Terry Downie considers the use of photographs in information books
Photographs are an invaluable resource. They alleviate and illustrate text, they attract children to books, they have impact, they convey impressions and information. I looked at how a number of recent books use photographic images. The books fall into two groups: social history books and those dealing with current issues. I also looked at the text and the juxtaposition of images and text, including captions. The interplay of these elements and the size and positioning of images all affect our reading of the information and the photographs. I put it this way because, though one series’ main aim is to convey information visually, I felt that all the publishers saw text as their central means of informing children. Gutenberg rules, fair enough, we are talking about books. But I think two opportunities are missed here. One is for children to discover information by questioning, sifting evidence and talking about photographs. The other is for them to explore how we are led to take particular meanings from visual images, through the ways in which they arc constructed and contextualised. Plenty of scope for teachers who agree with me to get to work on these books with children – in ways the publishers maybe haven’t thought of.
Cars, 0 356 11393 0
Clothes, 0 356 11395 7
Entertainment, 0 356 11396 5
Rivers and Canals, 0 356 11394 9
Penny Marshall, Macdonald, The Camera as Witness series £5.95 each
These books, the last four titles in a ten-book series, contain a wealth of photographs, with time charts, booklists and interesting ‘things to do’. They usefully recommend museums, libraries and record offices for local searches. They also have a glut of text. We’re told in the introduction that ‘although many of them were never intended as such, all the photographs are important documents in our social history.’ The main clause is where Penny Marshall’s interest lies; she is rarely concerned with issues raised in the subordinate clause (are you noting this linguistic analysis, Mr Baker?). Who took the pictures’? For whom’? Who saw them’? Where’? Why have they survived’? It’s left to us to pose such questions. On the other hand, to study social history, we’re told to ‘look closely at the photographs and to draw conclusions’. The accompanying text talks us through each picture with a great quantity of valuable information. So much so that we have little need to pose questions and, frequently, readings are imposed upon us when the author tells us the feelings and relationships of people in the pictures. I showed the book to primary and secondary teachers who warmly welcomed the photographs as a resource, liked the ‘let’s look together’ style and the activities but regretted the lack of space for children to interrogate the pictures for themselves. ‘I would have liked unanswered questions in places’, one of them said. The books are arranged chronologically, with some cross-referencing in the text. Using the index, children could work thematically on, say, shoes or children’s clothes, schoolbooks or girls’ education. And ways could be found to study the pictures without or, at least, before consulting the text.
Family in the Fifties 0 7136 2703 4
Family in the Sixties 0 7136 2704 2
Alison Hurst, A. & C. Black, £5.95 each
The books follow a family, maybe the author’s, we’re not told, from the 1947 marriage of Eileen and Edward to their daughters’ 1969 hopes for the future. Family members, friends and neighbours are frequently quoted, remembering and commenting. Curiously, the tone and style of their speech is not really distinguishable from the author’s words.
Equally odd is the use of photographs clearly marked as family ‘snapshots’, hence different from other photographs, of which there are lots. The family pictures are credited to Hurst in the fifties book, to nobody in the sixties one. If they’re her family, why not say so? Uncredited, they lead us to distrust the reality-base of the book.
Anyway, it’s a nice idea which could run and run. After the family warp (no disrespect) the weft is thematic: home life, school, work, travel, fashion, entertainment . . . both covers signal that decades are differentiated by the last two. There are short reading lists and double spreads of facts and figures, including world events, though these don’t figure much for the fifties’ people. Sputniks happened, not Suez or the Cold War. Cuba, Kennedy’s death and Vietnam impinge on them in the sixties. But these are domestic books in several senses; chatty, quite fun to read, with no real stance on any topic except that almost everything seems to get better. Why do A. & C. Black call them reference books? You can look up a few things through the index but not all subjects are listed and two entries are for a ‘family’ name and place of work.
The Tactics of Terror
Philip Steele, Macdonald, Debates series, 0 356 11617 4, £5.95
The 27 double spreads ‘are mostly headed with questions: ‘Terror on the streets’?’, ‘The state as terrorist?’, ‘Using the media’!’ Much of the text is also in question form and I felt rather battered by it. ‘Interrogation techniques’ (glossary entry) – often harsh, they are intended to force the captive to reveal information against his or her will.’ Or perhaps, in this case, to have an opinion. Each section has a large heavy title, black and white photographs with captions, overlaid with black boxes carrying quotations. A powerful impact. (Oh, and the binding is strong. I had to brutalise it to read centre margins.) The book is packed with information but little of it is available in the photographs which are more for decoration or impact. And somehow it’s not the information I want. What do I do with dates and numbers? Can I debate terrorism, its causes and responses to it, in general? What level of debate am I capable of without some knowledge of particular ideologies’? It’s assumed we know who the Contras are. They’re referred to twice: ‘June 6, USA Senate agrees aid for Contras’, ‘Soviet and American accusations might be entirely reversed when considering the Nicaraguan Contras.’ There are three pictures of Red Brigades and we’re told they were Italian leftists. What were their objectives, their context? To be fair, many other organisations are more fully described. But is alphabetical order best for the list of organisations? I’m glad the glossary explains ‘irredentism’. Do we need ‘hijack’ and ‘hostage’? Does ‘legal acceptability’ clarify ‘legitimacy’? There’s a fine reading list with films and addresses, and a huge index which enables you to collect hits of information from lots of pages. The final message is that the solution lies in ‘a breakdown of international hypocrisy and a willingness to listen to the oppressed . . . If an injustice is resolved, the motivation for terrorism goes with it.’ I hope the book will stimulate debate about this; I suspect that, to inform such debate, we need additional resources.
