5. Using photographs and photopacks

Using Photographs in Education

Photographs are a particularly valuable resource for encouraging groups and individuals to explore a range of issues in an easy and productive way and at an appropriate pace and level.

For example, you could explore, share and use photos from our photobank and photostories as part of your planning and activity.


  • Are open ended
  • Can be read by everyone in their own way
  • Do not require high levels of literacy
  • Allow groups to determine for themselves what issues should be discussed
  • Encourage groups and individuals to recognise that not everyone sees the world the same way
  • Can help individuals clarify how they see the world and particularly how they see particular issues within it
  • Allow for creative learning outside a fixed agenda
  • Can challenge ideas and images

The activities described below have been developed to maximise participation and involvement and to provide opportunities for all to contribute. The activities are also designed to place equal value on everyone’s contribution while also heightening everyone’s consciousness.

Using Photographs as a Stimulus

Photographs can be used in a variety of ways but especially as a stimulus to creative thinking, discussion and debate. They are an excellent stimulus because they can stimulate individuals, small or larger groups and photographs can be used to encourage people to talk, explore, compare, debate, discuss and apply ideas and understandings. They can be used to explore how images are constructed, what choices and issues face photographers, how images can ‘lie’ or provide ‘partial’ understanding of, and access to issues. Some questions to consider:

What do I see and think?

  • What do I see in an image?
  • What key ideas or key words does the image suggest to me?
  • What might the people in the image be thinking?
  • How do I interpret the image?
  • What does it make me think/feel?

How do others see the same image?

  • What do they see?
  • What similarities or differences do they see in the image(s)?
  • Are our reactions different?
  • How would others from different places see the same images?

For example, in the above photograph ask:

  • What can I see in the picture?
  • What are they celebrating?
  • What do their clothes and style suggest to me?
  • What ages are they?
  • What noises does the picture suggest?
  • What music might be playing, if any?

Activities for using photographs

The activities that follow have been designed to assist individuals and groups to engage with photographs and to explore many of the questions listed above. We have designed the photo pack for open-ended exploration and enquiry – there are no right or wrong answers to any of the issues raised, only different interpretations – all of them equally valid. The photographs are taken from the Africa Day 2008 poster and briefing paper.

The following general activities are useful for introducing the photographs and enabling people to become familiar with them and what is happening in them. The activities are also useful for generating discussion and co-operation. Reviewing and describing photos is also important prior to identifying and discussing the issues and/or challenges they raise.

In using the pictures, you may find it more productive to have people work in pairs or small groups initially and then compare and contrast choices and descriptions in a larger group. This approach will maximise the value of the photos as well as discussion and debate

Consider the Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages

The Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages is a voluntary code that sets out a set of guiding principles to assist organisations in their decision-making about which images and messages to use in communicating ideas and perspectives with a view to ensuring appropriate levels of respect and human dignity. Upon signing the Code, Development NGOs and organisations have committed themselves to a set of principles, ensuring that they will try to avoid stereotypical or sensational images (this issue is itself subject to debate).

The adoption of the Code means that aid agencies will choose images and messages that represent the full complexity of the situations in which they work, and that they will normally seek the permission of the people portrayed in the photos they use. The choice of images and messages should take account of principles such as:

  • Respect for the dignity of the people concerned;
  • Belief in the equality of all people;
  • Acceptance of the need to promote fairness, solidarity and justice.

To date, over 80 organisations and NGOs are signatories to the Code in Ireland. Discussion around this code will help strengthen discussions on the choice of images and messages generated within them.

Becoming familiar with the photographs and the issues


  • Invite the group to look carefully at the whole set of photos (or any other set of photos you care to choose). Each individual or pair should pick one or two photos which they find particularly interesting or which raise important questions or issues for them.
  • Participants then form small groups (of for example 4 or 6) and explain their choice to each other. Each small group then selects one or two photos from the group and explains their choice to the larger group. Each group does this in turn.
  • This activity can be used to make a list of issues or questions that might need further study and discussion. A variation on this activity can be developed using the Stickers Activity (see below) – each individual or small group could choose a photo which raises questions about a specific issue, for example, human development or human rights.
  • Use the information in the captions and the keywords to relate the chosen photos to the broader issues.

