Written by Julie Weiss
For students: We hope this two-page guide will help sharpen your reading skills and deepen your understanding of this issue’s articles.
For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from Saudi Aramco World, by teachers at any level, whether working in a classroom or through home study.
Analyzing Visual Images
In each edition of the “Reader’s Guide,” you analyze a visual image. With this edition, you can take the analysis a step further. “The World of His Choice,” which begins on page 24, starts with the idea that photographs have persuasive effects on viewers because they look real, and they persuade viewers that a small visual image presents “just facts,” or an accurate image of the world as it really is. But the truth is, Lee Lawrence writes, photographers, editors and archivists “mediate” reality for viewers. That is, they act as a go-between, choosing what part of reality to share with you, what part not to share, and how to present that part of reality. The questions below will help you explore how photographs work their persuasion on viewers like you. After you work with these ideas, you’ll have a chance to use them to analyze some photographs, using a new set of insights to guide you.
Do photographs simply make a visual record of the world?
Your immediate answer is probably, “Yes, of course.” But Lee Lawrence thinks otherwise. She quotes philosopher Vilém Flusser, “…photographs do not present the world as it is; rather, they enchant us into believing that the world is a certain way.” This can be a hard idea to get your head around. Try this: Look through a camera or an empty picture frame, or just make a rough square with your hands. Point it at the front of the classroom, as though you were going to take a picture. Notice what’s included in your frame. Now move the frame left or right. What’s in the picture now? Which of the two pictures is a “true record” of the classroom? The answer, of course, is both. A photograph can only show one frame. It excludes everything else. So while it may show a tiny piece of your classroom accurately, it would be wrong to say it’s a factual record of the entire classroom.
Now choose a photograph from the newspaper, from Saudi Aramco World, or from your family’s photo collection. Ask yourself, “What was happening outside the frame when this photograph was taken?” For example, consider a photo of a crowd of people at a political demonstration. The people may fill the frame of the picture, but what’s beyond the edges? Maybe more protestors, maybe spectators, maybe...well, almost anything. Maybe the “crowd” was actually only a few people. Move the frame a bit, and you might see that it’s a small group, with lots of empty space nearby. Or maybe it was a far larger group than was in the frame. Whether or not you “believe” the photograph depends on how much you trust the people who are showing it to you, doesn’t it? Share your photo and your analysis with the rest of the class. After the presentations, summarize what you’ve learned about how a photograph does and does not represent reality.
How do photographs “enchant” us into believing they’ve recorded the truth?
Lee Lawrence explains a number of ways that photographs “trick” us into believing they’ve recorded the truth. Highlight the places in the article where she explains the tricks. Hint: Some have to do with the photographs themselves, while others have to do with how they’re presented at the archive.
How do Thesiger’s photographs depict the places he visited?
Look at the six photos on pages 28 and 29. Divide the class into three groups. Assign each group two of the photos to analyze. Use these questions to guide you:
- What is included in the photo? What do you imagine is beyond the edges, outside the frame?
- How does the photo orient you—that is, how does it establish for you the nature of the place? How does it inform you of the scale of the scene you’re looking at? (Or, how does it not inform you?)
- Is the horizon in the frame? Where? What effect does the horizon have? If it were higher or lower in the frame, how would your sense of the place change?
- What do light and shadow tell you about the place? What do they tell you about how the photographer felt about the place? What do you they draw your attention to?
- What colors do you imagine were part of the photographed scene? How would the photographs affect you if they were in color?
Share your analyses with the rest of the class. What generalizations can you make about Thesiger’s photographs? Which of the generalizations could you apply to another photographer’s images?
The activities in this section are designed to engage students with the material in Saudi Aramco World while encouraging them to connect it to the larger themes they explore in their other studies. This month’s activities revolve around two basic concepts: Neighborhoods and Belonging.
