Powerful picture (and its caption) worth 1000 words

It’s remarkable what a middle school student can learn about the world just from a picture and its caption.

This powerful picture from the BBC’s “Week in Pictures” shows a man who has been shot in the face, chest and throat:

south sudan

He was injured in violence that has broken out in South Sudan and that has killed thousands of people so far. Most middle school students will be hearing about this conflict for the first time, and probably will not know anything about South Sudan.

But they will find the picture compelling, and if we can get them to read the caption, they might start wondering. Here’s how the caption describes the picture:

A patient being treated after being shot in the face, chest and throat sits in a wheelchair in the Malakal teaching hospital, South Sudan. Violence broke out in South Sudan on 15 December, initially between rival army factions. It has now killed thousands of people and displaced around 860,000.

Let’s take some time to unpack the three sentences in that caption, starting with the last sentence … that’s what really drew me into this story — 860,000 people have been displaced in South Sudan because of violence.

It’s hard to imagine that 860,000 people have had to leave their homes in South Sudan in just the past 55 days (since December 15, 2014). That’s nearly four times the population of the city where I live, Durham, NC. 

I was also drawn to this story because I have a personal connection with South Sudan. Back in 2012, I arranged for a group of middle school students to meet with with a remarkable Duke student named Nyuol Tong, who is starting a school in his family’s village in South Sudan. I wrote about our visit with Nyuol in a blog post titled Empathizing With South Sudan.

At the time, there was a great deal of excitement because South Sudan had just separated from Sudan to become an independent state in July 2011, making it the newest country in the world. As we’re seeing now, it’s a fragile country, and people are dying there as different groups fight for power.

The population of South Sudan today is about 10 million people, so having 860,000 people “displaced” means nearly 9% of the people there have fled their homes because of the violence.

For context, 9% of the US population (317 million people) would be more than 28 million people. That’s about three times the population of North Carolina (9.7 million). We’re talking about a huge displacement of people in South Sudan.

Let’s move on to the second sentence of the caption to see if we can figure out why there has been violence in South Sudan.  The caption said “Violence broke out in South Sudan on 15 December, initially between rival army factions.”

What are the rival factions? And what’s a faction? Reading quality news sources should help middle school students build vocabulary.


I just searched for “South Sudan Violence” to get some background.  I learned that on January 14, 2014, the New York Times reported that 200 people in South Sudan were killed in a ferry accident. They were packed on the ferry because they were fleeing the city of Malakal for their lives. Here’s a headline and a picture:


An excerpt from that article explains a bit about why people are fighting:

Rebel forces attacked Malakal, the capital of the oil-rich state of Upper Nile, again on Tuesday, officials said. The city has already traded hands twice in the conflict, with the rebels capturing it, then retreating in the face of a government assault in late December. According to Doctors Without Borders, on Sunday 94 gunshot victims arrived by boat at a hospital in another city, wounded in the fighting on the front line outside Malakal.

“Today there is fighting anew” in and around Malakal, said Toby Lanzer , the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, in a message on Twitter on Tuesday. He said the number of civilians seeking protection at the United Nations base there had “soared from 10,000 to 19,000.” That number has now reached 20,000, according to Ariane Quentier at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.

The conflict in South Sudan stems from a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar . Mr. Kiir dismissed Mr. Machar along with the rest of his cabinet in July. Then fighting broke out on Dec. 15, after the president accused Mr. Machar of an attempted coup.

United Nations officials have said the death toll in the conflict has risen significantly since their estimate in late December that more than 1,000 people had been killed. The International Crisis Group said last week that the number of fatalities was approaching 10,000.

The conflict looks increasingly like the all-out civil war that diplomats say they have been trying to prevent.

So there’s a civil war in South Sudan, and one of the places where the fighting is most intense is a place called Malakal. That’s where the picture of the injured man from the BBC was taken — at a teaching hospital in Malakal, South Sudan (that was the first sentence of the caption).

Let’s see if we can bring Malakal to life so we can better empathize with the people living there.

The New York Times article about the ferry accident has a map that shows the location of Malakal:

NYT map

That shows us that Malakal is near the border with Sudan, but it’s hard to empathize with a red dot. Let’s bring Malakal to life, using modern technology.

Before we do, let’s take a moment to gain some general geographic context: students probably know the Nile River ends at a delta in Egypt, but they may not know that it begins in higher altitudes of Sudan and Ethiopia.  Two separate branches of the Nile — the White Nile and the Blue Nile — come together at the capital city of Sudan, Khartoum.  The White Nile is largely in Sudan (now South Sudan), while the Blue Nile is in Sudan and Ethiopia.  See the map below:


I’ve made a short video (2-minutes 30 seconds) that shows how we can use Google Earth to bring Malakal to life:

* Note: YouTube is being odd on my computer and I am just hearing audio without video; if this is your experience as well, try accessing the video directly on YouTube.

Now that we have taken time to think about the caption and the picture from the BBC, I’m sure students would have lots of questions about what’s going on in South Sudan.

At TLC Middle School (opening in fall 2014), we would take more time — about half an hour — to discuss in depth the questions that the students raise.

The might ask things like: What is the history of South Sudan?  How did it become independent?  What religions are prevalent there? What is the economy like? Do kids there go to school? What do they do when they are not in school?

After our discussion, students would get a chance to write and reflect for 20-30 minutes about what they learned about South Sudan. Here’s a full explanation of how the morning news discussion works at TLC.

Students can do some powerful learning if we slow down and empathize with poignant pictures of people around the world.

If this approach to learning sounds interesting, please click this link to learn more about TLC, or email me, Steve Goldberg, at MrGoldberg [at] gmail.com


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Powerful picture (and its caption) worth 1000 words

  1. Rolland Damien says:

    Good work. God bless you, Steve.

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