Images of Cruelty, Schooling and Refuge Possibilities

Postmedia Videolanguaging

In: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy
Eduardo Langer Researcher, Human Sciences Research Laboratory ( lich), National Scientific and Technical Research Council ( conicet), National University of San Martín, San Martín, Argentina
Professor of Sociology of Education, National University of San Martín / National University of Southern Patagonia, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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This article describes the relationships between cruelty, schooling and the possibilities that the school offers as a refuge in the face of the inexorable circumstances that seal the fates of a large part of the population living in conditions marked by intensifying inequalities. The work is based on a multiple design which included an audiovisual production workshop in 2022 and 2023 involving students and teachers from a high school in the Buenos Aires metropolitan region and the university. Through the biographical-narrative method, students have carried out in-depth interviews, collaborative work and activities shared in the same school with one of the teachers for over three years. Research results express how, as perceived by high school students and teachers, the school serves as a space that saves others and themselves, a place of support, as well as transmission and education, even amidst instances of cruelty in their daily experiences.


Eduardo Langer’s article is based on the film ‘Images of Cruelty, Schooling and Refuge Possiblities’, which can be viewed here.

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 2024; 10.1163/23644583-09010001

  1. This article is part of the special topic ‘Postmedia Videolanguaging’ edited by Joff P. N. Bradley, Silvia Grinberg and Masayuki Iwase.

1 Images of Cruelty, Schooling and Refuge Possibilities

Hunger, poverty, unemployment or not having a place to live are worsening conditions and scenarios in the world, even more so in peripheral societies such as those in Latin America. In urban areas where inequalities are expanding, as Inclan (2018) notes, “the movement is towards precarious geographies” (p. 185), through a culture of cruelty1 that shapes sensitivity, becomes spectral, disseminates and gives sense to life.

In this article we work on the ways in which students and teachers in a high school on the outskirts of Buenos Aires conceptualize these cruelties through a series of audiovisual productions. They refer to precarious conditions, lives lost to injustice, the abandonment and/or rejection of populations, different kinds of discrimination and violence based on race/ethnicity/gender and, environmental issues leading to pollution or the heavy floods that destroy and sweep away what little is left. Students and teachers are also shocked by iconographies of people being forced out of their homes or losing their jobs in a context where fewer hands are needed in production.

Within this framework, the hypothesis is that, despite the worsening of inequalities in our societies, for high school students and teachers school is a refuge. It is a space that saves others and themselves, provides support, and where transmission and learning occur. It is here where interpretation and integration, problem solving and the building of life projects and expectations happen for individuals of the neighborhoods of the Buenos Aires metropolitan region. It is from a cruel optimism, as Berlant (2020) suggests, that living in an impasse would be an aspiration for many people as “the traditional infrastructures for reproducing life – at work, in intimacy, politically – are crumbling at a threatening pace. The holding pattern implied in impasse suggests a temporary housing” (p. 24). In this regard, we study the relationship between cruelty, schooling and the possibilities given by educational institutions in general, and teachers in particular, to address and provide refuge from the inexorable circumstances that seal the fates of a significant part of the population living under such conditions.

Then follow the results of a research study performed through multiple design work. On the one hand, students and teachers of a high school of the Buenos Aires metropolitan region, along with teachers and researchers from the university carried out an audiovisual production workshop. Students and teachers of the institution2 created, executed and edited two3 audiovisual productions after weekly meetings during 2022 and 2023. These students approach research topics related to their everyday lives as urban researchers: wandering ethnographically in the streets (Rivera Cusicanqui, 2015), in the neighborhoods, among their neighbors, they document their teachers. They choose the topic, interview, record and then edit it, producing documentary videos in and from the school on topics that are addressed from the human and social sciences. This pedagogical approach from the audiovisual requires an ethical discussion (White, 2017), a certain commitment to social justice (García Lazo et al, 2020), as well as participation and responsibility on the part of all the actors involved, both students and teachers from the school and the university. On the other hand, for the last three years, a qualitative design using the biographical-narrative method (Landin Miranda & Sanchez Trejo, 2019) has been employed, addressing formal and informal dialogues, in-depth interviews, collaborative work and activities shared in the same school with one of the teachers. The teacher’s story is not just an “individual case”; every single person stands for a unique instance of social experiences and universal social processes, serving as a synthesis or a stenographic cultural symbol (Ferrarotti, 2007). The approach to these particularities allows us to describe schooling and teaching in contexts of inequality. We would now like to suggest the discussion in two sections in which we describe the ways in which students and teachers conceptualize the notion of cruelty as well as its derivations in fieldwork;4 and then characterize it as its necessary counterpart, schooling and teaching as a refuge.

