Reflections on a Duke-Durham collaboration

In an undergraduate course called Literacy Through Photography, Duke students learn to use Wendy Ewald’s methods for working with children while helping Durham teachers carry out classroom-based LTP projects. The course takes a multi-disciplinary look at teaching and learning, language and literacy, and contemporary social issues that Durham schools face. Students are encouraged to see through children’s eyes–to understand children’s writings and photographs as expressions of their culture and time.

We asked our spring 2008 students to write a reflection about one particular image made by a Durham elementary school student. In their essays, our students also comment more generally on the process of collaborating with children on darkroom-based photography projects.

Reflections on a Duke-Durham collaboration
By Jen Kozin

Throughout the semester, it was great to get to work with a multitude of students and see how differently each of them interpreted the theme of their photography project: The Best Part of Me. However, the class size made it difficult to work intimately with each student as they each, unfortunately, only had one chance to take pictures and one chance to work in the darkroom. The image I selected for this reflection was printed by Ana*, who I luckily had the chance to work with more individually than the others. She was absent the day that her group went out to take pictures, and so when her group first went to the darkroom she waited until everyone had their negatives and then shyly told me that she had not taken any pictures yet. I had her print from another student’s negatives, and promised that she would get to go back again later in the semester. That day she went through the steps of printing with everyone else without saying very much, and speaking very quietly when she did open her mouth.

Finally last week I was able to take her out to shoot her own pictures, and it was instantly clear that she had thought a lot about what she wanted to do. Usually a timid girl, her personality really came out as she directed her friend and told her exactly how she wanted her picture to come out. She seemed like a different girl than the one who had barely said a word in the darkroom before. In her picture, she was swinging on a swing on the playground and waited until she got to the height she wanted to count to three and have the picture taken. The result is her in the center of the picture, slightly blurry since she is moving, with a clear and focused background. She has a big smile on her face, which was her “best part”, and her closeness to the camera really draws attention to it… The simplicity of the photograph is what I find to be very striking, yet she was the only one who thought of the idea of moving in her picture. Nearly all of the other students, though everyone took their pictures on the same playground, posed for their pictures. I felt that Ana really understood the concept of a picture capturing a moment in time, as she knew that she wanted her friend to push the button at the peak of her swing. When I told her and her friend that they could take more than the allotted three pictures that everyone else had, they were thrilled. They had all kinds of ideas of what they wanted to be doing, and I chased them around the playground as we took turns being in and taking the pictures.

When I took Ana back to the darkroom, she was visibly eager to make her own prints. She looked at the contact sheet and immediately picked the picture she wanted, which also happened to be the one I would have chosen. At that point, I probably could have left her alone in the darkroom. Though it had been over a month since she last printed, she remembered everything and was able to make a test strip, carefully watch the timer, and choose an exposure without hardly any assistance. The boy working with her was anxious to leave to go to lunch, but she insisted on waiting until we could turn the lights on and see how her photo turned out.

I think this whole process and the photograph itself reveal a lot about Ana. Her shyness turned out to be only in big groups and I feel that her picture exemplifies her coming out of her shell. LTP was clearly very significant to her since she seemed to do very well with one-on-one interaction and getting the chance to do exactly what she wanted to do instead of being told what to do. The difference her second time around was remarkable, as she was much more engaged with her own image and desire to print something meaningful to herself. This example shows how important LTP and similar learning processes are to children. Producing something that is more personal is so much more rewarding for a child and will make them excited about learning. If I were to have Ana write about the first picture she printed, I’m sure she would be able to write something since it is one of her classmates, but she would not be very invested in it. When writing about her own picture, ideas flowed out of her head faster than she could write because it meant something to her and she cared about what she was saying. The kids in general in the Durham community love the opportunity to show something about themselves, when most of the day is spent simply being a face in a crowd of thirty with only one teacher. The chance to work closely with an older person is very rewarding and makes them feel like someone cares about them. Ana and her friend almost could not believe that I was letting them take extra pictures and was willing to pose in pictures with them as well. Their happiness was very rewarding and eye-opening to me.

Working with Ana led me to reflect on my life as a child, because like her I was very shy and did not talk very much, especially with adults. When I was in kindergarten, however, I had a “book buddy” who was in 5th grade and would read with me twice a week. This experience was very rewarding and helped me break my quiet tendencies because someone older was working with me alone and really cared about how well I could read. Like Ana, I became much more vocal in picking out what books I wanted to read on a particular day and getting into reading them. Any chance to let young students take charge is remarkably beneficial to the learning process.

I wish I had the chance to work with all students on such an individual basis. Ana’s improvements from just going into the darkroom for a second time made me wonder what these kids could do if I took one of them in twice a week for a semester. The students never wanted to leave the darkroom and return to class; they were always eager to print more photographs because it allowed them to be creative individuals, which is much more exciting than doing the same division problems that everyone else in the class is doing. Though some standard of education is necessary, my experience working with Ana and all of the students demonstrated the importance of welcoming a child’s creativity. It is amazing that thirty kids could go to the same exact playground with minimal equipment and produce thirty dramatically unique photographs. From splits on the jungle gym to shooting a basketball, they each very much had their own ideas that said something about their personality or talents. It is crucial to embrace their individuality and show the students that it is good to be imaginative and not think like everyone else.

–Jen Kozin

*the names of all participating Durham Public School children have been changed.

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