The following artwork was made by students at the School for Creative Studies in Durham, NC during an LTP camp called Song of Myself, after Walt Whitman’s work. To read about this project click here: Walt Whitman and Literacy Through Photography. Below are some of the photographs students made to illustrate Whitman’s verses and ideas with Durham’s Eno River as the backdrop.
Please click here for an article about this work in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Document. Walt Whitman and Literacy Through Photography
This post features artwork by 5th grade students in Ms. Lord’s and Ms. Roach’s class at Club Boulevard Humanities Elementary School.
Students at the School of Creative Studies donated a generous portion of their spring breaks to participate in the Song of Myself LTP camp. On the first day of the program, I watched 6th and 7th grade students go around in a circle talking about their future career goals to be artists, filmmakers, engineers, and even voice actors. I witnessed middle school kids power through lines of Walt Whitman’s incredibly complex epic poem with more profound literary analysis and personal empathy than my fellow Duke students did in a poetry class I took last year.
After taking a portrait photograph of themselves at the Eno River State Park, the students creatively integrated into it the lines of the Song of Myself poem provided to them, using various mediums of artistic expression. The end goal was to produce what would flow like a graphic novel of Whitman’s epic poem. And although every single student produced stellar work, these two stuck out the most to me:
As an artist, I immediately noticed that these two examples of photography-based collage art feature hints of modernism, expressionism, and even a bit of surrealism. Their August Sander style portrait photographs immediately provide immense depth and perspective into their overall work. I can’t help but notice the potential commentary of Shamar when he uses the words “truth” and “storytellers” to cover his eyes. I am struck by Tobiah’s depiction of a headless man with cameras sprouting from them, as well as her impressionist technique—in a very Claude Monet like fashion—of using words from the poem to visually structure her face.
My point is, with a gallery full of these, you are sure to attract a crowd of pretentious art critics who would endlessly discuss the artistic brilliance of these pieces.
As a teacher, I reflect on the creative processes and technical merit behind these works. These students dedicated not only large portions of time, but they dedicated portions of time most other kids their age would have spent playing video games. They worked slowly and carefully, investing tremendous amounts of effort and energy into creating finalized products they truly cared about. And looking at their finished projects, we can see that on one hand, this was an enjoyable way to allow students to spend their free time expressing their creative spirit. On the other hand, however, I cannot help but feel that these students epitomize the coming generation of artists, the newest wave of August Sanders and Claude Monets.
While thinking about my LTP experience I found myself the most connected to our project on the Walt Whitman poem, Song of Myself. We spent two weeks working with middle school students. Using Song of Myself as a platform, we had discussions, created images and made connections. This project reminded me what I love about working with youth. Young people are so fresh and curious, full of thoughts and questions. When they let this shine through, like they are able to do through LTP, something beautiful happens. I have chosen four photos that ring true to what I witnessed and experienced during my time working with Professor Katie Hyde, my classmates and the students at The School for Creative Studies.
My first image is titled Explore. On this day, the students took a field trip to the Center for Documentary Studies, received a verse from the Walt Whitman poem, and then went out to create photographs of their lines. Conrad and myself were partnered with Shamar and were accompanied by Lauren and her match Derrick. We asked the two boys where they wanted to go, giving them a few options on and around campus. As we we set out to find some things to photograph the boys peered into windows, walked down small alleys and observed people on the streets. We went into a bookstore where the boys photographed titles and specific words they found interesting or relevant to their Whitman lines. It was great to see them reading and searching for the right picture, then taking several shots trying to get the picture to turn out exactly how they wanted it to. Store owners and passer-bys got involved asking about the project, often wondering what was so interesting about the things the boys selected to photograph. Hearing them explain and justify their choices was great to see.
One of my favorite parts of this day was when we discovered a building that appeared to have recently closed. In the image above, the boys are reading signatures and comments left by faithful patrons on the doors and walls of the bar. Shamar and Derrick created stories about what happened to the place as well as the patrons who left their marks. This reminded me of how we all leave our stories behind in one way or another. By making exploration one of the first steps in creating images it forces us to pay attention to stories and scenes we may have otherwise overlooked. Shamar’s verse in the poem focused on finding answers, “You are asking me questions, and I hear you. I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.” I took this picture of him and said by creating stories about the bar and the people he and Derek were, in fact, finding their own answers, just like the line instructs.
My second image focuses on bravery because it is much harder than you might think to put a camera directly in someone’s face. In many ways, Literacy Through Photography projects challenge comfort zones and takes some bravery to complete. I thought this was a great example of both the subject and the photographer stepping out of their comfort zones for the sake of an image. Conrad agreed to pose as a blade of grass, for it is no less than the “journey work of the stars.” Shamar then wanted to only capture the grass in his photo. In order to do this he had to stand extremely close and eventually ended up resting the camera on Conrad’s head to get the image in focus.
