Reflections on a Duke-Durham collaboration

Photo by Elena Rue

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 Anna Cassell

When I first met Evan* during a group photo-planning session, his intentionality was the first thing that struck me about him. The kids folded up a sheet of paper into quadrants; in each quadrant they were to map out a picture they might take, based on some prewriting they’d already done for the LTP community project listing the people and places they see every day, as well as the things they like and dislike about their communities.

It was interesting to watch how different children approached the task of planning a photograph. Some of them started drawing right away. Some got very stuck; one student in particular felt embarrassed about her drawing skills and, despite my praise, ran off to sit alone at another table until I coaxed her back. Even then she felt self-conscious and wouldn’t share her drawings with the group. I could see Evan thinking before he started drawing. After a few seconds, he would suddenly get an idea and just go for it; I admired his decisiveness and sense of purpose. Perhaps misunderstanding the assignment, he drew from an aerial viewpoint. He also drew in much more detail than the assignment called for, which both impressed and somewhat exasperated me, because it made it impossible to keep the whole group on the same page.

When it was time for Evan to print his photographs… he was very thoughtful in looking at the negatives, taking the community aspect of the project to heart; he had trouble deciding between a picture of his room, which he liked best, and a picture of a library, which he didn’t like nearly as much but felt represented his community better (“My dad takes me every other Thursday”).

He picked up on the motions of the darkroom quickly and was helpful in explaining things to kids who were still confused in clear terms and without condescension. He is more serious than most of the children and I got the impression that they respected him. He was also very precise, checking his watch frequently, and seemed to enjoy the timed aspect of the developing process.

Evan, as intentional as he had been on the day I met him, had a vision—his first print came out looking a bit dark but beautiful and clear. Though other kids in the group had prints that had turned out blurry or black, he was not comparing his work to theirs. He was not satisfied, so he kept changing the exposure time until he found a lighter shade he liked better.

I am proud of the work Evan did. The library print is beautiful, shot from one end of an aisle toward a dark abyss at the other end, aimed left rather than down the center (actually, in the negative, the abyss is much more centered, but Evan must have enlarged the picture too much or moved the easel. Knowing him, this was probably intentional, and I like the off-center effect). The fluorescent lights on the ceiling receding into the distance, coupled with the darkness beyond the bookshelves gives viewers the impression of looking down a tunnel.

When I was rearranging the negatives, I took each sleeve out and examined them one at a time. I discovered that Evan had taken some really beautiful photos, some of which I thought were even better than the library print. I had not looked at his negatives when he was deciding; I had been busy setting up chemicals and trusted the kids to make their own decisions. I don’t regret this; I am not sure I could have changed Evan’s mind even if I’d wanted to, since he seemed to have such a clear idea of what was important to him. Yet,** the library photo felt almost a foreboding choice next to some of the other options. In general, the starkness and geometry of Evan’s photography is elegant and thoughtful. Evan’s framing is really interesting, much more deliberate than many of the other children’s. For example, there is a negative of a waving child on a bicycle, with a prominent shadow whose tip just barely grazes the edge of the frame. There is also a beautiful picture framed in the foreground on the left edge by a woman who is looking distractedly into the distance with Club Boulevard School in the background.

–Anna Cassell

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

** This was before I had read his charming poem about how important the library is to him. Reading this poem showed me firsthand what we’ve been discussing in class about how much verbal accompaniment can do alongside a photograph.

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