Coming into the Learning Through Photography course, I didn’t feel like I was inexperienced working with children. In fact, I probably would’ve considered myself well-versed in dealing with kids. However, what I had forgotten to consider was that I had not previously worked with students in a context where I was trying to coax them to produce a tangible and creative piece of work. That first day working with the School for Creative Studies, I had fooled myself into thinking that these kids would immediately jump on board with the LTP process and easily navigate the tasks we assigned. However, rediscovering that kids are only kids, I had to rethink my approach to involving the students. The first days with my group of 4 students were challenging. I didn’t realize I would have to be so involved, that my role required more than just leading an activity or assigning tasks. Initially the students had a difficult time engaging with the project. I became discouraged when it seemed my endless questioning and proposing of ideas wouldn’t garner any fruitful responses, but looking back on the final creations, I realize how misplaced my initial doubts were.
In Ms. Wash’s seventh-grade class, the students had all chosen a classic novel such as Little Red Riding Hood or The Secret Garden from which they would analyze their chosen characters. The goal of our LTP project was for students to sketch images and then make photographs that captured the essence of their characters. We also asked students to write a new narrative not found in the novels to elaborate on the photo they had taken. Though none of my four students were overly eager to grab the camera and start shooting, Nicole was the first to take control of the situation as she imagined a photograph of Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Before assuming the character of Mary, Nicole asked another student to stand in her place as she designed the photograph. When the camera was finally positioned as she desired, Nicole handed me the camera while she swapped out the place of the model and became Mary Lennox.
The final product is a black and white photo taken from about six feet off of the ground, with Nicole herself curled up on her side, looking away from the camera. The black and white effect makes the photo timeless, and the distance at which the photo is taken gives the impression of a small, diminutive subject, highlighting the impact of her illness. To me, even more interesting than the photo or the photographic process is the writing that accompanies it. I had noticed that Nicole seemed frustrated with coming up with a text to complement her portrayal of the character. Pushing her to engage with her own photo and the information she had about Mary, I asked her to describe to me more about the sickness that she has brought to life. Nicole talked to me about how Mary’s skin turned yellow and she was very ill. She seemed confused on what to do with this idea of sickness, as jaundice is unfamiliar to her, so I simply asked her to assume the role as if it were here own illness. I asked “what would you do if suddenly your skin turned yellow?” She responded tentatively with “I would try to wash it off?” Up until this point, I think she had been having a difficult time assuming the role of her character. Empathizing with a fictional character from a starkly different background can be challenging to say the least, but learning to empathize is one of the most rewarding benefits of the LTP methodology. The methodology challenges kids to see their world through different lenses, and engaging with these lenses through role playing can lead to empathizing. In Nicole’s case, empathizing with her character gave her a starting point from which she wrote a short but impactful piece on “her” sickness. In the end, she took ownership of her character without hesitation or discomfort.