2 “What Does Cruelty Mean to You?” Problematizing Life Conditions at and from School

In everyday school settings, recorded from the audiovisual, students ask their teachers: What does cruelty mean to you? Why do young students in the outskirts of Buenos Aires (Argentina) think about and work on this topic? What circumstances lead to their interest in it? What do they expect to find and what messages do they aim to convey? Cruelty, a topic chosen by students to problematize their reality “brings forth the existence as such” (Barrera Sanchez, 2017, p. 168) in a present in which cruelty generates the possibility to “define everyday life” (Inclan, 2018, p. 181).

As they contemplate cruelty, students investigate and produce singular stories in which some kind of violence, whether individual or social, is exercised. Problems such as child abuse, neglect, addiction, discrimination, bullying, environmental pollution, homelessness, and other daily tragedies experienced by people living in contexts marked by inequality. When defining cruelty, one of the teachers says:

When you say “cruelty”, different images come to me, sounds, situations, words (Of? The student asks.) For example, hunger. When you said “cruelty” I saw an image of children dumpster diving as a source of food. I think that’s cruel. Seeing that happen, that image is an image of cruelty.

interview with a teacher, 2022
The teacher is talking about the everyday images of her students’ and her own neighborhood. She thinks of hunger and searching in garbage bins to find food to illustrate cruelty. She will then describe everyday injustice and its consequences on social violence, for example, when workers are unexpectedly fired. She talks about everyday situations that any person may undergo, even deaths, which happen daily in this area. She states:

I don’t want someone else to take our place at funeral wakes filled with caps5 and sportswear. I just don’t want any more dead kids in our neighborhood. It’s just that we don’t know what to do anymore. It won’t be our last death. It won’t be the last young person who dies because of social injustice, or drug trafficking. Reality hurts me. Life hurts me.

interview with a teacher, 2022

The loss of young lives and the pain it brings, the rights that are violated, and the injustices experienced every day appear in the teacher’s narrative showing the sharpness of living in a periphery neighborhood. The teacher shares the suffering arising from these realities, and it is precisely the spreading of cruelty resulting from this suffering that makes leading a decent life increasingly challenging for the community. It is in this sense that cruelty gets its most explicit and direct shape, in actions that go against the physical well-being of others, as other teachers interviewed would express.

  1. Putting it simply, cruelty can consist in events or actions that go against bodily and psychological integrity and in any other way against someone.
  2. I think cruelty is an action of irrational violence, carried out by an evil impulse without caring about the other. The opposite of compassion.

When problematizing their reality, students find a range of responses, not just a singular one, and they come to understand how challenging it is to define different instances of cruelty uniformly. Apart from hunger, labor exploitation and social injustices, adults at school talk about hurting others, no matter the results. Therefore, we can approach cruelty in two ways. In line with Derrida (2015), cruelty is always excessive, without moderation or measure, but as something that can be either active or reactive. And, according to Dumoulié (1996), cruelty is inherently relational, as it is present in the perceptions of other(s), which especially worries students, as will be described below. Finally, in these narratives, cruelty is both associated to violence and situations of abuse, while also being distinguished from them. For Wieviorka (2005), there is a difference between violence and cruelty, because the latter is neither similar nor fundamentally different from the former, as it is “the circumstances that drive violence to excess and authorize the use of cruelty, which in this case appears as a complement” (p. 255).

Some individuals believe cruelty exists in actions, and for some others it does not only or exclusively refer to actions. Those students who problematize their lives at and from the school, consider cruelty beyond this. According to Mélich (2014), cruelty is “the way of being and thinking, not only in the things that we do, but in the way we justify and analyze them, its different mechanisms, its categories, its legal and legitimate procedures” (p. 57). There exists a production of logics of what we are, ways to relate to others and to ourselves, to include and exclude, to respect or discriminate. These frameworks give rise to processes of social violence, as articulated by the teacher in the audiovisual material and during interviews with her students. She states, “There are some individuals above and some below. And cruelty always moves downward”. As a consequence, we think of cruelty as a “social technology spread all around” (Inclan, 2018, p. 196). Apart from serving as a programmatic operation, cruelty is part of a structure of meaning that produces suffering and reorganizes collective senses. As the author points out, it blurs the lines between what can be tolerated and what can be understood, promoting integration by expelling what is deemed unacceptable. Nevertheless, from the point of view of students and teachers, these experiences mean new ways of affirmation, protection and possibility in and from schooling.