What is a neighborhood? It’s a place with a physical location. It’s usually fairly small, and it has boundaries. A neighborhood is also defined by human characteristics. People live in neighborhoods. Often they have something in common, in addition to being near each other. Articles in this issue of Saudi Aramco World raise questions about neighborhoods. Think about them as you also think about your own experiences in neighborhoods.
What defines your neighborhood?
Draw a map of your neighborhood. Start at your home, and go from there. Include all the features that are important to you about your neighborhood. These might be streets, parks, paths through the woods, places of worship, schools, particular shops, bus stops, the homes of people you know, and so on. Don’t forget to include the boundaries. Where does your neighborhood begin? Where does it end? How do you know? Share your map with another student. In what ways are your maps similar, even if you live in different neighborhoods? How do they differ? Think about size, notable features, and residents. Based on your two maps, write a definition of neighborhood.
What responsibilities do people have to their neighbors and their neighborhoods?
Read “The Imam of Bedford-Stuyvesant,” pages 20–23. To get oriented, get a map of Brooklyn, and find the corner of Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street. Can you find the boundaries that define Bedford-Stuyvesant? According to the article, what problem did the neighborhood’s residents face in the 1980’s? Imagine yourself in their shoes. Discuss with your partner the options you would have had as residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant. What do you think led them to fight the problem rather than live with it, or move out of the area?
Think about your own neighborhood. What responsibilities, if any, do you feel you have there? In some neighborhoods, for example, people feel responsible for checking on elderly neighbors who live alone. In other neighborhoods, people feel responsible for keeping their yards attractive, or for picking up garbage from the streets. Write a “job description” for a neighbor in your neighborhood. What would you and other neighbors expect of a new neighbor? Compare your description with other students’. Do expectations differ depending on what neighborhood you live in?
Maybe your thinking about neighborhoods touched on the idea of belonging. After all, belonging is one of the best parts of being part of a group or a place. In the next set of activities, you can explore what it means to belong in a place or to a group.
How does it feel to belong?
Start by finding a definition for “belonging” in a dictionary. Discuss the definition with a partner. Add to it, if need be, so that it accurately reflects your own experiences. In a journal entry, answer these questions: Where do you belong? How do you know you belong there? Who else belongs there? How do you feel about belonging? What would it feel like if you suddenly did not belong any more?
Now read “Ten Days in Damascus,” pages 2–9. Its author, Karim Shamsi-Basha, writes about belonging in two different places. Highlight the parts of the article where he describes what belonging in each place offers him, and how he feels about his dual membership. Add to your journal entry, imagining how you might feel if you, like Shamsi-Basha, belonged in two different places. (Perhaps you do!)
What qualifies someone to belong to a group or in a place? How important is excluding other people or being separate from other locations?
In “The Imam of Bedford-Stuyvesant,” Imam Siraj Wahhaj, like Karim Shamsi-Basha, describes how he feels belonging to two worlds—the American secular world and the Muslim religious world. How does he describe this experience? With a partner, role-play a conversation between the two men in which they discuss belonging to two worlds.
In his early years as a Muslim, Wahhaj talks about being a separatist. If you don’t know what separatist means, find out: Do some research about different separatist movements. For example, for at the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) wouldn’t accept white members. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, some women’s groups excluded men. Read about them, and find out why they chose separatism—what it meant to them, how effective it was, what its limitations were. Then, as a class, discuss what might lead someone to be part of a separatist movement, and then, like Wahhaj, what might later lead them to change their minds.
In a more general way, think about how excluding others might be part of belonging to a group or a place. Remember that your neighborhood has boundaries. It’s defined, in part, by who’s not included, as much as by who is. Write in your journal about belonging to your group of friends. Can everyone belong to your group? Why or why not? How would you feel if they could? How would your group change? Would it still be a group that gave you a sense of belonging?
||Julie Weiss is an education consultant based in Lowell, Massachusetts. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies and develops curricula and assessments in social studies, media literacy and English as a Second Language.