Jumi made this picture pretending to be a photographer. She used to be very quiet but over our summer together she always asked me for the camera, and would follow me around whenever I had my DSLR.
With the development of social media and smart phones, we incorporate photography into our everyday lives—even in rural underdeveloped parts of the world. I spent the summer of 2013 immersed in teaching rural South Korean children about photography. Kyungryul Jeong, a journalist who studied at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, has been developing an LTP-inspired program called Photography in Education in South Korea and last spring he invited Katie Hyde and Wendy Ewald to lead an LTP workshop in Seoul. My project, based in Eumseong-gun, Choongcheong North Province, was the first rural South Korean LTP project. In such an area, a US-educated student coming to a children’s welfare center to teach photography was a rare sight; back home the countryside is often a forgotten area, one that young people leave in hope of making it in the big Seoul city. Even my parents were skeptical about the value of my work in Eumseong, in lieu of a summer internship at a fancy-name company or bank as an intern. But despite the doubt of my parents, I am certain that this summer presented an invaluable experience that no corporate internship could offer.
In spite of the oddities of a photography program in such a place, it was a perfect fit. My students fell in love with the camera, and took tens of thousands of photos throughout my summer stay at their center. I saw how my students identified with the camera and how their photos were a source of communication and expression. Children, some of whom had been silenced by an oppressive culture and/or unfortunate living environments, seemed to find an opening through their fascination with taking pictures.
These were among the rare pictures I took over the summer because my students seldom let go of my camera. I wanted to show their individual faces and hoped they’d see they were all beautiful the way they were. The children selected their portraits, and requested a reshoot if they did not like the ones I initially took. Through this process I think they learned to appreciate their smiles. One of the instructions I gave when asking the children to pose was to take pictures that represent themselves the best. I was happy that the children thought they looked better smiling, a contrast from where they started, when a good number smiled awkwardly or refused to smile.
While working with these children I conducted community-based research to study the influence of arts education, specifically the LTP methodology, on children’s sense of security, confidence, and creativity. My project was supported by Duke University’s Service Opportunities in Learning (SOL) under the Duke Hart Leadership Program. My post-session survey revealed that the students identified themselves as photographers, and a handful demonstrated an elevated level of happiness associated with their involvement with photography. I also found that LTP’s methodology and philosophy reflect the notion of “adaptive leadership,” a core concept SOL students learn during their Fall semester coursework at Duke. In Leadership Without Easy Answers Ronald Heifetz discusses the intense learning process “required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face.” Creativity plays an essential role in this type of adaptive work.
I found that LTP fosters creativity and reflection. During our time together I saw students, including some whom teachers and some parents had given up on, explore their lives and question their identity. The children believed they were “real” photographers and identified as such. This identification process touched upon the issues of confidence, self-awareness and self-esteem. I found this particularly fascinating when students diagnosed with behavioral, learning or emotional disorders explored and expressed themselves through the camera in a way that allowed teachers, parents and me to connect with them. The camera brought all of us together in one tightknit community and provided a tool for true heartfelt communication, sometimes revealing what the raw human eye could not detect. Every student, regardless of learning or emotional struggles, was a prized photographer.
Sunghoon, a student with ADHD intentionally blurred his photographs to show how he views the world. (He expressed frustration when the camera’s shutter was so fast that he couldn’t blur the photographs!) His choices about what to photograph, and his choice to blur some objects but not others presented a window for seeing his point of view in a non-ADHD person’s lens.
Photography constantly pushes us to be creative and test the boundaries. My students’ photographs raised questions and allowed us to reflect. During our summer program the camera opened eyes, connected us, instilled a sense of purpose, and provided a means of raw, nonjudgmental communication.
I asked the children to make self-portraits by taking selfies as well as pictures that reflect themselves in other ways. This selfie was made by Yumi, a student whose confidence enhanced significantly and who learned to smile in front of the camera through LTP classes.
Jinkyung made this photo because she liked the words on the screen door behind. In Korean, they say “let us travel.” I asked her if it was coincidental, but she said she intentionally captured the photo that way because she liked the words and the meaning. I looked through her other images and discovered many in which she was standing with words behind her. I was amazed by her careful work and the deep, thoughtful meaning of her photographs.
This picture expresses a student’s favorite color, blue. His teachers commented to me the picture was an accurate description of his personality, that he like to keep a frame around himself.