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Photo-Detectives: Connecting the Cross-Cultural With the Cross-Curricular

J. Sara Klatchko is an award-winning photojournalist who has worked for major publications worldwide, producing global stories that heighten understanding between cultures, communities and countries. Her work is developed into books and educational media—and often incorporates the photo-detective method of visual literacy.

By guest blogger J. Sara Klatchko

Everyone loves photographs. They remind us of where we've been, where we're going, and where we are right now. Photographs have the power to create, shape, and reflect our perceptions—and misconceptions—of the world. Yet, few people can 'read' an image, a startling fact considering the profusion of images that confront us everyday.

Knowing how to decipher an image—visual literacy—is a vitally important skill. It encourages young people to slow down and pay attention; to step back from the hyper skimming of the internet age, to look closely, to observe, to engage—skills that will set students down a path of deeper learning for a lifetime. Visual literacy is about understanding what we see—with our eyes, our minds, and our hearts.

And with a couple of distinct neurological pathways, it seems. According to recent findings, people observe and respond to the world with dual neural pathways: one for critical thinking, and the other for creative thinking. Although only one can be 'on' at any given time, these pathways appear to play off each other—something I witnessed a few years back when teaching a summer photojournalism workshop for kids.


We started by analyzing photos that, directly—or indirectly—portrayed momentous events or issues. Photographs filled with motion and emotion. Photos that changed the world. I wanted the kids to recognize the visual elements that made these images great. "What's the story?" I asked, as the first image was projected. Silence. "Who/what is the subject?" One or two hands raised tentatively.

I needed to be more specific. "Is there motion?" Heads nodded vigorously. Not good enough. "What kind of motion? Describe it." We were on a roll now. As fast as I asked questions, they fired answers back. "What kind of emotion? What's in the background? Everything in this photograph is there for a reason."

My questions and prompts—and some world-class photographs—transformed a roomful of antsy 8-14 year olds into eagle-eyed detectives who were now craning forward to study the images projected on the wall. With laser-like attention they explored, discovered, commented, discussed, argued, analyzed, and made assumptions about the image. Some of the more energetic kids may have been bouncing off the walls, but their eyes never left the images.

Throughout the room I could almost see neural pathways lighting up like pinball machines as creativity and critical thinking sparked off each other, triggering intense concentration, lively discussion—and a deep emotive response. It was the thrill of discovery. The deep sense of satisfaction of finding information on our own; putting together pieces of information, or 'evidence' to of finding the story—because when you find the story, you own it.

 "What happened right before the photographer took this shot?" I asked. "The clue is there. You can find it." Thirty kids studied the image with avid attention and the room was filled with waving hands and excited answers.

As a photojournalist and educator, I had been documenting the stories and situations of kids across the world—focusing on the global issues/concerns specific to the situation of one or two children, while incorporating the ordinary details of their everyday life. The stories showed cultural differences and universal similarities—and it was a phenomenal way to teach kids about the world.

Inspired by the exuberant response from the photojournalism workshop, I knew the stories could be more powerful—if they were more interactive. Students needed to get beyond the surface, to step INTO the story, into the life, the culture the situation of the child in the photo.

If classrooms could be flipped, I reasoned, so could stories. Especially photo-stories.

Visual Literacy
Enabling students to 'read' a photo—to become photo-detectives, could reverse the story-telling process. By finding and deciphering visual clues, students could step into a photo—and find the story themselves. And when you find it, you own it.

as_blog_namibia-447x630.jpgToday, 'photo-detectives' is an interactive visual literacy method, created specifically to help students decipher cross-cultural content in intercultural photographs (the method was partly developed through a two-year partnership with MAGPI/Penn)—but also applicable to all visual arts. Guided by specific sets of questions, students looking at intercultural images can find a wealth of information in the details; a region's environment, economy, and culture may be found in the color of a river, a mode of transportation, a gesture or facial expression.

Finding—and deciphering—visual clues gives students skills that are invaluable in every aspect of their lives. It teaches them to differentiate assumption from fact, to connect the local and global, and to draw conclusions based on what they see (not what they assume). If being visually literate means understanding what you see, global photo-detectives are well on the path to better understanding the world.

When using images of kids across the world, the photo-detectives method helps students find cultural similarities and differences through visual clues such as gesture, clothes, objects—even expression—and connect this information to their own story.

Time-strapped teachers can do this for periods as short as 15 minutes each week, on a photo-by photo basis, or in longer segments—usually 30 minutes at a time, for longer photo-stories. Either way, learning to find and decipher visual clues is an invaluable skill—one that transforms observational and analytical skills—and deepens the learning experience across the curriculum.

Whether using the method for short bursts, or incorporating it into various curriculum subjects, the process is almost always an ongoing and collaborative one, requiring shared input and insights. It encourages students to articulate emotions and feelings—and helps them see things from different—global—perspective. It's a process that invariably generates plenty of lively discussions.

Being a photo-detective is also about the thrill of exploration and discovery, one that can have students "literally jumping out of their seats to ask and answer questions," according to Dr. Donna DeGennaro, founder and director of Unlocking Silent Histories. She recalled that the excitement continued long after the school day had finished. "Even at home, students raved about the program—one parent even arranged to come in and view the program. Very seldom do I see designed learning experiences invoke this much enthusiasm."

Enthusiasm is a key ingredient to helping students learn—and retain—knowledge. Lynne Tilley, a library media specialist at Comanche Elementary School in Oklahoma, recently told me about a student who remembered the photo-stories years after they were presented. "They were the only stories she remembered from grade school—and she remembered every photo!"

