Telling stories through portraits: changemakers

Learning objectives

  1. Discover inspiring stories of activists and campaigners who fought to make people’s lives better.
  1. Explore how portraits can help us find out about personal stories and important historical events.
  1. Analyse the different tools artists use to tell us about people and their stories.

The National Portrait Gallery is full of portraits of interesting people. Some of them are activists, campaigners and leaders, who have stood up for something they believe in, and tried to make people’s lives better. You might not get to meet them, but looking at their portrait is a way you can get to know them a little.

Let’s look at some people who have tried to make a difference and see what we can find out about them from their portraits.

This photograph shows members of the Bengali community in Brick Lane, east London. They are Protest The expression of strong dislike of or opposition to something; a statement or an action that shows this. against Racism The unfair treatment of people who belong to a different race. .

Look carefully at the photograph and think or talk about the questions.

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    Demonstration of Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London (including Mala Sen and Chomok Ali Noor),    by Paul Trevor,    1976,    NPG x201506,    © Paul Trevor
Demonstration of Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London (including Mala Sen and Chomok Ali Noor), by Paul Trevor, 1976
    • The people are all moving together in the same direction. 
    • They have linked arms with one another. Some people are holding hands. 
    • Some people have raised a fist in the air, which can be a symbol of support, as well as an anti-racism symbol.
    • They are marching together under a banner for the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London. This shows that they all against Racism The unfair treatment of people who belong to a different race. .
    • They are carrying signs with a message that says ‘NO BRITAIN WITHOUT US’.
    • This message is about the important contributions South Asian communities have made to life in Britain.
    • Many people in the photograph have their mouth open, perhaps they are calling out their message too.
    • The expression on each person’s face is serious.
    • A lot of people have come together to bring attention to their message and demand that things change.
    • This photograph was taken in the street, as the Demonstration A public meeting or a march at which people show that they are protesting against or supporting somebody/something. was happening.
    • The community of Bengali people who lived on and near Brick Lane in east London, were standing up to the groups of racist people who were trying to frighten and threaten them.
    • They got together with other ethnic minority groups in east London to campaign against Racism The unfair treatment of people who belong to a different race. .

Malala Yousafzai

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    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7053,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai
by Shirin Neshat
archival ink on gelatin silver print on fibre-based paper, 2018
60 in. x 40 in. (1524 mm x 1016 mm) overall
NPG 7053
© National Portrait Gallery, London

This is Malala Yousafzai. Have you heard of her? She is famous because she has been an activist since she was a child. Take a closer look at this portrait, made by artist Shirin Neshat, and see what you can discover about Malala.

Decide what you think this portrait says about Malala. What does it tell us about what she is like as a person? What does it tell us about what she does as an activist?

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    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7053,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai, by Shirin Neshat, 2018
    • She is sitting with her hands crossed, one finger lifting the corner of a page.
    • She is looking straight at the camera.
    • She is posing for the photograph.
    • Malala is interested in education.
    • She campaigns for girls’ rights to go to school.
    • Although she is sitting at a desk, this photo was taken in the artist’s studio, where she could carefully control the light and arrange the book and desk.
    • Do you think she looks happy or sad, angry or calm?
    • What can you see that tells you how she feels?
    • Why do you think she might want to be shown this way in her portrait?
    • Malala’s Hijab A piece of clothing that covers the head, worn in public by some Muslim women. is a symbol of her religion, Islam.
    • Why do you think she is also wearing dark coloured, plain clothes with no accessories?
    • The artist has written on the photograph. It is a poem by Rahman Shah Sayel, praising Malala. 
    • The poem is written in Pashto, one of the languages Malala speaks. She was born in Mingora, Pakistan.

Satish Kumar

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    Satish Kumar,    by Nicola Kurtz,    20 January 2003,    NPG x126086,    © Nicola Kurtz
Satish Kumar, by Nicola Kurtz, 20 January 2003

In the 1960s Satish Kumar walked more than 8000 miles for peace and the environment. It took more than two years. He and his friend E.P. Menon walked from India to Russia, France, England and America. They took tea to world leaders, asking them to drink tea instead of dropping bombs.

  1. What do you think this portrait tells us about Satish Kumar?
  1. Why do you think he wanted to pose by the tree?

Satish Kumar carried on campaigning to protect the planet. He set up Schumacher College in Devon, England, to teach people about the environment and growing plants.

He chose to pose for his portrait by this tree outside Schumacher College. He says the tree welcomes visitors and guards the college.

Is the photograph posed?

Some photographs are carefully posed. This means the person in the photograph knows they are going to have their photograph taken. Sometimes photographers spend a long time deciding what to include in the photograph and where it should be taken.

Other photographs are taken quite quickly, while something is happening. This is documentary photography. It is a way of recording and sharing what’s going on in the moment, often for the news.

Compare the photographs of Satish Kumar and Ellen Cicely Wilkinson.

Look at their bodies, their faces and their gaze (where they are looking). Look at the background behind them.

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    Ellen Cicely Wilkinson leading the Jarrow Marchers through Cricklewood in London,    by Fox Photos Ltd,    31 October 1936,    NPG x88278,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Ellen Cicely Wilkinson leading the Jarrow Marchers through Cricklewood in London, by Fox Photos Ltd, 31 October 1936
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    Satish Kumar,    by Nicola Kurtz,    20 January 2003,    NPG x126086,    © Nicola Kurtz
Satish Kumar, by Nicola Kurtz, 20 January 2003
  1. Which photograph has movement in it, and which is still? What makes you think that?
  1. Which photograph do you think has been posed? Why do you think that?
  1. Which photograph do you think is documentary photography? Why do you think that?

