Humane Educator's Toolbox: Powerful Images

Words are powerful, but sometimes, as National Geographic knows, you only need images to deeply affect your audience. When the earthquake and subsequent tsunami swept over Japan's coastline, people around the world weren't moved to action by numbers or statistics, but by the compelling photos and video clips. The first element of humane education is to provide accurate information, and sometimes that's best done with images. I want to share with you the work of a few artists who offer photos helpful in teaching others about important issues.

Edward Burtynsky discovered his life's focus when he stumbled upon a coal mining operation in Pennsylvania. His work depicts "manufactured landscapes," which document humanity's impact on the world. If you go to his website, you'll find powerful images from mines, recycling yards, quarries, ships, oil spills and more, each one as breathtaking as it is bleak. Burtynsky has published several books filled with his work, including Manufactured Landscapes (which has also been made into a full-length documentary) and his most recent, Oil. Burtynsky is also a TED prize winner and has done two TED talks, one on manufactured landscapes, and another that follows the path of oil.

Chris Jordan has done amazing work on a variety of topics, most of which dissect our consumptive lifestyles. His "Midway: Messages from the Gyre" exhibit shows image after image of dead albatrosses with their stomachs full of plastic. His two-part "Running the Numbers" series offers statistics about our American lifestyles, using smaller objects to depict a larger image (such as creating a portrait of Ben Franklin out of 125,000 one-hundred dollar bills to depict the amount of money the U.S. government spends every hour -- $12.5 million -- on the Iraq war). And his series, "Intolerable Beauty," offers visceral photographic statements about American mass consumption. Jordan has published several books, and you can see a great TED talk in which he delves into his supersized images and statistics.

There are numerous places you can find arresting images about animals, but Jo-Anne McArthur's site, We Animals, does an amazing job of exploring animals in the human environment. She says, "My objective has been to photograph our interactions with animals in such a way that the viewer finds new significance in these ordinary, often unnoticed situations of use, abuse and sharing of spaces." McArthur's images span from alligator and bear bile farming to animals as food, companions, entertainment and research subjects, to rescued animals. Potent, important work.

Many people are familiar with Peter Menzel's photographs because of his books, Material World, which offers a global portrait of people's relationship to stuff, and Hungry Planet, which explores what families around the world eat. His newest book, What I Eat, follows 80 different people from around the world and looks at what they eat and how they live, from a Japanese sumo wrestler, to a Sudanese refugee, to an American competitive eater. There are also essays discussing food politics and other food issues. In addition to what you'll find in these skillful books, Menzel's website offers a gallery of images reflecting a variety of themes, from food and water to travel and death.

Students can learn a certain amount from reading about an issue or hearing someone talk about it, but images like those from these masterful photographers offer a powerful and provocative means for exploring such issues on a deeper and broader level. They provide room for asking a lot of meaningful and important questions, for connecting emotionally, and for helping us consider our own relationships to what these images depict.

~ Marsha

Image courtesy of Ars Electronica via Creative Commons.

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