The challenge of pictorial representations in research outputs

Elizabeth Walton and Jo McIntyre, University of Nottingham

The British Academy funded DRIVE Project is about disabled refugees being visible and included in education in Uganda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Visibility has been an important concern in this project, with previous research showing that disabled refugees tend to be invisible in policy. Visibility is about being seen and not being ignored. Many of the disabled refugees we interviewed welcomed the fact that there was interest in their specific experience of educational inclusion and exclusion.

Writing about the educational experiences of disabled refugees for policy-makers, teacher educators and other stakeholders is challenging in many ways. These challenges include describing the complexity of different contexts and the range of different experiences. Another challenge is the expectation that we provide pictures to accompany written text. Stakeholders want to see what we say. That is, make our message visible.

Research shows that individual pictures are not well suited to capture issues of educational justice, equity and inclusion. Refugees and disabled people are not always well represented visually. Images of refugees often “depict ragged people behind barbed wire fences or on a shaky boat heading to shore” (University of Helsinki, 2020). Crowther (2020) explains that stock photographs of disabled people usually rely on stereotypes.

We encountered various problems when searching for images in free to use sites like Unsplash and Pexels. Our search terms are ‘refugees’ ‘disability’ ‘education’ and ‘Africa’, but nothing matches all four of these together. So we tried ‘refugee education Africa’ and ‘disability education Africa’. These yield results, none of which are satisfactory. Problems include:

– The term ‘Africa’ triggers animal and landscape shots in Unsplash, reinforcing the narrative that Africa is wild and untamed.

– Pictures of Africa on globes and maps are offered in both Unsplash and Pexels, serving as a visual metaphor for something that is distant and foreign.

– Education is abstracted in both sites through pictures of books, pencils and classrooms. This erases the humans involved in teaching and learning.

– Both sites have a small number of pictures of African children in classrooms or in a school playground. We do wonder if the children in the images have given consent for their photographs to be made freely available. Pexels offer pictures of white people in well-resourced libraries and classrooms. The contrast is stark: Education for African children is in crowded classrooms, sitting in regimented rows. Education for white people (adults and children) is individualised, engaging, it makes people happy and is supported with books and technology.

We did not want to choose pictures that reinforce negative stereotypes of Africa as exotic and distant, and the continent’s children as poor and pitiable. We finally chose this picture ( to accompany our international policy brief. It comes with the tags Africa, Uganda, African boy.

We had some reservations:

– The context (Uganda) is only evident in the photograph’s meta-information. The picture itself has little to identify where it was taken and so it becomes a picture of everywhere and no-where. This decontextualisation is a way to minimise scrutiny of historical and geographical patterns of oppression and exclusion in education.

– Education is not explicit in this picture. Often signifiers of education are absent in images used to convey inclusive education (Walton & Dixon, 2021). Additionally for this project, we need to convey who is included in schooling. In Africa, not all children are in education. UNESCO says,

Of all regions, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of education exclusion. Over one-fifth of children between the ages of about 6 and 11 are out of school, followed by one-third of youth between the ages of about 12 and 14. According to UIS data, almost 60% of youth between the ages of about 15 and 17 are not in school.

Our research shows that disabled refugees, especially girls and women, often find it difficult to access education. Once in school, they do not always get the support they need, and sometimes they experience bullying and discrimination. Many disabled refugee students leave school early and have no pathways into further educational opportunities and work. A picture without education makes it difficult to ‘show’ what we are saying about their access into and through education.

But there was a lot that we liked:

– The focus on the individual child. His disability and or refugee status isn’t apparent from the visual information given. Our research shows that it is important not to essentialise, that is, to assume things about people because of some aspect of their identity.

– This is a medium shot and the child looks directly at the camera, forcing the viewer into a relationship with the child and his world. This is in contrast with some of the wide angle distant classroom shots, where the viewer can gaze dispassionately on a class of children.

– The fact that it is taken in Uganda, one of our project sites.

– The twine ‘cat’s cradle’, which is an indigenous game in many places, including Africa, is foregrounded, and we think this offers a useful visual metaphor for the complexity that we need to convey. The road in the background reinforces the journeys that refugees have taken.

Click here to read more about the research in each site and the policy briefs that have been developed

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