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How to use the Unveiling Stories thinking routine to Investigate Multiple Layers of Meaning in a Photograph

How to Use Unveiling Stories to Investigate Muliple Layers of Meaning in a Photograph

How to use the Unveiling Stories thinking routine to Investigate Multiple Layers of Meaning in a Photograph


Today I’m talking all about how to use the ‘Unveiling Stories’ thinking routine to investigate multiple layers of meaning with a photograph.
This is part of a new series of episodes on the podcast where I share a thinking routine with you and all the insights for how you might be able to use it with an artwork or object with groups – either in-person or online.
Unveiling Stories was our ‘thinking routine of the month’ for June in the Visible Thinking Membership. Every month we have a specialist thinking routine online class that gives us the opportunity to discover a new thinking routine or to dig a bit deeper into one we already know.
Discover in this episode:
  • What is ‘Unveiling Stories’ thinking routine?
  • 5 Steps of Unveiling Stories
  • About ‘Unveiling Stories’
  • How we structured the discussion using ‘Cross-Border Love’ – a photograph by Roland Schmid
  • My key takeaways and tips for using this thinking routine


Unveiling Stories is a thinking routine for revealing multiple layers of meaning in an image, text, or journalistic report. For our purposes here, we have used a photograph.


There are 5 parts to this thinking routine:

What is the story?
What is the human story?
What is the world story?
What is the new story?
What is the untold story?
Each layer addresses a key dimension of global journalism:
What is the story addresses the central, most visible story;
What is the human story addresses the way the story helps us understand the lives of fellow humans;
What is the world story, looks at the ways in which the story speaks to global issues;
What is the new story looks at what is new and instructive about the story and issues explored;
And finally What is the untold story addresses the important absences or unreported aspects of the story.
This thinking routine has connections and similarities to two other thinking routines ‘Stories’ and ‘Main Side Hidden’


This thinking routine was developed as part of the ID Global and PZ Connect project at Harvard’s Project Zero..
Id-Global is a collection of research projects designed to inform educators interested in preparing youth to understand pressing global issues of our times – such as climate change, mass migration, global health, the digital revolution and so on – and to participate in these issues as responsible global citizens


  • It’s a very flexible thinking routine: You may think about selecting some of the questions rather than all of them depending on your goals for your discussion. The last two questions are the most complicated requiring more higher order thinking and you may want to think about how you introduce these questions to your groups.  
  • You may also consider modifying the order in which the questions are introduced to your discussion.
  • You will definitely need to combine this routine with an observation routine or activity at the start. You can do Looking Ten Times Tow or a 60 Second Look so that you don’t jump straight into interpreting and making hasty judgements. Observation is always a key first step!


I selected ‘Cross-Border Love’ by photographer Roland-Schmid as the photograph to discuss using Unveiling Stories. This photograph was taken on 25 April 2020. 

 Here’s also a brief verbal description of what you can see in the image:

The photograph shows a man and woman on a road separated by a variety of barriers, some metal, some plastic. The man is seated on the floor and has his back to us. He has a backpack with a pair of sunglasses resting on the top. The woman is opposite him on the otherside of the barrier and she is crouching down, holding a piece of paper in her hand. She is looking at the man. They both appear to be young, possibly in their 20s. To the right of the couple we see a variety of signs, some written with German words, others showing images of country flags (the Swiss flag and the German flag),. By the signs are some overgrown bushes and brambles.  To the left of the couple and away into the distance are some houses, trees and other buildings, and some power lines or tram lines that we can see against the blue sky. The man wears a grey tshirt and blue shorts, whilst the woman is wearing a pink top and a darker skirt. 


We started with 60 seconds silently exploring the photograph with our eyes. Then I asked the group to make lots of observations. The key point here is to resist the urge to start interpreting right away. 
Just make a list of what you see. 
After looking silently, I asked the group to unmute and each share 3 things that they saw in the photograph. 
We described the photograph fully before we moved on to the ‘story’ questions. 


We then moved on to the first question in the thinking routine. I began by asking the question ‘Based on what you’re seeing, what’s the overall story here?’ A good way of thinking about this question is by thinking about who, what, where and why questions as you look at the image.
Some participants placed the photograph into recent contexts – seeing the temporary border fences, put there for an emergency or done in a hurry, made them think about the Covid pandemic and also how there had always been informal pathways between countries and now there are suddenly barriers.
Other participants mentioned the relaxed, atmosphere of the photograph -the man and woman appear to be relaxed – doesn’t bring to mind any conflict- one person brought up personal connections between Netherlands and Belgium where borders are usually very relaxed but were suddenly closed in March 2020 and how this affected people who usually go across the border several times a day.
Another participant brought up other personal connections between borders – and used the border between England and Wales as an example of a border that has also always been quite relaxed until the pandemic, where it became a hard border with different rules on each side.


