Written by Sadie Short on March 16 2017

Building Empathy Through Photography & Film

As an arts educator, how do you approach the uncertain climate of immigration with 8th grade students living in a largely immigrant community? There is no proven approach, but my colleague Alli Spring and I are using photography as a tool to build empathy and understanding at the King Chavez Academy of Excellence in the Logan neighborhood of San Diego.

Long before the new administration’s policies on immigration and refugees, Alli and I had determined we would approach the topic within our classroom and curriculum. Since new policies were put in place, we have found the topic has hit even closer to home, with many student’s families being directly affected by the measures.

Still, our goal as educators remains firm: to approach the topic with respect, empathy and humanity; and for students to obtain a better understanding and gain context for the current issues happening with immigration and refugee status. If they take away one thing from the class, we want them to leave as knowledgeable, empathetic citizens of this world.

The curriculum we are implementing is a three pronged approach: analyze stories and images of refugees, examine the social context of these stories, and create a personal photographic response. By studying and creating photography and film, and looking at real stories and images of what is happening, we hope students will be thoughtful around the issue and put themselves in another’s shoes.

The students started out by analyzing images of migrants and refugees from the Middle East. We screened Bon Voyage, a film by Marc Wilkins that tells the story of a Swiss couple who encounters a boat overflowing with escaping refugees. The couple must make decisions that involve the humanity and legality of a life or death situation to all those involved. The emotions in the film are raw and left the students with a strong sense of empathy for the characters- students reacted with anger, sadness, and even a sense of betrayal at how the refugees were treated. Others empathized with the couple and how their decisions were made.

Next, we will be sharing the work of James Mollison, a Time Magazine photographer who created the series ‘What refugees carry with them’. Mollison photographs a diptych of each person he meets, the first image of one item the subject brought on their journey, paired with a portrait of the individual on the other. The images are provocative and powerful. The students will be emulating Mollison’s photo series by reflecting on what item they would choose to bring with them from home on such a journey.

There is not an immediate answer to tackling this worldwide issue, but teaching students to have an understanding of the current events in order to instill empathy, knowledge, and engagement as global citizens seems like a good start. The details between these stories and those of our students may be different, but fear doesn't change across country, ethnicity, or gender. The notions of risk, legality, and most of all humanity are relevant in immigration stories across the world.

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