3 School as a Refuge

As an essential counterpart of inequality processes, new forms of indignation and responses to an inconvenient world are produced in societies, mainly in peripheral areas of cities. Those who can face up to every day humiliation are the individuals who live in these neighborhoods, a life full of uncertainties and everyday struggles. Schooling does not escape those processes. On the contrary, it is one of the victories the communities of the neighborhoods have obtained and maintain. They not only acquire knowledge but also encounter diverse possibilities. As the student raps in the opening of the video, studying and fighting are intertwined, countering the judgments, categorizations, and impositions placed upon them.

They say we’re crooks with guns, that’s not true. We’re studying at all hours. We’re not crooks like some say. But the bad news leads. You think we’re like animals, but we’re here to fight. I don’t carry a bad name on my feet. I’m a good kid.

In a context of violence and cruelty, students appreciate the value of school, in contrast to other environments, maybe as the only place where they feel comfortable, safe and happy in opposition to the anger, helplessness and sadness generated by negative stereotypes. This sentiment is clearly conveyed in the video through a voice-over and a black sign with white letters. Those negative judgments against young people, which are also against the neighborhood, the school, the kind or quality of education, the infrastructure or the teachers, sharply contrast with those positive values of the importance of studying and the importance of education for the individuals in the institution. Both students and teachers care for their spaces, worry and show interest, drawing attention, despite the everyday injustices that surround them, through their existing conditions and all their struggles. Those adversities appear in order to modify their own fates, something unavoidable, because, despite all, other ways are possible. These individuals do not give in against things as they are and they fight for how things should be. As one of the teachers says in the video, there are other possibilities that can be unleashed behind this reality.

It’s uncomfortable to be looked at by someone else. Billinghurst is seen in a single way, unidirectionally. Billinghurst: the neighborhood of drug dealers and thieves. I don’t think that way. But it’s true that from the outside people think differently of Billinghurst. (…) I like to transform that idea through my work at school. Choosing to do things both at school and in the neighborhood.

To be looked in a single or unidirectional way has that cruel connotation that this teacher reports, because it involves conceiving individuals through specific categories and within a certain framework of meaning. As the student says, we are seen as thieves, and that “look produces an individual with a category that is part of a whole. Proper names are destroyed and are replaced by genres, useful to identify if there should be dignity, rights and existence or not” (Paredes Oviedo, 2015, p. 138). From the teacher’s perspective, the role of the school counteracts the consequences of the context of inequality and offers opportunities for life, as she states in the video:

It’s a school at the margins, it’s peripheral and with its own logic (…) It’s a change in the way of working. And it’s a change in the teachers’ conception of how we can teach in the classroom.

The teacher is part of the neighborhood and this is her home. Her past experiences, which closely mirror the lives of her students today, seem to have made her into a heroic figure in the eyes of students. She has experienced lacking things at a young age, being in charge of everyday life at home, working various jobs since childhood, suffering violence as a teenager, losing a family member unfairly and too soon. Her story gives meaning to the ways in which the neighborhood and the school believe and insist on education, which serves as refuge in that context.

Teaching in this context is a daily challenge as it requires her to listen, motivate, provide emotional release, offer support, and teach. In her view, teaching in this school means instilling a sense of belonging in so many possible realities and fostering commitment, openness to learning, and readiness to confront and transform preconceived notions of the neighborhood, the school, the students, and the teachers. This necessitates cultivating critical thinking, nurturing desires and interests, and acknowledging and embracing all aspects of her students, including their creativity, productivity, innovation, and even fun. All these aspects of life in general and school in particular no longer lead to unavoidable fates, but fight instead against them and against daily injustices. School is a place of protection, refuge and support; a safeguard in a context of deep social vulnerability, and a place where even dreams can be conceived and put into practice as a fight for existence against cruelty. These practices show the desire to live that becomes a challenge and, as López Petit (2009) states, a political behavior to “drive all these dark aspects of life against power” (p. 229) and the possibilities of life as opposed to the daily humiliations of the system.


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According to Inclan (2018), cruelty is “a culture in times of catastrophe. Cruelty is useful to give substance to the ethics and aesthetics of capitalism.” (p. 195).


School located in the first part of the Buenos Aires metropolitan region, in Billinghurst, San Martín, Province of Buenos Aires. This area is characterized by settlements and shantytowns where high levels of poverty, unemployment, and precarious living conditions meet.


“Uncomfortable Glances” (2022), available at, and “Images of Cruelty” (2023), at These two productions were the basis for the creation of my audiovisual production “Images of Cruelty, Schooling, and Refuge Possibilities.” It was the students with whom we worked 2023 that came up with the title “Images of Cruelty”.


The quotations presented here are mainly from the audiovisual project I created with the same title as this article. When this is not the case, it will be explicitly stated.


The teacher refers to the caps that are exclusive identifiers of young people from working-class backgrounds in the neighborhoods.

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