The photograph of Satish Kumar was posed. The photograph of Ellen Wilkinson is an example of photojournalism.

The photograph of Ellen Wilkinson shows her on a Protest The expression of strong dislike of or opposition to something; a statement or an action that shows this. . She was the MP for Jarrow in north-east England. In 1936, she helped to organise a march of 200 Unemployment A person, or number of people, not having a job. men from the town. They walked 270 miles to London to protest against Unemployment A person, or number of people, not having a job. and Poverty Conditions related to being poor. . This photograph was taken for a newspaper and shows Wilkinson joining the marchers as they arrived in London. They marched to Parliament to hand over a Petition A written document signed by a large number of people that asks somebody in a position of authority to do or change something. .

Speaking to crowds

One way some activists try to change things for the better is by talking to big crowds of people. Look carefully at these photographs of activists speaking to crowds. One shows Darcus Howe, holding a megaphone, the other shows Emmeline Pankhurst, with her arm in the air.

Compare the photographs to each other. How are they the same, and how are they different?

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    Darcus Howe (Anti-National Front Demonstration, Lewisham),    by Syd Shelton,    13 August 1977,    NPG x201508,    © Syd Shelton
Darcus Howe (Anti-National Front Demonstration, Lewisham), by Syd Shelton, 13 August 1977
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    Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square,    by Central Press,    October 1908,    NPG x131784,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Trafalgar Square, by Central Press, October 1908
  1. Imagine you could step into the photograph. What would it feel like, sound like and smell like? If you could turn around and look from another point of view, what might you see?
  1. How do you think the activist is speaking? For example, calmly, excitedly, or confidently? Are they being silly or serious? 
  1. What are the other people in each photograph doing? Are they above, beside, below or all around the activist?
  1. Is the crowd listening, or not? How can you tell?
  1. What do you think might have happened next, after the photograph was taken?

These portraits help us to find out about what it was like on the day when these crowds gathered. But there is no information in the photographs that tell us what they are talking about. If you know a little bit about the activists and what they campaigned for, you might be able to guess. Emmeline Pankhurst campaigned for women to be able to vote. Darcus Howe campaigned against Racism The unfair treatment of people who belong to a different race. .

  1. Make a speech bubble for each portrait. What might they be saying?
    • The photograph of Darcus Howe shows him speaking to a crowd of people. They had come together to protect their neighbourhood, in Lewisham, south London, from a group of racist people. It was 13 August 1977.
    • Howe was part of the community in Lewisham. He was known for campaigning against Racism The unfair treatment of people who belong to a different race. . Another campaigner gave him a megaphone and asked him to speak. He talked calmly to the crowd, encouraging them to stand up against racism. In the end, the group of racist people left.
    • The photograph of Emmeline Pankhurst was taken on 11 October 1908, when she spoke to a crowd of 3000 people in Trafalgar square, London.
    • The event had been organised by a group of women called the Suffragettes A group of women who organised a campaign in the early 1900s for the right of women to vote in political elections. , who were campaigning for women to be able to vote in political elections.
    • At the time, women were not allowed to vote in general elections, and the suffragettes wanted this to change.
    • At the event, Emmeline Pankhurst asked the crowd to push their way into the Houses of Parliament to demand votes for women.

Posing for portraits

The activists Satish Kumar and Malala Yousafzai knew they were going to have their photograph taken, so they could decide how they wanted to look and what objects to include.

It may have taken a long time for the artist to arrange everything in the portrait, make sure the light was right, and make sure the photograph showed what they wanted it to.

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    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7053,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai, by Shirin Neshat, 2018
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    Satish Kumar,    by Nicola Kurtz,    20 January 2003,    NPG x126086,    © Nicola Kurtz
Satish Kumar, by Nicola Kurtz, 20 January 2003
  1. Have you ever posed for a photograph?

    Was it taken by a professional photographer or someone you know?

    Perhaps it was at school, with your family or at a special occasion.

    Did the photographer help you decide how to pose?

    Did you or the photographer choose who and what should be in the picture?
  1. Have a go at posing for a photograph or helping a friend pose.

    Will you sit or stand? How will you pose your arms? What expression will you have on your face? Will you have any objects in the photo? What will be in the background?

    If you have access to a camera or phone, once you are happy with your pose, you could take a photograph.

Find out more

Portraits can’t tell us everything about the people in them. But the information we can get from portraits can help us begin our own investigations.

The National Portrait Gallery is full of portraits of interesting people, and many of them campaigned for change in many different ways. Their portraits have been made in all sorts of different ways too. Here are some portraits that are not photographs. There are paintings, prints and sculptures.

Choose a portrait that interests you.

  1. Why did you choose this portrait?
  1. What is the person doing?
  1. What is the expression on their face?
  1. What are they wearing?
  1. Are there any special objects in the portrait?
  1. What ‘story’ does this portrait tell you about the person?
  1. Do you have any questions about them or the portrait?
  1. How could you find out more?

Next steps

Find out about activists and campaigners using the questions you came up with by looking at their portraits. How many can you answer? Where could you find more information?