness about the plight of refugees. Have students look at the following examples from the UNHCR campaign “What would you do?”, and then have them consider how to display their message on the image they selected. Consider these examples:
  • #10046

    UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

  • #10048

    UNHCR/Olivier Laban-Mattei

  1. At this point in the activity, allow time for the students to begin designing their public awareness poster and message. As mentioned in Step 2, these can be focused on World Refugee Day. Have students crop their image, insert text, and design a poster that will educate the public about refugees/statelessness/displacement. The poster should be their attempt to show their thinking about the six questions in Step 1 at the start of this activity. Each student (or pair) can present their poster/message to the class, or post the poster in the hallway for others in the school to read. They can be assessed by determining how well they represented the plight of the people in the photograph.
  2. As a culminating activity, engage the students in a classroom conversation on what they learned about images, messages, and the effect of photographs. The following prompts should help initiate this discussion:
    1. How does photography shape our understanding of the struggles facing people around the world?
    2. How does the vantage point of a photograph help to establish a mood or tone?
    3. How does the position of the subjects in the composition influence how we relate to the subject matter?
    4. How does a poster on awareness have more impact than statistics or written descriptions?

Extension Activities

  1. Have students read selections from an online graphic novel titled Meet the SomalisThis novel was produced by the Open Society Initiative. Based on interviews with refugees living in Europe in 2013, Meet the Somalis is a collection of 14 illustrated stories that depict the real-life experiences of Somalis in seven cities in Europe: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Leicester, London, Malmö, and Oslo.Additional texts include:
    1. Lost Boys of Sudan (2003) by Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk, which is about the lives of two young men who were orphaned boys of the Dinka tribe of Sudan and displaced during the Sudan civil war.
    2. City of Thorns (2016) by Ben Lawrence, a book about life in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, located in Kenya.

    After reading, students can begin to think about novels, historical fiction, documentaries, and graphic novels as literary genres that can help inform the public about an important issue. Using Meet the Somalis as an example, have students design and write a photo essay about the life of a displaced person. Their imaginary photo essay should include eight images, each with a one or two sentence caption. Students should first identify a person as the subject for the essay. What age and what gender is this person? Where does this person live? What was their life like before their displacement? What caused their displacement? What was their journey like (if they are not internally displaced)? Do they live with family? What is their status? What are their challenges, worries, and hopes?

  2. Ask students to imagine that they are leaving their home and country in less than seven days. They are not going on vacation or officially moving, but need to quickly pack with very small expectations of returning home. Have them think of five items that they would bring with them; they would have to be able to carry all five things at the same time. Have students share why they would select each item. Ask the entire class to share their items, and try to come to a consensus about how people decided on the items to bring.

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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