Academic journal article English Journal

Photos as Witness: Teaching Visual Literacy for Research and Social Action

Academic journal article English Journal

Photos as Witness: Teaching Visual Literacy for Research and Social Action

Article excerpt

A photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes-just sometimes-one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought.

-W. Eugene Smith, photojournalist

On the cover of our ninth-grade core nonfiction text, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, is a photograph of Henrietta Lacks. In the prologue to the book titled "The Woman in the Photograph," Skloot explains how this photograph inspired her to find out about the woman behind the cells and the contribution that HeLa cells made to science:

There's a photo on my wall of a woman I've never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It's the late 1940s and she hasn't yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her-a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is "Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson" . . . . I've spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she'd think about it. (1)

Skloot's curiosity drives a decade-long investigation into the story behind the photo of Henrietta Lacks, in which she uncovers the ethical dilemmas surrounding the use of the HeLa cell in the medical industry as well as the racial and economic inequities that underlie the Lacks children's lifelong struggles. Specifically, at the heart of Skloot research is the story of Deborah Lacks, who becomes the voice behind Skloot's call to action.

Although Skloot discovered Henrietta Lacks's photo in a science textbook, our historical memories are filled with images taken by journalists committed to preserving moments in history that inform and challenge. Their photos act as witnesses with "tales to tell" that evoke our curiosity, elicit our emotions, and urge us to care about and take action for a cause. After we finish The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, students mimic Skloot's research by choosing an iconic or award-winning photograph of their choice that represents a current local, national, or global issue. The purpose of this media literacy- based research paper is to explore photojournalism as a catalyst for social action. Students investigate both the story behind the photo-the context, the subject, and the photographer-and the opposing viewpoints on the social issue it represents. Ultimately, the research guides students toward a call to action that reflects the best interests of the subject in their photo and urges others to work toward a solution to the issue.

Ethics in Photojournalism

I have the great privilege of being both witness and storyteller.

-Jim Goldberg, photographer

In the age of social media, adolescents process hundreds of visual images every day without actively questioning the authorship, intended audience, credibility, or purpose of these images. During our photo research paper, one of my students contacted Don Bartletti, a Pulitzer Prize- winning photojournalist for his documentary photo essay "Bound to El Norte-Enrique's Journey" depicting undocumented Central American youth riding through Mexico to the US border atop freight trains. After exchanging several emails with my student, Bartletti wrote a personal email to me speaking to the value of this assignment:

I applaud your goal of encouraging students to carefully examine a good photograph for its storytelling details. Our web research here at the [Los Angeles Times] has shown that most photos get a second or less attention. Can you believe that? In this age of instant visual satisfaction, I think people get addicted to YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and other social media yet they're visually illiterate. …

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