We then moved on to the second question which asks you to look through the lens of the people in the image. ‘What’s the human story?’
I asked participant to look at the image from the perspective of either the man or the woman or both of them. 
If we were to tell this story through the lens of the people in the image, what would that story be?
There were a variety of suggestions, amongst which:
  • Perhaps they are trying to figure out how to work around the restrictions so that they can continue despite the barriers, 
  • Because the woman is holding some papers, Maybe they are working on a project together but they can’t work together because of the borders so they are chatting at the border. 
  • Perhaps they are friends, brother and sister or even star-crossed lovers and there’s an artificial barrier between them but they are still trying to carry on their relationship despite the barriers. 
  • Perhaps this is the first time they have met after chatting online for many months. 


Broadening our reach, we then moved to thinking beyond the specific event and the people in the image. Think about how you might connect this image to a larger issue or a broader event. 
How could you extend this to the rest of the world. What’s the world story here? 
Lots of ideas came up and many more personal connections: 
Lots of thoughts about borders – are artificial, not necessarily practical, how they can be disputed territory, how borders have moved over time. 
    • The effect borders have on the development of people and countries – especially for the people living near borders – that feeling of popping over the border and suddenly you’re in another country and another culture with perhaps even a different language. 
    • The differences between harsh borders and more relaxed borders like the one we see in this photograph. 
    • how people haven’t been able to travel from one country to another recently, how free movement has been restricted


And then we moved on to the question, What’s the new story?, which asks you to think about whether there is something that we can take away from this image that’s new, perhaps something we didn’t think about before? 
For example if you are looking at a very old photograph, you could perhaps look at the photograph from the perspective or context of today. The same you could with an object as well. 
As the photo we were using here was from 2020, perhaps we could look at it from a perspective of it being one year after the photograph was taken?
Lots of interesting thoughts in response to this question:
  • Maybe it’s a way of appreciating borders, that we haven’t before. One participant said that the discussion made her think differently about borders from her perspective in the US – with borders between states and between canada and Mexico and how different those borders are. She said it was very interesting hearing about borders from a European perspective. 
  • How having the borders closed in the last year was a very strange experience in Europe because within the EU there aren’t usually any ‘hard’ borders between countries usually.  
  • How borders can be put up at whim – like during the last G7 summit in Cornwall in the UK. 
  • How borders have sprung up between states within countries, for example in the US and Australia in the past year. New borders!


And then we moved on to the last question ‘What’s the Untold Story?’
This last question requires the most higher level thinking – and might require a bit more creative thinking too. 
For this question, think about how we can extend our thinking to a story that’s not necessarily present here. 
Looking at the image for the last time, think about what might be missing or absent here? This might help to think about the untold story. 
We discussed the borders we don’t see between people, the ‘invisible borders’, 
who are the ‘invisible people’ who decide on the borders and how ‘strong’ these borders are, 
how borders can move so many times over the years decided by people other than the inhabitants themselves, 
We talked about being nomadic and moving around and not recognising borders. And finally we talked about Where this couple are now? Are they still meeting? Did the barrier go? Did it come back again with another lockdown? 
I then shared some information about the photograph and how it’s part of a series of photographs of couples by Roland Schmid who have been separated at borders. He followed the couples – one of the couples were first able to kiss and then the border/barrier changed and they no longer could. We then spent some time discussing how we might use this thinking routine in our own work. 


    • I chose this photograph because it contained a lot of visual clues and information. This meant that I didn’t have to share any information throughout the discussion. Photojournalism works really well with this thinking routine. 
    • This thinking routine would also work well with objects – especially those with ‘hidden’ or ‘new’ stories that have been uncovered as a result of recent research. 
    • With an object, the ‘human’ story question would be a great way of thinking about the people who interact or use the object. You could use a visual aid to show the object in use or being worn, for example. 
    • This thinking routine could be used for breaking down complex, multi-layered stories into more manageable parts for discussion.
So that’s how I used Unveiling Stories to reveal layers of meaning with a photograph. How might Unveiling Stories connect to your work? How might you apply it? Do you have an artwork or object in mind already? I’d love to hear how you’re thinking of using it – via the comments below!
And If you’d like a FULL LIST of all 100+ thinking routines, don’t forget to sign up for my newly updated ULTIMATE THINKING ROUTINES LIST. It has more than 100 thinking routines in one place, ready for you to use in your own unique way.