On this day, we were at the Eno River with the students and bravery was a continual theme. We ran from spiders, fell in mud, climbed up hills, on rocks, and got questionably close to the water. The images that resulted were impressive and often very detailed, as Katie had instructed us to focus on things that were small for this project. I found this aspect of LTP to be very beneficial in boosting the students confidence in picture taking. Shamar would take several shots trying to get his pictures in focus. Some things worked exactly as he wanted, while others did not work so well. He used his body to express verses and seemed to really enjoy the day, especially after he got over the fear or hesitancy of getting dirty or too close or the first image not being perfect.
Perspective – we talked about perspective first thing in this class when reading the LTP teachers guide. Perspective has several technicalities to it. Is the image clear or blurry? How is it framed? Are we looking up or down at the subject? All of this is important, of course. It is crucial to think about these qualities when viewing and taking photographs but think perspective has a very personal meaning as well. It asks the photographer how they see the world. It also asks what they want others to see.
In this photograph Shamar is taking a picture of the church across the street. He is again photographing a verse in the poem that talks about finding out answers for yourself. Church is one place people go for answers. From where we were standing on the path any image would have had electrical lines and other object obscuring the photo. It would also have put the viewer at a lower position than the church. Shamar chose to stand on the East Campus wall to get a clear and direct view of the church. This reflected what he took his line to mean on the first day of camp he randomly chose this verse and he drew a picture of sword in the stone to represent it. He felt the verse meant you had to be bold and self-reliant. These thoughts are reflected in his choice of perspective in this picture as well. LTP allows kids to own their perspective and show it to others. I found that to be a powerful action.
What does dancing have to do with photography? I’m honestly not sure, but I do know it has a lot to do with fun. As we walked around campus looking for the last images we wanted to take I put on some old school hip-hop and the boys loved it. They danced all the way back from East Campus to the Center for Documentary Studies. I chose to include this picture in my reflection because I think it shows how fun learning can be when we make it relatable and expressive. Learning , discovering and even working should be able to be fun. It should be something kids can connect with and look forward to. From what I have seen in LTP it has the ability to facilitate learning in a very fun and free way. The students in this class memorized portions of the poems and were able to understand the meaning behind verses because they made connections between the poet and themselves. In creating images of the lines the students took something over 100 hundred years older than them and breathed new life into it. That is amazing and free and fun and unique, just like dancing.
To bring it full circle I want to reiterate that LTP has reminded me what I love about working with kids because it allows them to be themselves. Kids are loud, they have a lot of questions, sometimes they are a little self-centered but at the same time they are extremely eager to please. These are qualities that should be used to tailor how we teach students rather than used as excuses to punish them, which, unfortunately, often happens in the American school system. Allowing students to explore, push themselves, do some self-discovery and have fun are excellent ways to help them learn material and grow as individuals. I chose to study social change and the experience of childhood for the past four years because I believe in the potential of all children to be great. I also believe that part of tapping into that greatness comes through developing confidence, responsibility and agency. I can definitely see how LTP could promote those characteristics and look forward to using it again beyond my experience in college.
On the third day of the Song of Myself camp, I arrived at an unfamiliar school in an unfamiliar location feeling a bit lost and behind the game, as I had not had the chance to visit the school yet as most of my classmates had. I was nervous going into the camp because I did not know how to best advise the students on how to express specific ideas from Walt Whitman’s poem. However, I was very excited to get to know the students and see what work would be made.
Exploring the Eno
I spent my first day with the students at the Eno River. Because I did not know any of the kids, I was thankful when groups were assigned rather than chosen by the students. One of my classmates and I were paired with a girl named Tobiah. We got the Whitman verse Katie chose for her and began to brainstorm ideas. She was so eager to do the assignment, and to do it well, that we immediately started taking pictures, lagging behind most of the groups who set off for the river. Tobiah was full of creative interpretations and was very receptive to alternative perspectives of her original ideas.
We took pictures of everything from rocks to trees to leaves to bridges to each other to ourselves. Seeing her so engaged in the assignment encouraged me to start taking pictures on my phone and really get into it all. Later, she got me to take some pictures on the camera of her posing, which was very enjoyable because I felt like I lent a hand in sharing her perspective with others. Through this project, I was really able to observe and be inspired by Tobiah’s ambition and interest as she dissected the poem in a way that I would have never thought of, discovering a variety of different messages and meanings out of it than I was.
Tobiah and I worked on finding new angles and perspectives on our subject.
Brainstorming new ideas on how to depict the Song of Myself excerpt.
I took photographs from the bridge of Tobiah posing on a rock in the middle of the Eno River below.
An Illustration of Tobiah
Out of it all, my favorite part of this camp was watching Tobiah work on her self-portrait collage. I went in to work with the students the day after our field trip to the Eno, and Tobiah had already started to work on her self-portrait, which was a close up that I had taken of her face during our field trip. I watched her as she seemed to be finishing up her project and it was wonderful—she had several newspaper clippings glued onto the pictures and she had written about eight adjectives on her face that describe her and who she is. The amazing part is that about every minute after we both thought she was pretty much finished, Tobiah would come up with one or two more words she wanted to include, and she would add them to the picture. By the end of the day, she had covered her entire face with words that very uniquely described her. What I find admirable about this project and about her approach to it was that she thought she had shared everything she wanted to, however she had so much more to add that she did not realize at first, showing just how many facets and sides there are to her, as well as to all of us.
