Images are an important entry to stories of genocides and mass violence. They provide evidence and context but they can also shock us, jolting us into the immense amount of human suffering that occurred. This is why we must be careful when we prepare lessons for students that touch on such graphic and often difficult-to-absorb topics.
There is no shortage of images to choose from. Facing History’s resource, Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians and our new digital version of Holocaust and Human Behavior are two places to start. The Internet, on the other hand, provides a never-ending supply of disturbing images. One search for the Armenian Genocide turns up dozens of heartbreaking photos from victims that are struggling to stay alive to others that show bodies discarded by the side of the road. Some are of men, women, and children marching through a desert of skulls or refugees on a boat in the harbor. It’s easy enough for adults to get lost in and overwhelmed by these images. So how do we, as educators, decide on which images to use with young students? Here are four criteria to consider:
What are your learning objectives?
What story you are 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 art, such as works by artists like Samuel Bak, a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, or Otto Dix, a German WWI veteran be more appropriate than a historical photograph? In my teaching, I have often found that some aspects of the 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.
Who are your students?
What experiences will my students bring to the image? What do you know about their histories? Do you have students who have been 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.
Does the image depict the history and perspective I am trying to teach?
As with any document you use in the classroom, it is important to verify your sources. Some of the most common images used to illustrate ghettos in the Holocaust were taken by the Nazis. If you use those images, students should know who took them and why. 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?”
How will I use the image?
As educators, we use images in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are just included to enhance the design of a page or packet, and other times we use images as learning objects, and even then, we use them in different ways. Will the image be projected in a PowerPoint presentation? Will you hand it 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.
I’ve asked a lot of questions throughout this piece. I’m hoping they prompt you to think carefully about the images you select for your classroom and to consider how you might use them.
What tips do you have for using images when you teach genocide and mass violence? Share your thoughts below.
Explore 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.
Image credit: By anonymous German traveler - Published by the American red cross, it was first published in the United States prior to January 1, 1923. [Aus: Politisches Archiv des deutschen Auswärtigen Amtes. Bestand: Konstantinopel 169.], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2902685