The photo-detective method is almost deceptively simple: it starts with a photograph—and a question, which can sometimes be as straightforward as "What's the story?"

Like wisdom, empathy isn't something that can be handed to students. But photo-detectives can discover both when a savvy teacher's prompts and questions can guide them through real-world images, helping them to see and understand the world from entirely new perspectives.

Too often, global concerns like immigration, water, and conflict can appear abstract and hard to grasp. But when depicted in photographs—especially those showing how children are affected, these issues suddenly snap into sharp focus. When young people see—and decipher—real-world images and photos of humanity, they recognize that they too are a part of this great overarching story of the world. Their world.

How to be a Photo-Detective in Seven Steps

Step One: The Five Essential Questions
Reading a photo is like digging—you start at the top and work your way down. Everything in a photograph is there for a reason—the action, lighting, expression, composition, objects, emotion—every visual element has meaning and context.

By starting with the "five essential questions," educators help their students start digging for information, search for clues, and look carefully and critically at various parts of the photo.

What information can be conveyed by:

  1. Background?
  2. Objects?
  3. Clothing?
  4. Gestures (actions)?
  5. Expression?

Here's an example of the wealth of information that can be found just by looking at objects in a photo. The objects (things) shown in a photograph offer important clues about the story, culture, geography&mdah;everything! What the photographer chooses to leave in the picture—and why—is also a question of framing. Everything in the picture is there for a reason: to convey information about the story, the culture, the subject. Ask your students to list and describe the objects.


From the image on the right, with the river:

  • What's an object you see? A river
  • How could you describe the river? Wide, slow-moving, muddy-red
  • Why would the river be this color? Excessive rain (it is the rainforest) and logging cause erosion along riverbanks.

Innovative teachers have used the questions in various ways. Shellie Wilson, a 4th grade teacher and curriculum teacher on special assignment (TOSA) at Diamond Path Elementary School of International Studies in Minneapolis, wanted her students to better understand inquiry with a primary source. She had students examine one photo at a time and tell what they learned about it. "They made a chart with the heading, 'I notice/I wonder' for each photograph ... and each of the 5 essential questions." She noted that before, when asking students to analysis a photograph, they didn't really know what to look for. Asking those five questions gave them a focal point.

The five essential questions also help transform the visual detail into strong descriptive language. Because photographs are so specific, they are a great way to generate really good writing—because of intercultural content, they are writing about different cultures and countries, different situations and landscapes.

Step Two: More Visual Elements
as-blog-surfers-667x442.jpgThe next set of questions examines various other visual elements—each image contains different visual elements, which could include angle (perspective), light, composition, scale, color, and perspective. I came up with about 18 visual elements—brainstorm with your students to see how many they can come up with.

How many can you (and your students) find? And what part do they play in telling the story?

Step Three: Connecting Cultures
Connecting cultures should take place throughout the process of investigating photos. Educators should raise questions or discussions that highlight cultural similarities/differences, from ordinary objects, to clothes, food, feelings, and emotions.

The Kids Across the World photo-stories were created to reveal both cultural differences, and universal similarities—and finding these important characteristics should be intrinsic to deciphering any image from any source—for teachers who want to infuse their curriculum with international content.

Step Four: Connecting Curriculum
By coupling cross-cultural explorations with cross-curricular ones, the photo-detectives method can tie into various curriculum subjects. For example, Shellie Wilson used Kids Across the World: Immigrants and Refugees, in four half-hour sessions for her unit on immigration.

Other teachers, like Lynn Tilley, used the photo-detective method to analyze historic photos, like Dorothea Lange's work from the Depression era, and even paintings, to better teach subjects such as history and social studies.

Intercultural images almost always seamlessly tie into world cultures, language arts, and geography, but specific questions can often link an image's content and detail to curriculum subjects across the board.

The photo-detective method is also a phenomenal way to get students to write. When students make a list of things in a photo, remind them that nouns love pronouns and that verbs feel lonely without an adverb. While vocabulary depends on age, writing about photos can challenge students to push the envelope and come up with creative ways to describe what they are seeing and analyzing.

Intercultural images often have content that can infuse almost any curriculum subjects with take almost any subject into the arena of global education.

Step Five: Assumptions vs. Fact
Because photographs are specific, they are great way to help photo-detectives differentiate between assumption and fact.

Photo-detectives need to find real 'evidence'—concrete details and facts rather than assumptions—to help them interpret information and draw conclusions (the story). Delineating between assumptions and facts builds great critical thinking skills in students!

as-blog-china-850x1084.jpgStep Six: Feelings and Emotions
As students delve deeper into an image, teachers should encourage them to articulate their feelings and emotions. What does the image remind them of? Have they ever experienced anything similar? Bringing personal experiences into the story can help the teacher create a safe space that allows students to discuss the feelings and emotions an image evokes—both their own and those they imagine the child/subject in the photo may have (and why).

Step Seven: Different Perspectives and Empathy
This last step is a natural progression from the previous step on "feelings and emotions." If the photo features a person, especially a young person, have students write—either individually or in groups—from the viewpoint of the photo subject. One possible beginning could be "My life as...."

Photographs are a fantastic way to help students to experience the world from a different perspective—to try to understand how another person feels—and why. Not only is it an invaluable tool for conflict resolution, but it gives students both global perspectives and the ability to step into the shoes of another child in another country and culture. Now that's good detective work.

Answers to the photo-detective questions in the images above can be found on J. Sara Klatchko's website

Images courtesy (and copyright of) J. Sara Klatchko.

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