Speaker series talks representation of displaced children

Tuesday night at the Benzinger Library in East Quad, around 30 students from the class run by the Residential College, Displaced Children in an Uncertain World, gathered for a discussion run by David Choberka, manager of academic outreach and a teacher at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

The class, run by Residential College lecturer Elizabeth Goodenough, is a half-semester, interdisciplinary mini-course that aims to explore how different types of mediums such as contemporary film, global media, classical literature and autobiographies represent children suffering from displacement, war and family separation.

Ultimately, the class aims to encourage students to think about storytelling through both visual and verbal media. Goodenough explained more specifically that the class aims to show how those works of arts influence their understanding of contemporary events and ancient stories.

“These motifs that are important to analyze because stories are as essential as sleep to being human,” Goodenough said. “If we don’t tell stories, we really lose who we are and who we become. Often, I think because we’re all quite pressed and overstimulated, we don’t ask ourselves questions about the existential realities of the stories we’re living. Are we living somebody else’s story for us? Or at least we can become more aware of the guiding voices in our own stories.”

Part of the six-week class is a unique speaker series. All students are required to attend the lectures by global experts such as historians, anthropologists, poets and filmmakers, whose perspectives provide insight on the challenges and complexities of the representation of displaced children.

Goodenough believes these lectures are an essential aspect of the course, not only for her students to gain a fuller view of this topic, but also as her own learning tool.

“I taught the course because I wanted to learn more,” Goodenough said. “I mean, I’m trained in literary studies, not as an anthropologist, not as a professional academic historian, not as an art historian or interpreter of visual art. So, you go into this business of teaching because you want to keep learning.”

Choberka presented a series of photographs and lithographs by Peter Turney, a University of Michigan alum, featuring refugees in places including 1999 Albania or 1988 Malawi.

“A lot of what we do is teach thinking with images — how do images express things to us? How do we represent them?” Choberka said. “So that is an important part of our engagement of any class, because images are such an important part of our cultures as depictions of refugees are something we encounter in the news. It’s really just about what sort of meanings do these things bring up for us. My role is to put these interpretations into a sort of dialogue.”

Choberka encouraged students to talk about the interpretations, the meanings and the feelings the image brings up for them. He emphasized the multifaceted components of these images, and how the experience might be different for each person as they bring in their own experiences into the picture. He wanted to talk about the complicated nature of these pictures and perhaps the issues or questions that the pieces might inspire.

The discussion began with a photograph of four refugees in 1999 Albania with a young boy in the center. Students questioned whether the child knew he was getting his picture taken, to what extent it was planned or spontaneous and whether or not the subjects were contemplating how to present themselves to the camera. Moreover, they wondered how they could use visual cues as indexes of experiences that other people have had or in stories they’ve seen in the news.

LSA senior Kaithlyn Sanchez told The Daily the class has taught her to question the children’s perspectives in times of chaos and displacement, instead of the artist’s views and to really pay attention to how they might feel.

“This class is about questioning how certain people want us to look at these displaced children, whether it’s when they’re taking their picture or writing about them and if we can actually grab the full experience of what a child might think about a certain situation or what their headspace is,” Sanchez said. “It’s all about us trying to tap into how a children sees a situation, versus how we see it.”

Choberka noted that although the students are interacting with these images, they still are interacting with them at a distance and inferring the type of story the image is trying to tell. They still don’t know any of the true context.

In another picture of a Mozambican refugee camp in Malawi in 1988, Choberka noted how the photographer has decided to show only a young child walking between two vertical rows of bright yellow restrooms.  

“I am very skeptical of this picture,” Choberka said. “The photographer has chosen to position himself so that we have a weirdly serial organized experience of these built structures — which has probably been brought in by outsiders to alleviate some of the problems they have had. To me, it says, ‘We have successfully helped these people! We have built structures in a very organized fashion.’ But, it could look more disorganized and worn down. There is no sense of urgency in the image, and it looks like the kid is having a good time. Which is suggestive of an order that has been imposed on a chaotic situation. But it could be total triumphant story.”

The students then began a discussion on the role the person taking the picture plays into telling the story of these different cultures, and the agency that the subjects have in telling their story to the viewer. Choberka emphasized that each image might be inadequate on their own as they only tell part of a story.

“It can be a much more complex story and could potentially misrepresent them,” Choberka said. “Although it is one moment of fun, it could have been their one moment of fun that has only happened within the last few years.”


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