Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #4: Snap Shots: Using Photography for Intercultural Awareness and Understanding

April 1, 2014
Visual Communication

Watching images through mass media presents a challenge for understanding the complexities of different cultures within and outside the United States. Photographic images, in particular, are ubiquitous in ourmediated world, populating old and interactive media. Many times, they serve to perpetuate established codes of understanding and action. The power of photography lies not only in itsemotional force, but also in its capacity to claim authenticity while representing the world. In other words, photography often is deemed a holder of unquestionable truths—even though interpretation depends upon the social and cultural frameworks of the beholder’s knowledge. Many times, simplistic representations of other cultures or ethnic minorities circulate through the mass media without challenge. Visual literacy is, therefore, an important tool for critically interpreting images and detecting cultural stereotypes.

Beyond solely analyzing visual images, we attempted to generate a deeper understanding of different cultures by taking students on a field trip and asking them to create visual representations anew. In other words, students had the challenge of taking photographs to visually represent a culture different from their own, yet moving away from tired stereotypes and reflecting their own experience of that culture. As a result, in the creative act of producing a photographic portfolio and an accompanying essay, students developed intercultural awareness and understanding. Photography helped them articulate a complex reality and, in turn, made them more attentive to their own preconceptions and assumptions. It was a means to cultivate new ways of seeing and to create awareness about ethnic images that may not necessarily be privileged by the media.

Initially, we developed this activity by taking students to Mexico City and to areas of Chicago with a unique Latino cultural heritage. In the various locations, we developed relationships with people who helped us guide students during the field trips. To get started, students participated in facilitated discussions about the Mexican and Latino cultures, respectively, and their ways of defining public and private spaces. We also comparatively discussed assumptions and expectations about family and social relations. Finally, we talked about the process of stereotyping itself and the necessity of developing visual literacy.

During the field trips, students took pictures of what they found unique or simply different from what they knew. This included, for example, photographs of physical spaces, architecture, signs, art, streets, stores, people, food, and ongoing events. Previously, we repeatedly emphasized to the students that they should be looking beyond the traditionally beautiful and beyond simplistic visual signs. The idea was for students to attempt to see differently. Sometimes a close-up on a detail was more meaningful than an open shot. In an ongoing event, sometimes what was happening in the margins was more significant than the event itself.

While cameras are everywhere in today’s media-conscious society, taking photographs in public spaces poses a challenge regarding people’s right to privacy. Taking photographs is like any other human interaction. Although it is legal in most countries to photograph someone in a public space, we stressed that we should be respectful and attentive to people’s preferences. After the field trips, we asked students to download their photographs and select between 20 and 30 they found significant. Then, as a group, both students and faculty brainstormed while looking at the images to collectively suggest possible themes with which each student could work in his/her photographic essay. This creative interaction helped the students find themes that initially may not have been obvious. Motivating the themes were the patterns detected while observing the photographs, the knowledge students had gained through the readings, and the interactions with people from the area we visited. Students developed themes such as identity through portraiture; differences between public and private spaces; signs of appreciation of history and culture; economic hardships/honest jobs; confluence of the old and the modern; family/community experiences; and the vibrancy of color in everyday life. During the brainstorming session, we provided students with questions that could open up for different possibilities to interpret the images and incite critical thinking, such as:

·         What does this particular point of view emphasize?

·         If we were able to change the point of view, how would the meaning differ?

·         Do any of these photographs affirm or contradict a stereotype we have talked about?

·         What do the colors, lines, or volumes in the photographs suggest?

The final component of this activity was writing a reflective essay in which students could integrate what they had learned through their formal education (readings and discussion) with their experiential and creative activities (taking photographs, interacting with people, and participating in brainstorming sessions). Each student selected five photos that captured one or two themes and wrote an essay that described what those photos suggested, what was significant about them, and how the images increased his/her understanding of the culture studied.

Here are examples from the work of two students. The first is Mary’s photographs, with an excerpt of what she wrote:

[Figure 1 – “Window into the Past.” Courtesy of Mary Ferrill]

“Window into the Past” demonstrates the level of appreciation for history among many of the Mexican people with whom we interacted. We could equate this to going to a historical touristic landmark in Chicago such as the Hancock tower (sic). Rarely do inhabitants of a city take the time to look deeper into the meaning of it. Watching various inhabitants of Mexico take the time to look and discover the connection between themselves and the ancient pieces of history allowed me to see the beauty of my own culture in Chicago.

Jim took this photograph and wrote the following:

[Figure 2 – The Zócalo. Courtesy of Jim Sandherr] 

Many of the cultural interactions that I experienced during my brief visit to Mexico were framed by Elizabeth Lozano’s observations in her article “The Cultural Experience of Space and Body.” I found myself to be very much aware of my own constructed preferences concerning personal space. The physical boundaries of my own personal space, or at least those boundaries with which I have become comfortable, were transgressed literally by those around me and symbolically by visual signs present in artwork, design, and temporal observation.

Some students reported that the experience made them rethink stereotypes of other cultures they had in their minds. Others mentioned how the encounter sparked some forms of self-reflection about identity and their own place in the world. The discussions before the field trip helped students (literally and figuratively) frame their photographs with a different eye. Taking photos became a good tool to explore and begin to understand cultural differences. Because a field trip was involved, many unexpected things happened, for which both faculty and students had to be flexible and understanding—which became, in itself, an exercise that contributed to the whole intercultural experience.

About the author (s)

Luisela Alvaray

DePaul University

Assistant Professor