David McDowall, Franklin Watts, Issues series, 0 86313 484 X, £5.25
The author has studied the Middle East and worked for relief and development agencies. The series describes itself as ‘opinion books’ which ‘seek to identify problems and who or what has caused them; they are realistic and do not minimise the size and extent of these issues.’ I think that’s true. Information is attractively presented in double spreads which look at history – Jewish settlement, partition, dispossession – then focus on groups and aspects of the conflict – refugees, the PLO, Israeli attacks and so on. There is a chronology and a guide to some of the organisations involved.
The large, often colour photographs are for the most part low key. They do not dominate the text, being illustrative rather than informative, and are complemented by clear diagrams. The use of colour blocks on some pages (camp wire, the Palestinian flag, for example) is striking but inevitably intrudes to a degree on reading. But text almost always catches your eye before pictures. Quite a marathon of page-turning is required by the index because the term are general (‘refugees’, ‘labour’, ‘Jordan’) but it pays off. I investigated ‘USA’ and easily found eight clear pieces of information. The book reads well and its language is very well controlled, without condescension. The target readers are perhaps 10-12. 1 think older children will find this a useful resource, if they don’t mind the ‘young’ presentation.
Let’s Discuss Violence
Doreen May and David Pead, Wayland, Let’s Discuss series, 0 85078 868 4. £5.50
This will resource older pupils debate of some issues. It looks at war, terrorism, sport, violence against women and children, crowd and street violence, and suggests a socio-political context for examining these strands. It offers a range of positions: ‘two distinct schools of thought … it is argued … however, another way of looking at . . .’ There are eight sets of questions and statements (Discuss) referring to the text and beyond it, and four ‘case studies’. I find that dipping via the index fractures the overall context and argument; it needs sequential reading by a group. At £5.50, that may be difficult.
The eye of the casual page turner will be caught by some very powerful images which dominate the dense-looking text. But captions do not invite further investigation; only four ask questions, the rest make statements of varying kinds, some questionable but not presented as such. There’s a glossary and reading lists of non-fiction (adult popular and children’s) and fiction (including Ashley, Dickens, Forster and Needle).
The 36 illustrations and captions sometimes challenge but ‘many girls are still brought up to believe a woman’s place is in the home’ should not accompany a photograph of minority ethnic group girls. The ‘Group Violence’ chapter focuses on football hooliganism, then links Mods and Rockers with 1980s’ city disorders. Elsewhere, the media are discussed fairly; here we’re told ‘gangs copied what they had seen on television’. Scarman is quoted: the riots were ‘an outburst of anger and resentment by young black people against the police’. We aren’t invited to consider why. The police head the list of Helping Agencies; there is no debate about their role. Violence against the black community isn’t mentioned, nor are industrial disputes. I would find this astonishing, except that the authors are Police Review journalists. They stick to ‘safe’ issues and, on these, do well. We must look elsewhere to resource their omissions.
The Conflict in Afghanistan`
John C. Griffiths, 0 85078 778 5, £6.25
The Revolution in Iran
Akbar Husain, 0 85078 779 3, £5.75
Wayland, Flashpoints series
For 16+ and demanding at that. I know too little of Afghani or Iranian history to comment on accuracy and selectivity. I think the analyses are reasonable; the balance rather depends on how you use the books. A quick flick focuses on images, which in the Afghan book gives a strong impression of military aggression. Captions (bar two) use ‘Soviet’ whereas the text also uses ‘Russian’. You cannot directly access American involvement in the region via the index nor, in the Iran book, can you immediately find British interests. War images here suggests Iran suffering Iraqi aggression. Those of the last Shah ascribe to him land reform, women’s emancipation, primary education and ‘bringing Iran into the twentieth century’. The text, however, supplies counter-readings. Both books have a glossary and adult reading list; Iran has a chronology 622-1980 – has nothing happened since? How to read the books? Dipping is unproductive; the language is complex and dense, there are backwards and forwards references and a large number of subject-specific terms. You really need to start at the beginning with the 1979 ‘flashpoints’ – invasion by Russians, return of Ayatolleh. Both books then follow a pattern, plunging through history, picking up from 1979 in chapter 5. querying the future in chapter 7. Latest references are the 1985 Irani budget and Gorbachev’s troop-withdrawal in 1986. Selective skipping might be recommended by a teacher who knew the books thoroughly. Could the wide margins housing captions also have been used to key readers into paragraphs’? Perhaps there was an editorial decision against clutter. I was informed by both, occasionally worried by the Afghan book. This is most kindly described as tourism: ‘The Afghan and the Pathan in particular. has a remarkable capacity fox combining exaggerated individuality with the ability to co-operate . . . with other members of his community.’ The Foreign Office gave me this kind of garbage before I went to SE Asia in 1966. Has Russian ‘barbarity’ in Afghanistan outclassed American ‘ferocity’ in Vietnam? I’d like to know the credentials and stance of these authors.