Small Picture, Big Picture: a photography resource for TOK

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15 09 cameraImages and stories – singular tales have power to grip our imaginations and, in vividly capturing individual moments, to evoke a far more general experience. We’ve certainly witnessed the impact on political discussion of the single photo of a drowned child that I blogged on – and so did everyone else! – just recently. (“How does a single photo of a single drowned child affect our shared knowledge?”, Sept 9) Yet what is the role of images in the knowledge we share?

This question is huge: it takes us into photos and films, maps and models, all of them compared with language for symbolic representation of the world; it takes us into forms of evidence and issues of reliability; it takes us into the particularizing methods of photography and literature compared with the generalizing methods of the sciences. For today, though, I’d like to narrow down to the relationship between images, representation, and knowledge claims — and share with you an exciting resource.

I give you the link to this website with a warning: you can get lost in it, opening and viewing photographs of people and their stories for pleasurable hours. But maybe you’ve had this experience already. Are you one of the over 15,000,000 (yes, fifteen million) people who “like” (Facebook) Humans of New York? Photographer Brandon shares on his website not only photos of people in New York but also ones of people in Iran and Pakistan, where he has travelled with his camera. It is this sheer range of people’s portraits and stories that has me hooked.

But how is this website of photos, though clearly a resource for cross-cultural empathy, also a resource for TOK?  I’ll make some suggestions here, and welcome any comments you’d like to add at the end of this post.

  1. Set up the class: explore (and enjoy) the images and stories

If you have access to the web in class so that you can browse websites as a group, look at some photos together from New York, Iran (December 2012, accessible via the menu bar at the top), and Pakistan (also accessible via the top menu). You’ll want to select some favourite photos and stories in advance so that browsing doesn’t turn into wandering and use up all your class time. (I find these images a bit like nacho chips – it’s tempting to reach for another and another!)

If you don’t have the web facilities to browse together, or if you’re truly tight for time, give the class an assignment to look through the site on their own time, and to pick their own favourite images.

  1. Look at single images to ask knowledge questions.

If you’ve dealt with photographs before in class, this discussion could be brief – functioning just as a refresher. (Note that my TOK Course Book has activities on photographs and perspectives in the Thinking Critically interchapter following Language as a Way of Knowing)

Pick one or two of your favourite photographs from Humans of New York, or your students’ favourites, to act as reference points for discussion. Use them for now without sharing the accompanying story. Personally, I might choose the one of a Pakistani man sitting with a young child.  Or…maybe I might choose the one of two attractive women standing together on the street  Or….

Knowledge questions

A photograph is a “copy” of the world made by technology. Is it therefore a neutral representation, perfectly truthful (passing the correspondence check for truth)?

What choices do photographers make as they create their images? (You might consider: selection of subject matter and moment, centring and composition, angle, focus, use of colour, digital enhancement.) To what extent is a good photograph a technical achievement, and to what extent an artistic one?

What makes certain photographs powerful in communication – such as the one from the Vietnam War often called “napalm girl” and the recent one of the drowned three-year-old washed up on the Turkish beach? To what ways of knowing do they most strongly appeal? To what extent does even the most powerful photograph depend upon our background knowledge and what we bring to its interpretation?

  1. Look next at single images accompanied with text, for further knowledge questions on images and language.

I would be inclined to use the same photos as in the last set of questions, but now add the text, which fills in the relationships between the people: the man and the child are identified as father and daughter, and the two women as mother and daughter. And they have stories. I’d add, too, Brandon’s photo series of activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima, who has devoted her life to ending bonded labour, because the relationship between image and text introduces a somewhat different balance.

Knowledge questions

Photographs and language function differently as symbolic representations of the world. Photographs do not make explicit knowledge claims. To what extent can photos, however, suggest ideas and attitudes, to the point of being interpreted as carrying knowledge claims? (And why are they used extensively in advertising?)

Photographs are often presented along with accompanying text. What is the effect – or what are the many possible effects — of combining these two forms of symbolic representation as we share knowledge?

  1. Last, look at the photographic site as a whole as a collection of images and stories.

I suggest reading together, as a class, photographer Brandon’s general statement about the photographs he took in Pakistan. Before moving on to further knowledge questions, consider what he says about selected images – not just his own selection of people and stories, but the selection which he thinks most people in the west are exposed to most commonly:

A Final Word On Pakistan:

Imagine that every time you have a lapse in judgment, it gets printed in newspapers around the world: every time you lose patience with your children, every time you scream at someone in traffic, every time you drink too much and do something you regret. Each time you slip up, everyone hears about it. The world is never notified about the 99.99% of the time that you are a completely normal, productive, law-abiding citizen. The world only learns about you when things go wrong. Now imagine what the world would think of you.

It’s not that terrorism, patriarchy, and violence aren’t real problems in Pakistan. They exist and the country is battling these issues every single day. Pakistanis are very much aware of the extremism in their midst. The problem is that so many people seem to only be aware of that extremism. Because just as in the hypothetical example above—the other 99.99% of life just doesn’t make the news. When there’s only room in the newspaper for a single column about Pakistan, it’s going to be filled with the most compelling story. And unfortunately, that tends to be the most violent story.

And those are important stories. Those are the types of stories that expose corruption, stop genocide, and alert the world to emerging threats. It’s right for those stories to be told. But when those stories are all that we hear, it’s so easy to imagine a world that’s far scarier than it really is. You lose sight of the 99.99% of the world that’s not scary at all. And living in fear can be a dangerous thing. Because if we’re afraid of each other, we’ll never be able to work together to solve our common problems.”

from A Final Word on Pakistan 

The final knowledge questions that I suggest open out broadly to many other recurring ideas of the Theory of Knowledge course.

Knowledge questions

To what extent does a selection & collection of images reflect above all the perspective of the selector/collector – whether that person is a photographer or the editor of a newspaper? To what extent is a selected (and possibly distorted) overall picture of the everyday world built right into “news” reporting (and perhaps even into your own personal picture file)? What is the importance for knowledge of seeking out alternative perspectives?

Do images make knowledge claims? Do images make arguments? What is the difference between images that counter a previous impression and an argument that counters a previous argument?

Do individual stories, or individual cases, provide sufficient justification for general knowledge claims?

Exploring these questions can set up many further discussion to which your class is bound to return — knowledge questions about particulars and generalizations, about anecdotes and case studies as opposed to surveys and statistics, about the particularizing methods of photography and literature as opposed to the generalizing methods of chemistry and physics. For today, I’ll end with a quotation to which I will be returning at some later point in this blog. Do you accept this claim yourself?:

“The plural of anecdote is data.”

Raymond Wolfinger, quoted from a lecture


Brandon. Humans of New York.

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge Course Companion (in cooperation with the IB). Oxford University Press, 2013.

image by ionasnicolae. creative commons via pixabay