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Hidden lives 2: Lost in the crowd . . .

To use photographs of urban refugees from an exhibition by the award-winning photographer Andrew McConnell to encourage pupils to reflect on how it feels to be lost in a crowd.

by Helen Redfern

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To use photographs of urban refugees from an exhibition by the award-winning photographer Andrew McConnell to encourage pupils to reflect on how it feels to be lost in a crowd.

Preparation and materials


  1. The homepage of the Hidden Lives website (see above for address) has a continuous slideshow of the photographs, which could be put up on a screen during the following introduction.

    London, Birmingham, New York, Nairobi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Port au Prince … these are just some of the big cities around the world that award-winning photographer Andrew McConnell visited to take photographs of urban refugees.

    These people had left their families, jobs and homes and fled from their own countries. Each had a different story to tell of persecution, exploitation and violence. Many feared for their own lives. They had moved to these big cities in the hope of finding safety, earning a living and developing a sense of community.

    I wonder what they actually found when they arrived in the big city? I wonder how life turned out for them?

    Pause the slideshow.
  2. How about you? How do you feel when you visit a big city?
  3. Reader 1I love it. Sometimes I go up to London for the day with friends or to meet my cousins. We go shopping and I love being in the big crowds around Piccadilly Circus. Mind you, we are always well prepared and have a map, plenty of money and a mobile phone. I can imagine how scary it would be if you didn’t know anyone and didn’t even understand the language.
  4. Reader 2 I can remember the first time I went into Newcastle on my own on the bus. It was the scariest thing ever. I was 11 and had convinced my Mum that I knew what I was doing, but I really didn’t. I got off the bus several stops too early and wandered around for ages. I was too scared to ask anyone the way. I was totally lost for about an hour before I stumbled on the green where I was meeting my friends. They had given up waiting, though, so I ended up just going straight home. I have never felt so alone in my life.
  5. Reader 3I have to go into town a couple of times a week to work in the shop. I still dread the journey every time. I worry that someone drunk will get on the bus or someone will follow me home. I see danger everywhere. Even though there are people all around, I feel so isolated.

    Restart the slideshow.
  6. LeaderA big city can be a scary place. There are people everywhere and yet you can feel so alone. Many of the refugees in the photographs have fled to big cities and discovered a harsh reality. They live in cramped living conditions. They have very little money to live on. They continue to fear for their safety.

    Andrew McConnell took these photographs to highlight the plight of urban refugees.

    Each photo is a portrait set against the backdrop of a cityscape. He emphasises the urban setting by photographing his subjects at night against a background of artificial lights illuminating the city streets. Each portrait is staged to gain maximum effect. Each setting has to be perfect.

    When you look at each of these images, your eyes are drawn to the detail of the busy background, the full cityscape – and the individual in the foreground is overlooked. How true this can be in life. The individual can be easily overlooked and isolated. How easy it is to become lost, insignificant and invisible. In these mega-cities, how easy it is to be completely anonymous.

    While talking to the urban refugees, McConnell discovered how forgotten these people in cities are. They don’t understand what rights they have. They are often afraid to go outside. They regularly suffer discrimination. It’s hard to find work. They therefore end up hiding themselves away.
  7. Stop the slideshow and show the picture of Datt Cung.

    What an amazing image this is. What an incredible cityscape, a wonderful image of Kuala Lumpur at night. This huge mega-city in Malaysia is displayed in all its glory with the instantly recognisable Petronas Towers illuminated for all to see.

    There in the foreground, almost unseen, is a man. His face is lit, his purple shirt visible, but he can be easily overlooked because of the bright and magnificent backdrop.

    There is a story behind this photograph. When the photographer tried to capture the image at street level, the brightness of the illuminated city made it impossible to isolate the individual in the portrait. He searched high and low for a perfect spot and eventually found this rooftop. With no streetlights close by, McConnell was able to strategically place the individual in the frame, conveying perfectly a sense of how overwhelming these cities must be to refugees.

    There is another story behind this photograph, that of Datt Cung – an ethnic Chin refugee from Burma now living in Kuala Lumpur. One day, he was arrested for helping two people from his home village with their shopping. It turned out they were members of the Chin National Front. Datt was interrogated and tortured for two months. He was beaten and subjected to water torture. Then he was sentenced to nine years in a forced labour camp. After eight years and five months, he was released when the UN Secretary General asked the Burmese government to release political prisoners. He was afraid of being arrested again so he fled to Malaysia.

    Life in Malaysia is still very hard for Datt as he doesn’t speak the language. He is scared to go out because he has not been recognised as a refugee. He yearns for freedom of religion and freedom of speech in Burma so he can return home.

Time for reflection

Set the challenge to the pupils to open their eyes to the people and needs around us.

Leader How easy it is to overlook the individual in the city. How easy it is not to see the individual in a crowd.

We live with refugees around us in our cities, but we don't notice them. The person sitting next to you on the Underground or the bus could be a refugee. The person in front of you in the queue at the local shop or even your neighbour could be a refugee.

How easy it is to forget that every individual has a story. How easy it is to forget that every individual has needs.

We are surrounded by individuals in our busy daily lives, but we don’t notice them. The person sitting next to you in class or right now may be going through a difficult time. The person all alone in the dinner hall may be desperate for someone to talk to right now.

Maybe you are that person. Maybe you feel isolated and alone. Maybe you have a story that needs to be heard.

May you find that someone is there for you in your time of need – just as you can be there for someone else today.

Let us conclude our time together with a short prayer. You may make these words your own if you wish.


Dear God,
we remember the refugees living in difficult circumstances in big cities all over the world and pray that they will be treated as individuals, not become statistics.
We thank you for the work of Andrew McConnell and pray that his exhibition will raise awareness and chance perceptions about urban refugees.
Help us to see the individual in the crowd.
Help us to listen to the stories of others.
Help us to be there for someone else today.


Playeither the music you chose from another culture, asking the pupils to try and understand how it feels to be a refugee in a strange city, or ‘An Englishman in New York’ by Sting.

Publication date: May 2013   (Vol.15 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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