the lives of others

Resources for exploring ‘the lives of others’.

We are surrounded by the stories and images of other’s lives: in soaps, reality TV shows, documentaries, the news, adverts, novels, film, theatre, poems, art and sculpture. We listen to songs about the lives of others, follow the lives of our friends, celebrities and strangers on social media and travel to new and exciting places to experience the lives of others.

Humans are fascinated by the lives of others. Why?

Perhaps it is because we are naturally curious, want to be inspired, educated and entertained. Maybe our interest in others helps validate our own lives.

Doctors should be curious about the lives of others. Understanding the individual who is suffering is as important as understanding the disease they are suffering from.

pictures to prompt thought and discussion about the lives of others

Picture by Van Eyk
The Arnolfini Portrait
Van Eyck 1434
National Gallery, London

This painting is the only fifteenth century panel in existence in which the artist’s contemporaries are shown in their own home. The picture has been described as the first paining of ‘everyday life’ or genre painting.

The picture is full of symbolism. E.g. The orange symbolises wealth, the little dog represents fidelity and the green dress is a sign of hope.

What impression do you think the couple wanted to convey about themselves?

How does this compare with the pictures people post about themselves on social media today?

We teach doctors to recognise cues in the consultation. Is it a similar process to recognise and interpret the use of symbols

in art?

Image in public domain

Street scene from 1927
Dwelling, Ordsall Lane, Salford L.S.Lowry 1927 Tate (not on display)

In the 1920’s Lowry painted many pictures of the streets and houses surrounding the factories in Salford. His pictures show the local community going about their everyday lives.

Lowry said ‘a street is not a street without people.’

When you look at his work what sense can you make of another quote by Lowry, ‘I look upon human beings as automatons, because they all think that they can do what they want, but they can’t. They are not free. No-one is.’

Image reproduced under Fair Use


Photo of street see in Tehran 2006
Tehran 2016

This photo was taken by the Iranian-British photographer Mitra Tabrizian.

The billboard features the faces of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

The picture, like Lowry’s, captures a moment in time where individuals are you going about their everyday lives.

How does this photo compare with Lowry’s painting?

What can you learn about the lives of the people in the photo?

What questions does the picture raise in your mind?

Picture reproduced with permission from the artist

photo of Berlin building covered in life jackets
Life Jackets Ai Wei Wei 2017

14,000 life jackets cover the Konzerthaus in Berlin to highlight the plight of the thousands of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to safety in Europe.

How does it make you feel?

What does it make you think?

‘Actions speak louder than words’. Does this image convey the misery and anguish of the lives of the people trying to cross to Europe more successfully than a  written article? Why?

Is it art?

Photo reproduced under Creative Commons licence

picture of people looking at sculptures of themselves
Archetypes Carlos Saura Riaza 2009

Riaza is a Spanish artist.

In literature, an archetype is a typical character, action, or a situation that seems to represent universal patterns of human nature. There are a variety of categorisations of archetypes. Jung’s configuration is one of them.

What can you learn about the lives of the people in this picture?

Can you suggest an alternative title for this picture?

Reproduced with permission from the artist

picture of men falling from the sky
Golconda Magritte 1953                                The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas

What do you make of this picture?

One explanation is that Magritte is exploring the blurred boundaries between being part of a group and being an individual.

Picture reproduced under Fair Use

Picture of care at night time
Night Hawks Edward Hopper 1942                 Art Institute of Chicago

Hopper acknowledges that unconsciously he was probably painting the loneliness of large city.

Do you agree?

How does he convey human isolation and urban emptiness?

Image in Public Domain

Picture of two people with noses in the air
Successful People Jose Orozco 1931

Orozco was a Mexican muralist his goal was to create democratic art that promoted social and political discussion and could be seen by all. He said, ‘murals cannot be hidden away for the benefit of the privileged few.’

What message do you think he was trying to convey to his audience?


Picture by Grayson Perry
The Adoration of the Cage Fighters
Grayson Perry 2012

Click here the title to take you to The British Council’s excellent education pack about this work.

It is one of six tapestries from the series called ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’. The tapestries are a parody of William Hoggarth’s ‘A Rakes Progress’, which can be seen at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. The tapestries explore the British social class system and taste by observing the life journey of Tim Rakewell. Grayson says of his work ‘they explore our fascination with the lives of others’. The creation of the tapestries was captured in a series for Channel 4 called ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’ with Grayson Perry (2012)

Take a close look at the picture.

