The Photographer’s Photograph is the Viewer’s Story

Today began my students’ long-awaited foray into digital photography. Although they are somewhat aware of photography as a ‘thing the teacher does,’ my goal is to make them aware of photography as a powerful tool to tell stories and move peoples’ emotions.

I took a few minutes at the beginning of our lesson to have the students write the word “photograph” on one side of index card. Then I asked them to write the first word they thought of when they heard “photograph.” We then shared them with each other. To my chagrin, about 20 said “photo.” What an obvious and disappointing response! I often wish students would push themselves past the easy and push themselves! One student offered “family” as his association, and another said “memory” as hers. These were the answers I really wanted. I think tomorrow I’ll try the activity again, not allowing “story”  as an option, because that’s what I picked and that’s what we spent the lesson discussing.

To stimulate their thoughts of photographs as stories, I displayed a picture of a grey-haired man, dressed in a suit and smiling, leaning against a wall. I asked them to think of a story that made sense for this picture. Of course, I prefaced the activity with the typical “There is no wrong answer.” They didn’t seem enthused. Finally, hands began to go up. Here are some of their thoughts:

What do you see happening in this picture?

– Perhaps this man was at a party. He’s smiling because he just found an old friend who he hadn’t seen for a very long time.

– Maybe he was looking at his wife, and trying to get her to come take a picture with him.

– Possibly, that day, he did something really good or important, and all the photographers lined up around him in a semicircle.

– Could he be looking at some children laughing and playing?

– Maybe he is shy and doesn’t want his picture taken, so he’s looking away.

The winner, in terms of hilarity, was this, though. One student raised her hand, and addressed me, saying, “Well, he kind of looks like you. Maybe he’s related to you?” I asked her how he might be related. She said, “He might be your grandfather?”

When I told my dad this story, he laughed heartily. After all, the man in the picture is related to me. It’s not my grandfather – it’s my dad.

We then talked through about 5 photographs. Two student produced photos really sparked lively discussions. One of them depicts a man and woman eating at the dinner table, their faces serious, and neither looking at the other. On the right side of the frame, a teenage girl’s body has been cut off, leaving only her arm and part of her face (no eyes) in the picture. There was plenty of discussion about what was going on in the photo, and why this girl was cut off. We talked about whether it was her own decision to be placed in the picture like that (did she try to get away from the camera?) or the photographer’s (did she subconsciously or even consciously decide to cut the girl off as a statement?)

This photograph ignited a vivid discussion about the roles the subjects play, as well as the motivations of the photographer.

Then I posed this question, and it’s one I want to focus on more as the project progresses. I asked the class which they thought would be easier: for the girl to remove herself (ie. get away from the camera) or for the photographer to get the girl’s picture (ie. she could get the picture no matter what.)

They thought about it, and were pretty evenly split. Some reasoned that an unwilling subject could simply hide their face or leave the photographed area.  Then I demonstrated something with one of the boys. I told him to pretend he didn’t want to be photographed, and that I would try to photograph him. He lowered his head so I couldn’t see his face. I allowed him to think he was triumphant, but just for a few moments. I then took my imaginary camera and slipped it under him to take an imaginary photo. Just like that, I illustrated to the class the power a photographer has.

This is a very basic representation of a fantastically powerful fact. Photographers, as people who document life, are immensely powerful. The camera is an unique tool for evoking emotion and impacting change. I hope, through today’s introduction and our subsequent lessons, the students come to appreciate and internalize these ideals. This internal knowledge is so much more crucial than knowing simply how to work the camera. Armed with it, I expect the students to overwhelm me with their work.

I look forward to continuing toward that experience.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to a blog about this very topic. Interesting to see someone else writing about the same thing.


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