A New Frontier in Journalism? Taking Global Issues into Classrooms - Sean Gallagher - Photographer & Filmmaker | Beijing, China

A New Frontier in Journalism? Taking Global Issues into Classrooms

Posted by on Apr 18, 2014 in News, on assignment | No Comments

If you’ve been following me on Instagram or Twitter recently, you’ll probably have seen updates from my travels as I have been travelling in the US, visiting numerous schools and universities giving presentations about my work on China and India.

It has been another amazing experience and I just wanted to share some of my thoughts here about education outreach and how it has now become one of the core parts of my life as a photojournalist.

First, some stats. In the space of 2 weeks, we managed to squeeze in 28 presentations in 3 cities, speaking to over 1000 people through middle schools, high schools, Universities, the DC Environmental Film Festival and even at the US government’s State Department. An eclectic mix and a new personal record!

As one of my Pulitzer Center colleagues put it, this is the journalist’s equivalent of ‘going on tour’ and I’ve been lucky enough to do this a few times with the PC. It has become one of the favourite parts of my job.

So, what do we do and how do we do it?

The basic set-up of a typical education outreach class in an academic setting is pretty simple.

First, there will be introductions from the staff/faculty members. It’s a basic introduction of who we are, why we’re there and a brief explanation of what we’re going to be talking about.

Class times can vary from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, with class sizes also varying from a handful of students to an after-school club full of a hundred students, as we had at one school in Chicago.

Each of these types of groups requires a slightly different approach but the layout tends to be similar for each.

I normally start by giving a brief introduction of who I am, what I do and what type of topics I cover. This is one of the most important parts of the class as I have to convince the students why they should care about the issues I want to discuss. As I cover environmental issues in Asia, I have to quickly and convincingly give the students a hook into getting them to think how these issues might affect, or be connected to them.

To break the ice, I’ll often throw a question out to the class such as, “what do you know about China?” I’m looking to start a dialogue based on any knowledge they have of a country which they might seem disconnected to but might still know something about.

Often I’ll get answers like ‘Jackie Chan’, ‘the Great Wall’ or ‘Chinese food’. These are the obvious ones. But then they start to surprise you with more knowledgable topics such as ‘One child policy’, ‘Made in China’, ‘Overpopulation’, ‘Air Pollution’.

From here we have a launching pad to start discussing more topics about China that they are perhaps less familiar. We’ve built up their initial confidence though by showing them how much they actually already know.

My presentation often involves taking them through some of the major bodies of work that I have done in China, from my 7-week trip documenting desertification across the north of the country, to my 2012 trip travelling across the Tibetan Plateau photographing issues related to climate change.

As I present these issues to them, I am constantly creating a dialogue with the students, asking them questions based upon the pictures they see. Often the students will have many of their own questions which I encourage them to ask during the classes.

I have been continually surprised by the questions that students have. Often they show a deeper level of understanding of the issues under discussion that might not have originally been expected at the beginning of the class.

What do we hope students will take away from the experience?

I hope that students discover a new interest in why they should care about issues that might, on first inspection, seem completely disconnected from them.

Climate change affecting nomads on the Tibetan Plateau is sometimes a difficult topic to get students in a US inner-city school to care about. This is unsurprising. However, when I can use photography to take them there to the Plateau, to look into the eyes of these people through portraiture, and listen to their stories, then they care.

If I show them images of communities in India that are receiving E-Waste from western countries, the connection between these communities half a world away becomes even clearer.

I want to create a dialogue with these students that gets them thinking about how these environmental issues connect us all on a global level. If they are able to take this point away from the class, then I have done my job.

As a freelance journalist, I am often on the road for long periods of time, working away from family and friends for extended periods of time. It can be a tough job. When I stand in front of students however and share my stories of what I have see and documented in Asia, it gives me immense satisfaction when I see that they really do actually care.

Too often we have to cut discussions short as the bell goes for the next period and the students don’t want to leave as they have more questions about the images they’ve seen. It doesn’t get better than that. Then you know you’ve reached them.

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