Like the Van Eyk picture there is prolific use of symbolism, can you interpret what you see?

How might you explain this picture to someone from another culture?

‘Photo by Vivien Maier’

Awaiting permission of owner to use photograph

What is happening?

What might the ‘players’ in this scene be thinking?

See under below under ‘film’ for more information about Vivian Maier, or go to the website

books to prompt thought and discussion about the lives of others

There are countless books written about the lives of others. It would be unachievable to try and provide an exhaustive list of books in this category. I have chosen to highlight my favourite books; the ones that have given me most insight into the lives of others.

The Lives of Others  Neel Mukherjee

Mukherjee’s book explores the lives of individuals living and working in Calcutta and West Bengal in 1960. He has a talent for imagining the lives of others, and taking us, the reader inside the head of his characters. ‘within minutes a small crowd had gathered, what could be more interesting than the lives of others?’

It’s a great read and an excellent book to discuss.

Reading Lolita in Tehran Azar Nafasi

Set in the late 1990s in Tehran, the story tells of the lives of eight women who meet in secret to discuss forbidden works of Western literature. Nafasi’s story gives great insight into the lives of women in revolutionary Iran and a perspective of life in Iran that maybe unknown to Western readers.

A Life Like Other Peoples Alan Bennett

This is Alan Bennett’s heart rendering and irresistibly funny autobiography. It portrays his parents marriage, his mother’s descent into depression and later dementia, recalls his Leeds childhood and tells the story of the lives, loves and death of his unforgettable aunties.

The Secret Scripture Sebastian Barry

The novel recounts the story of Roxanne and she comes to the end of her life as a patient in a mental hospital in Ireland. She was incarcerated there as a young adult, her life destroyed by the faith and politics others.

Books of short stories often offer an introduction to and view of others lives

e.g. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Alan Sillitoe

My favourite story is ‘Uncle Ernest’.

Autobiographies and biographies offer the reader a view of another’s life

What might the opening paragraph your autobiography be?

Published diaries pander to the voyeur in us.

Many doctors relate to the narrative of Bridget Jones’s Diary (film and book) by Helen Fielding

Or travel back in time and read the Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith to glimpse of life in England 100 years ago.

films to prompt thought and discussion about the lives of others

The Lives of Others written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 

A multi-award winning film, including an Oscar for  ‘best foreign film’.

Set in Berlin at the height if the Cold War. A powerful political drama exploring the power of the state over individual autonomy. The film follows the lives of several individuals, one of whom is a member of the Stazi. He is paid to watch the lives of others and to show no empathy or understanding. The music and poetry in the lives of those he observes provides the catalyst for a change in his behaviour.

Finding Vivian Maier A documentary film by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel

Mahler is now considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers. She worked as a nanny and over the course of her life took over 100 000 secret photographs of other people. These were hidden in a storage locker and only discovered years later. This is the story of the discovery of her collection.

Talking Heads Alan Bennett

One of the highlights of television drama in the 1980s, Talking Heads was a series of six television monologues shown on the BBC.  The last episode, A Cream Cracker Under the Settee, was broadcast on 24 May 1988. In it, Thora Hird portrays Doris, an old lady who has had a fall while dusting (not being satisfied with the efforts of her home help), and then looks back over her life as she contemplates her predicament. The role won her the Best Actress award at the 1989 BAFTAs. Can be heard as an audiotape or seen on DVD.

music to prompt thought and discussion about the lives of others

Many ballads and songs describe the lives of others.

Streets of London Ralph McTell

 ‘Have you seen the old man in the closed down market
Kicking up the papers with his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride, hand held loosely by his side
Yesterday’s papers telling yesterday’s news’

What do the words tell you about the life of the homeless?

Eleanor Rigby The Beatles

‘Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came’

Which phrases in this song best convey the meaning of loneliness to you?

Where Do You Go to My Lovely Peter Sarstetd

unusual sources of art to prompt thought and discussion about the lives of others

How might the epitaphs written on grave stones help us understand lives of others?

What would be your epitaph?

Updated 7th December 2018