Round and Round We Go–
This past weekend our DukeEngage crew traveled to Zanzibar for a long weekend. Leaving Friday after work, we were all ready for a break from the schools. Zanzibar is an island paradise in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Tanzania’s mainland and we made a rule that our brief recess from LTP would be all about relaxation. However, our group is photo-oriented, and despite our best efforts to leave work behind, I found myself brought back to the heart of why I am in Tanzania. Here at the end I am brought back to my beginning.
The photo above is of Kirstie, one of my peers in the program, with children we ran into on the beach at Uroa. Though the photo is out of focus in the foreground, I still really enjoy the image. The kids we ran into, three young boys and two girls, were incredibly energetic, dancing around on the beach and in general having a blast on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. What I find compelling about this particular shot is how it conveys the power of photography. Kirstie is showing two of the boys a picture she had just taken of them and they are absolutely entranced.
Photography is a powerful medium. It gives the photographer control over his or her environment. With a camera, one can communicate his or her own world-view in a matter of seconds. Paying attention to framing and lighting an outsider is transported to a moment. Other art forms do the same thing, but photography is unique because it is so user friendly. Certainly, a professional will grow from years of practice, but beginning to take photos is a process of instant gratification.
In working with special education students the past two weeks I noticed that without fail the students first reaction to seeing a printed picture was to point out themselves or their friends. The kids would run around the room trying to get our attention to show that they were in this picture. Suddenly the students had become more significant because they had been documented or have documented those around them.
This is where my initial interest in the LTP program began. In my own experience I have found photography to be empowering. When I take a picture I always get a special feeling. Not only am I capturing a moment for myself, I am in the process of trying to make a single moment last, to be able to show it to friends or family and attempt to describe the unique feeling of that particular situation. Encouraging students to use photography as a part of their learning gives them a unique ability to direct their education. Through pictures a student can in a moment communicate his or her understanding of a complex topic. In this sense, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Throughout the trip there have been times when I have forgotten why I am in Arusha in the first place. I have gotten bogged down in lesson plans and documentation. The entire process sometimes feels like more of a chore than a choice. However, getting back to the roots of what I am doing, I look back on these past seven weeks with a certain sense of satisfaction—or even just contentment. I have worked with hundreds of students from all different backgrounds, some poor, some rich, some with mental handicaps, and even a handful that were completely blind. But, what has been common among each and every student I have taught is exuberance around taking pictures or in some way making a personal statement. Each student has expressed this in a different way. Grace and Laurence whose photo I wrote about before were proud to enact their interpretation of a traditional Swahili proverb, while Lisa, a blind student at Themi Primary, was ecstatic to read words that she had written on a brailler as the labels for tactile representations of different objects including rocks and a tree.
What it comes down to is personal ability to affect the world. I like LTP because it gives students the opportunity to design their own education. A good teacher is a good guide—the responsibility for learning at its most fundamental level rests with the individual. LTP makes this clear and empowers students to comment on their reality.
The intrinsic interest in photographs is obvious on the faces of the children looking at Kirstie’s camera. Those kids have just seen themselves and their reality captured and that is a powerful thing. A simple photograph provides permanence and offers the opportunity to interact with people you may never meet. Photography offers and alternative method of learning, but maybe even more importantly it provides an opportunity to students to grow personally and creatively, an opportunity that is difficult to come by in schools governed by standardization.