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Resource November 12, 2013

'Why is There So Much Bad Blood?': Students Examine Border Tensions

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Media file: ProjectTVH_NK_China_border_chi3435XP.jpg
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With the same ruthless skill it uses to keep its population in check, North Korea also keeps...

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Washington, DC

The Pulitzer Center was proud to once again participate in FotoWeek DC, exhibiting the border photography of grantees Tomas van Houtryve and Louie Palu. The week included plenty of outreach, including an interactive element, a talks@pulitzer and an evening discussion in the exhibit space.

But we didn't just keep van Houtryve busy during the evenings. Over three days he spoke with thirteen school classes all over the Washington, DC metro area from Bethesda to the southeast corner of the District, totaling nearly 400 students from grades 5 to 12.

Monday morning van Houtryve appeared alongside Pulitzer Center multimedia projects coordinator Meghan Dhaliwal, social media editor Caroline D'Angelo and local television producer Brenda Mallory on a panel at McKinley Technology High School, a STEM school cutting its mass media program after this year. The panelists spoke to the importance of a mass media education for young people in today's rapidly shrinking world. van Houtryve made a particularly striking point when he mentioned that while reporting in North Korea he learned that every household in the country has a radio without an off switch fixed to the wall, so that the government has complete control over its citizens' media consumption. He reminded students that the availability of a free press is not just a privilege but a responsibility, and encouraged them to be conscious, thoughtful consumers and producers of media.

Later that afternoon van Houtryve talked photojournalism ethics with students at the SEED school in southeast DC when a student asked if he'd posed a subject in an action shot. van Houtryve explained that a journalist could lose his job for falsifying information in such a way and emphasized the importance of capturing the truth.

Tuesday morning van Houtryve, who is based in Paris, spoke in French about his photographs with AP French students at Woodrow Wilson High School in northwest DC. Later he fielded questions from a Wilson peace studies class and discussed twenty-first-century communism with a Model UN class.

At Plummer Elementary School on Wednesday, van Houtryve explained the concept of borders, and showed his photos of North Korea, to 24 wide-eyed fifth-graders. They had so many questions they couldn't even stay in their seats. "Do they got video games in North Korea?" the students wanted to know. "Chapter books? Dr. Seuss books?" "Washing machines?" "Sports?" "Do they have holidays?" "Do kids wear uniforms to school? Even on Fridays?!" "Is it hard to go there?" "Can airplanes cross the border?" "Why do they don't like certain countries?"

"I thought you could really see the students as they 'got it,'" wrote Kate McNamee, who helped organize the presentation, afterward.

At Eastern Senior High School that afternoon, van Houtryve showed photographs he took during a project in China to a social studies class studying the nation's history. Then he discussed with a street law class whether photography could be an agent of change, and finally spoke with students in a world history course who were in the midst of a unit on borders. The students came up with a list of questions ahead of time, which they considered with van Houtryve. Some examples: "Is China accepting North Koreans?" "Why are mostly women crossing the border into China?" "Why is there so much bad blood?" "Is holding people against their will against international law?"

Philadelphia

At the end of the week we traveled to Philadelphia to speak with some 700 students in grades 5 to 12, in public and charter schools across the city.

At the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in northeast Philadelphia, Lorraine Ustaris's 9th grade english students shot photographs of borders around their neighborhood and posted them to a blog they created. Ustaris asked the students to consider borders in a broad sense, including legal, ideological, resource, and personal borders.

"This is a photo from my neighborhood," wrote one student. "It's an empty lot with a broken fence around it. There are so many places like this around here. Some houses people live in are even like this. Most of us can't afford to move to a better place so we just deal with it. We have bigger problems to worry about like putting food on the table or paying the bills, which we can barely do."

On Friday morning van Houtryve spoke with some 200 students in grades 5 to 8 at the Robert Morris School in central Philadelphia. With the closing of a nearby neighborhood school that served a subsidized housing community, Robert Morris has seen its classes almost double in size this year. Teacher Margaret Monahan said to expect the assembly to be "a little bit rock and roll," but the students were more classical -- attentive, inquisitive, and eager to show us what they knew about dictatorships, democracy, and civil liberties.

At the Science Leadership Academy, 12th grade students in Douglas Herman's introductory photography class were curious about the motivations of a totalitarian regime -- especially one that cannot provide food security to its citizens. What's the point, asked one, of having power if there are no people left to rule?

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