Describing and Labelling

  • Divide the group into pairs and invite each pair to choose one photo and to then describe, in their own words, what is happening in the photo.
  • Invite them to choose some keywords which best describe the photo (e.g. happy, sad, busy, singing, speaking, women, poverty, relaxed, hard-working etc.) Each pair can then share their description and keywords with the whole group.
  • A list of group keywords can then be compiled and discussed:
  • Are there words in common?
  • Are the words largely positive or negative or a mixture of both?
  • What was the basis for the choices made?
  • Does anyone disagree with the labels chosen?
  • What evidence is there in the photos for the labels?
  • Is there agreement or disagreement as to what might be happening in the photos?
  • Alternatively, each pair or group can display their photo on a piece of poster paper on the wall with a set of keywords describing the photo on stickers added to the poster. In this way, the entire set of photos can be displayed and described.
  • Invite the whole group to look at all the posters and share agreements or disagreements on the words chosen to describe particular photos.
  • The overall list of keywords could be used to initiate a discussion on our images of development or rights etc.

Stickers Activity

This activity is useful for introducing the whole pack as it encourages everyone to express their own view and opinions as well as suggesting issues for further enquiry. It is also a useful general activity for introducing a group to each other.

  • Give each person 3 sticky labels and ask them to write their name on each label. Ask everyone to choose 2 or 3 photos that they like for whatever reason (this allows each person to ‘do their own thing’) and to put one of their stickers on those photos. Everyone can then find someone else in the group who has chosen the same photograph and discuss their choice.
  • Invite each pair to then introduce and discuss their photo with the larger group. A whole group set of questions and issues for discussion can be compiled from this exercise.

Note: it might be useful to look at what photos were not chosen and why – it can lead to a discussion of some ‘sensitive’ issues such as prejudice, stereotyping (of different types), fear etc.


  • Each group or pair can be invited to choose a photo and to then describe what might be happening in the picture through a story – this could include what happened before the photo was taken and what might happen afterwards. This activity is designed to encourage more detailed engagement with the issues etc.

Identifying and Discussing Issues

Once the group is familiar with the pictures and their content, it is easier to identify and discuss the issues that arise and the activities below will help in doing this. Choose one or two activities that best suit you or your group.

Ranking Photographs

  • Display the photos so that all can see them – make sure the number of each photo is visible. Invite each small group to rank their choice of four photos (by number) in a diamond pattern.
  • Their ranking could be on the basis of those they like most/least or on the basis of which image surprises them most/least? Or which situation best/least illustrates human development or the relevance of Irish Aid in such a context?
  • Again, each group should share their choice and the reasoning behind it with the larger group and similarities or differences between groups can then be explored.


  • Give each group or pair a photograph – this could then be mounted on a larger piece of poster paper so that they can write around the edges. If this is not possible, the questions can be written on a separate piece of paper.
  • Invite them to write as many questions as they can about the photo. Questions can be directly relevant to the photo or to issues raised by the photo. Encourage the group to ask questions that raise broader issues and challenges.
  • The questioning process around each photo can then be displayed and shared with the larger group. A group list of the most challenging and interesting questions could then form the basis for further study and research.

What do you feel?

  • Make a selection of photographs which, in your opinion, raise important or challenging questions. Display the photos and invite everyone, individually, to note those photos (identified by number) which raise important issues for them about human dignity, human development or human rights or the role of Irish Aid, etc.
  • Working in small groups, individuals explain to each other:
  • which photos they chose and why?
  • what are they key questions they give rise to?
  • are the issues chosen by different people the same or different?
  • Each small group can then present the most important questions that they identified to the whole group.

Key Questions

  • Working in pairs or small groups, invite everyone to choose a photo that poses an important challenge. The challenges could include the following:
  • What challenges does the photo raise for those in the picture?
  • What challenges does the photo raise for the societies or countries shown?
  • What challenges does the photo raise for us here in Europe?
  • The answers to these questions could then form the basis for additional debate and discussion focused on how such challenges might be met.


  • Invite small groups to review the whole collection of photos and to divide them into different groups or clusters and to identify the issue or challenge which they photos in the cluster share. The clusters could be chosen for positive or negative reasons or because they have a common theme or challenge.
  • Again, invite each group to share its choices with the larger group. In this way a list off issues for further exploration and discussion can be compiled.