How to Choose the Right Images When Teaching about Genocide | Facing History & Ourselves
Turk Soldiers Are Convoying Armenian People For Execution, April 1915

How to Choose the Right Images When Teaching about Genocide

Consider this helpful criteria when using challenging imagery as part of genocide education in your classroom.
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Images can be an important entry point to stories of genocides and mass violence, providing important  evidence and context. But they are also often violent and disturbing and can shock and jolt us into the immense human suffering that was inflicted. This is why we must be careful when we prepare lessons for students that touch on such graphic and often difficult-to-absorb topics.

How do we, as educators, decide on which images to use in our classrooms? Here are four criteria to consider:

Who are your students?

What experiences will your students bring to the image? What do you know about their histories? Are any of your students victims or witnesses of violence? How might it impact how they respond to what you share? What sensitivities might they or their parents have that need to be considered? Some feel that because many young people have been exposed to violent media and video games, they should not be concerned with the graphic nature of the content. Others may feel young people should not be exposed to images of horror. Both dispositions should probably be challenged a bit when you are teaching about mass violence and genocide in an educational setting. One consideration might be the adolescent development of your students. What is appropriate at the high school level might not be appropriate for middle schoolers. We need to balance our learning goals with an understanding of our students as learners and as human beings.

What are your learning objectives?  

What story are you trying to tell? Are you trying to convey a particular point or trying to raise questions? Do you need an image at all? What details from the history are best expressed in words? What details from the history need a picture to further understanding? And when might other means, such as paintings by artists like Samuel Bak, a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, or Otto Dix, a German World War I veteran be more appropriate than a historical photograph? In my teaching, I have often found that some aspects of a specific history are best conveyed through a combination of text, including poetry, eyewitness accounts, primary documents, and other sources instead of using any images at all.

How will I use the image?

As educators, we use images in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are included to enhance the design of a page or packet, and other times they are used as learning objects. Even in those instances, we use them in different ways. Will the image be projected in a slide presentation? Will it be handed out? Will you spend time analyzing the image in-depth? What context will your students have when they encounter the image? What will you share ahead of time? What context will you reveal throughout the lesson? Are you looking to have students interpret the image or to illustrate a subject? All of these factors impact the images you might select, and when sharing potentially dehumanizing imagery, consider providing a contextual disclaimer to your students: 

Ex. Please note that this handout [or video] contains dehumanizing imagery. We have chosen to include it in order to honestly communicate the images that the public saw at the time.

Likewise, return to your classroom contract and review agreed-upon norms for respectful conversation when using such imagery, and offer students agency in deciding whether to view this imagery and how to process it. Explore Facing History’s our teaching strategy, "Analyzing Visual Images and Stereotyping" to lead students in a critical analysis of an image and to help students develop and enhance observational, interpretive, and critical thinking skills.

Is the image real and does it depict the history and perspective I am trying to teach?

Especially as AI-generated and digitally altered images become more  accessible and proliferate online, it is important to verify and consider your sources – as with any materials you use in the classroom. 

For example, some of the most common images used to illustrate ghettos in the Holocaust were taken by the Nazis. If using those images, students should know who took them and why. But it may be hard to determine the source if it simply pops up in an internet search without context. Holocaust scholar Doris Bergen urges us to ask critical questions when looking at photographs of genocide: “A photograph is not a clear window onto the past any more than a written document is. Every picture was taken by someone for a reason. Someone decided what to photograph and how to frame the subject: what to include, what to leave out. Then someone developed the film and made prints. After that, the photograph became a material object with its own history. Did someone keep the prints and the negatives, and why?”

I’ve asked a lot of questions throughout this piece and I hope they prompt you to carefully consider the images you select for your classroom and how you might use them for reflective classroom dialogue.

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