Power of the topical image

Discussing news pictures of people caught up in disasters stimulates thought and empathy, says Margaret Mackintosh

Children love stories of disaster, danger and daring, particularly if they are true stories about people. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes can provide topical true stories that are really good for primary geography. Children are curious about these events and share a certain excitement about them. As the stories can be told visually and spatially, using newspaper and television images, globes and maps, they can be accessible to most pupils.

Young children came to school with questions about the recent flooding in Mozambique, south-east Africa, in the early months of this year, after seeing television newspaper reports. The flooding provided dramatic photographs of human misfortune which made a powerful, dynamic resource for primary geography.

Positive images of people confronting adversity should be used to counter stereotyping and the dangers of what can be called "either-or" teaching: either a less-developed country, or like us. We know this categorisation is inappropriate but what do we do to address it? We all have similar basic needs and share more similarities than differences, yet we tend to stress the differences.

By looking at photographs of a topical event such as the Mozambique disaster and answering the questions who? where? when? how? why? children learn about localities elsewhere in the world, meet the "knowledge and understanding of place" statements of the national curriculum, and more. They use geographical enquiry and skills, learn about patterns and processes to do with weather and flooding, and about environmental change. But more importantly they can be helped to develop an empathy for the people involved - the woman stranded in a tree, the families on the rooftops, the lost children holding their portrait photographs, the family wading waist deep in water carrying teir one bag of belongings, the rescue helicopter pilot. Pupils can be helped to consider: "How do they feel? What are their needs, their worries, their immediate and longer-term future, their aspirations?" They should be asked: "How do you feel about this event? How would you feel if it was happening to you? Would you feel as they do?" The children will "read" the photographs individually, will have different feelings and attitudes, and some will be uncertain about what to think. They will be confronting the idea that there is no right way or wrong way, no right answer or wrong answer, no either-or. Probably they will be raising questions about how and why we construct stereotypes. Their responses will probably demonstrate how we are prepared to make judgments based on appearances, and readily extrapolate from judgments based on a single image. Teachers should challenge this.

At a practical level, collect press photographs of a disaster as it evolves. Encourage the children to label and raise questions about them, to provide or match captions, to sequence them to tell the story and to consider before and after (immediately, one, five, 10 years down the line). Explore issues of environmental change, quality of life, sustainable development - in flooding disasters there a strong curriculum links with "water and its effects on landscapes and people" - as they think about the people, and imagine themselves in their place.

Using dramatic photographs of topical disasters and questioning them sensitively can help young people develop empathy for the lives of people in different parts of the world, to dispel prejudice and counter stereotyping. But at the same time we must reassure them about the chances of similar things happening to them. They might begin to appreciate how fortunate they are and see their own lives rather differently.

Margaret Mackintosh is chair of the Geographical Association 's primary committee

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