Tobiah illustrates that she is anything but a ‘blank canvas.’
Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. I often have to remind myself of this: when I’m questioning whether I’m qualified enough to send in an application for a summer program, or if I’m debating on changing my outfit because I feel like it doesn’t flatter me, or when I’m debating whether or not to say something in class (out of the belief that what say could potentially be pointless). I have to remind myself that my biggest critic, is me, and no one else evaluates my actions as intricately as do—simply because they are too busy evaluating their own actions. Naturally, we all have these moments where we doubt ourselves.
During the Song of Myself Camp, we encouraged the campers to celebrate themselves and the surrounding universe through photographs and self-portraits. When we took a trip to the Eno River, I was paired up with Tiembra, a sweet, soft-spoken, and kind-hearted seventh grader. The students were given two main tasks: 1) Capture and use photos to represent a few lines of the Walt Whitman poem and 2) Take a close-up picture of themselves (something that Tiembra didn’t seem too ecstatic about).
The lines from the poem that Tiembra received were:
I believe in those wing’d purposed,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing within me,
And consider green and violet and the tufted crown intentional,
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.
We ventured around capturing literal and metaphorical pictures that represented these lines, even going so far as to create our own tortoise using leaves, rocks, and some old newspaper we found buried in the swampy rocks.
However, whenever we discussed taking pictures with either of us in it, Tiembra often mentioned how she hated having her picture taken, because she “looked weird” in photos. I told her how everyone feels that way sometimes, and how even I don’t like some pictures of myself, despite other people liking them. I made sure to remind her how we are often our own worst critic.
We continued to take pictures, and I was able to convince her to show her face in some of them. When it was time to take her self-portrait, she complained about how “close-up” the photo was, but kindly obliged when I reiterated how Katie asked for the picture to be close for the project that they were working on later.
We wrapped up our time at the River with a plethora of beautiful photos both from the Eno, and with Tiembra’s beautiful face in them.
Later in the week, when we began working on the student’s self-portraits, Tiembra cut out a big black circle, and plastered it on her face, transforming her entire face into the Nirvana symbol. Everyone around her tried to coerce her to take it off, as the glue had not dried yet, but Tiembra did not want to do so.
We told her how beautiful her picture of herself was and how no one would be able to identify her, however, none of these comments could change her mind.Eventually we gave up on trying, and allowed Tiembra to create her self-portrait in the manner that she pleased.
But, this is something that everyone must realize. We all have those moments, where we see pictures of us that we can’t stand. We all have those moments, where we don’t feel quite comfortable in our skin, regardless of how often people compliment us.
Why is this? Is it because we are not able to see ourselves, when we are laughing, smiling, or talking about something we are passionate about? Only others have the opportunity to see the glow from our skin, and the crease in our faces when we are excited. Only others have the ability to see us in these candid moments.
I remember my middle school self, always zipped up in a jacket, overly conscious about myself. And just as it happened for me, it will happen for Tiembra, where one of the lines of Song of Myself will resonate within her veins, and stretch through like the trees of the Eno River.
In the beginning of the semester, before the interns got to choose the groups we’d work with for our “Stories from Stagville” project, I had gravitated towards a particular table of boys. While they seemed a little distracted during some of the initial writing assignments, I figured they’d settle down more once we all adjusted to the routine. It wasn’t until after I had already gotten attached to them that I realized the group’s silly nature was not because of a change in their usual routine. They were “that group”, as their teacher sometimes referred to them—one that would need more guidance to keep them on task. I’d seen each of the boys do good work when they were on their own, but when they worked together, their attitudes changed.
I used to deal with distracted students when I worked as a school tutor. I worked with students one-on-one then, and I could usually get a student to focus on their work by reminding them that I could send them back to the classroom and work with a better-behaved student instead. My former students saw working with Duke students as a privilege. The situation at Club was a little different. It was expected that I’d work the same group, so I couldn’t use myself as leverage. When we began the video making process, there were other privileges that I could take away if students were being disruptive. For example, if they boys started running around on the playground when we were supposed to be filming or looking at Internet memes instead of images for the video, I could tell them that we’d go back to the classroom if they couldn’t handle it. My goal was to keep them from inhibiting their own creative processes, but it felt a lot like behavior management. When we were still working in the classroom, either reading ex-slave narratives or writing their own stories, I had to take a different approach to keeping them on task. Rather than taking away privileges, I had to actively work with the students to keep the students engaged. I asked a lot of questions to keep them focused on the task at hand. When one student fell behind, I made it the table’s mission to make sure that he finished, meaning that the other two boys were not allowed to distract him. Here I saw my role as trying to get them to engage with and start making connections with the materials that were given to them. I felt less like I was managing the students and more like I was actually working with them.
The image I chose to write about is a still from our video. It’s a close up of two students shaking hands. The students chose to use this action in the reenactment of a slave purchase. Out of context, the image represents how I think LTP interns need to work collaboratively with the students, instead of just telling them what to do. While guidance is necessary, it should be more hand-shaking than hand-holding.