Capturing Culture in your Classroom

Music, food, language, dance, stories and decorations. These are just a few of the ways that people express their cultural heritage. As a photographer, one of the most exciting parts of my work is discovering and photographing different cultural traditions around the world. When I visit a new place, I always ask if any local celebrations or holidays are taking place while I am in town. This question has led me on some exciting adventures – to a temple in the mountains of Bali, Indonesia, to a livestock fair in the Andes of Peru, and to a cultural festival on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. In each situation, the process of creating pictures has given me a deeper appreciation for traditions and worldviews other than my own.

I first became interested in cultural photography through the images I saw in National Geographic Magazine. As a kid, I remember thumbing through old issues on my uncle’s bookshelf and being transported to faraway places. The images inspired me to learn more about those people and places and also made me want to create images of my own. Since that time, I’ve used photography to document cultural diversity both during my travels and in my own community. Most recently, I was working on the Caribbean island of Bonaire where I had the chance to attend a local cultural festival with a friend, called Rincon Day. My friend took me early so that I could photograph the parade and dancers, and he explained the meaning of the different costumes. With his guidance, I documented the most important parts of the festival and learned a lot more about Bonaire than I would have known otherwise. Not only did the experience deepen my understanding of the country, it also deepened my understanding of my Bonairean friend, a rewarding and unexpected added benefit of cultural photography.

For teachers of English, cultural photography can help bring the world into your classroom and can spark curiosity and dialogue. You can use the images in your National Geographic Learning textbooks, or encourage students to create their own photographs. Learning about different cultures is one of the first steps to building cross-cultural understanding.

Annual livestock fair in Urcos, Peru, the town at the beginning of the Interoceanica Sur near Cusco.

If you want to try cultural photography, here are 3 tips to get you started:

Do Your Research    

When you are photographing a cultural tradition that you are not familiar with, it is helpful to research the tradition ahead of time or ask lots of questions at the event. Understanding the history of a tradition will help you create more compelling images because you will know which elements are central to the story. It will also help you appreciate why the tradition is meaningful.

Photograph the Details

Objects and symbols form an important part of many cultural traditions and make wonderful subjects for photographs. The next time you are at a festival or celebration, pay attention to the details and create photographs of the symbols that stand out to you. In my family, we celebrate Christmas, so I would photograph gingerbread cookies, stockings, and our Christmas decorations if I wanted to tell the story of our traditions.

Document Mood and Emotion

To make captivating images, try to document the emotions and moods expressed during cultural traditions. Some events, like festivals, are celebratory and loud, while others, like religious ceremonies, are solemn and quiet. Think about how you can use photography to communicate the tone of an event or tradition. Try zooming in to document people’s facial expressions or zooming out to capture the mood of an entire scene.

Classroom Project:

You do not need to travel far to experience other cultural traditions. In fact, you probably have people from many different cultural backgrounds in your classroom. You can use photography to teach students about other cultures and bring other cultures to life in your classroom.

Ask your students to photograph a custom or tradition in their family and to write a short paragraph or essay about the history of the tradition. Guiding questions might include, “What does the custom or tradition mean to your family?” “When did it start?” “What does it entail?” Ask students to share their images and stories with the group to celebrate the diversity of traditions and cultures within your classroom. This is a particularly fun exercise around November, December, or January, when many different cultures celebrate holidays!

A word from ELT Teacher Trainer Michael McLoghlin:

As teachers, we can also help students to experience that same excitement that Gabby Salazar felt that comes from learning about a cultural tradition for the first time. As we have all probably experienced first-hand, the most interesting part is the process of finding out just how similar or different that culture is to your own.

How can we do this in our classrooms? In Unit 1 of Level 2 of National Geographic Learning’s Our World, for example, students compare and contrast the paper art in Mexico with that in China.

Students are first provided with a visual focus. We see photographs of students in Shenyang making paper art to honor the year of the tiger and another photo of strings of paper art hanging over a street in the city of San Miguel de Allende, a center of arts in Mexico.

Students do a reading on this, and then use a Venn diagram to identify what’s similar and different about the way Chinese and Mexicans do paper art. Apart from learning more about a particular cultural tradition, the additional benefit of learning information simultaneously through text and visuals is that it can dramatically improve retention and recall.

In Unit 1 of Level 2 of National Geographic Learning’s Our World students compare and contrast the paper art in Mexico with that in China.

This activity could be extended by getting students to take photographs if they can of similar kinds of art in their country. If teachers feel this is not practical because students are too young, teachers can find or help students find images online of this tradition in their country and a different country. They could print out the photographs and have students paste them onto posters.

Having done the student book activities, students can now draw a Venn diagram themselves onto the poster and fill it in with similarities and differences.  As a final step, teachers could ask students to share what they have done through small group presentations to the class as a whole.

What this lesson and Gabby Salazer’s own work documenting cultural diversity shows, is that learning a language or culture is not just about reading and writing words; it is also being able to understand visual information and communicate it to others.

Mike McLoghlin currently works as an Associate Product Manager for National Geographic Learning in Shanghai. He has more than 10 years’ experience in ESL/EFL teaching, language program management and testing in China and Australia.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Gabby Salazar’s previous In Focus blog post, Becoming a Citizen Scientist.

Author: Gabby Salazar

Photographer and conservationist Gabby Salazar travels around the globe to document rare and endangered species and to raise awareness about their plight. She is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a former President of the North American Nature Photography Association, a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Photography, and a member of the Emerging League of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). At 19, she founded a student magazine with Nature’s Best Photography to promote photography as a way to connect kids with nature. She continues to teach photography to children and teenagers around the world.

For more National Geographic Learning content from Gabby, you can watch her webinar recording: Inspiring Environmental Responsibility in the Young Learner Classroom here: .

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