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"True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings." ~ Pema Chödron
This paper explores how principles of critical pedagogy and transformational learning operated in a series of photography workshops that I ran with multicultural youth, evaluates the expression of these principles, and sketches out potentials for further transformation. This is achieved in four parts. Part one presents a theoretical background in relevant concepts from transformative learning and critical pedagogy. Part two introduces the project itself – its context, participants, and how it was run. Part three explores the project’s explicit and implicit learning agendas, critically examining the assumptions, issues, and transformative potential around firstly reading photographs, then secondarily making photographs. Part four analyses how power operates in the workshop context and ramifications for democratic education.
Part I - Theoretical background
This paper draws its theoretical background in critical pedagogy and transformational learning from the ideas of Paulo Freire and Jack Mezirow who have contributed foundational insights in the two related fields. I briefly sketch out here ideas relevant for the subsequent analysis.
Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy developed as a response to the systematic exclusion of the poor from education in Brazil where he worked in the early 1960s. His theory of liberation education recognized that the marginalized could not escape oppression within the standard education tradition – what he called the ‘banking’ approach, where active teachers deposit knowledge in ‘empty’ and passive students. He writes, “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world”1. This critical consciousness - or ‘concretisation’ - is needed to reveal the social, political, and economic contradictions that form the oppressive matrix that anchors them in an underprivileged position. It is the vital step that paves the way for them to take action in the world against this oppression. Coming from a very different context almost a decade later, Jack Mezirow began to similarly explore the types of learning experiences that are able to fundamentally change the way people see both themselves and their world. Based on his pioneering research with adult learners, and drawing from Habermas’ theory of communicative action, Mezirow outlined a theory of transformative learning. This theory has evolved considerable over the last 20 years in light of numerous critiques2, but essentially locates the act of critical reflection on one’s lived experiences as the basis for transformative learning. Through this critical reflection, a learner can perceive and subsequently transform her habits of mind – the complex meaning structures that continually filter an individual’s way of seeing the world. While critical reflection is crucial for both theories, they differ in the context in which this occurs:
Like Mezirow, Freire sees critical reflection as central to transformation in context to problem-posing and dialogue with other learners. However, in contrast, Freire sees its purpose based on a rediscovery of power such that the more critically aware learners become the more they are able to transform society and subsequently their own reality.
1 2 3
Freire (1970, p. 60) Kitchenham (2008) 3 Taylor, cited in Brown (2004, p. 86)
In this way according to Freire a reflection is only truly critical when it leads to transformative social action, in the outside world.4 For Mezirow social action is a natural and desirable consequence of the process of transformative learning – however it is not intrinsically necessary to the process. Photography for both is a powerful medium that can effect transformative change. Freire has himself on occasion used participatory photography to draw attention to conditions of oppression.5 In Freirean critical pedagogy, photographs taken by learners themselves have the potential to play a key role in helping them to critically reflect on their own lived experiences, in clarifying and articulating how they face injustices, and in framing their ideas for action. Freirean inspired photography projects have tended to focus on the to literal and rational reflection of the socio-political context of the learner.6 For Mezirow’s early work, rationality was also paramount, as expressed through dialogue and critical reflection. His later writing gave more recognition to emotional or intuitive experiences – such as image-based reflection - having the potential of leading to transformative learning.7 Lightfoot-Lawrence and Davis note that “…making and finding meaning through art is a transformative experience. Once we have encountered seeing and thinking in the aesthetic realm, our ability to think and see more generally is altered”.8 Having sketched out the basics of the theoretical background, we turn to the project in question.
See Brown (2004, p. 86) for further elaboration of this analysis. One example dates from 1973, when Freire was conducting a literacy project in a barrio of Lima, Peru. He asked people the question "What is exploitation?", and requested the answers in photographs. The ensuring images spurred widespread discussions in the Peruvian barrio about forms of institutionalized exploitation and ways to overcome them. See Singhai (2004). 6 Singhai (2004) 7 Mezirow (2000). The mytho-poetic view of transformative learning subsequently developed by Dirkx expanded on these intuitive ways of knowing. 8 Lightfoot-Lawrence and Davis, cited in Morton (2007, p. 268)
Part II - Project, Audience and Context
Before engaging with the project analysis itself, it is useful to get an overview of the photography workshops and the context in which they sit. The project was run through a youth led advocacy group, the Western Young Person’s Independent Network (WYPIN), based in Footscray, Melbourne, which works to empower and connect young people of multicultural origin, and advocate more generally on tolerance and multiculturalism. The project consisted of a series of 8 x 3.5 hour photography workshops with multicultural group of young people, that culminated in a public exhibition of the participants’ photographs in a local youth centre.
This project is located within a broader field that is generally known as ‘participatory photography’; such projects use imaging technology (photography and video) for empowerment and advocacy in marginalized groups. Project participants are encouraged to document and co-share their own reality and views though their photographs – the latter which may generate stories that may have been previously rejected or overlooked. The images themselves can then become participatory sites for wider storytelling and engagement by the community, encouraging a reflection on local issues, while the photographic skills learnt by the participants may build their own vocational opportunities.9 With such a wide range of possible goals, it is critical that participatory photography projects are clear about their specific aims, else they can risk becoming tokenistic or at worst tacitly exploitative of their already marginalized participants.10 For this particular project, the explicit outcomes
See Singhal (2004) for a more extensive summary, and Godden (2009) for a thorough critique of the field. 10 Godden (2009) includes some relevant discussion relating to project aims, “As for advice to those running a similar project, I would recommend that they reflect upon the ultimate goal. If the goal is to bring the world of photography to children as an art form for creativity, then their approach may be very different than someone who wants to teach photography as a life skill. The approach would be determined by the desired outcome.”
were to increase the photography and advocacy skills of participants, documenting the West in the eyes of young people, celebrating cultural diversity and building awareness through its public exhibition.
The workshop participants - young people from Cambodian, Sudanese, Afghani, and Thai backgrounds – face marginalisation on multiple levels: economic, cultural, and linguistic. Additionally they are exposed to a media environment that persuasively affirms the centrality of the Anglo-centric subject; with different ethnic groups being constructed visually and through narrative as exotic and Other, as objects rather than subjects.11 As Kincheloe writes, “In such a context, critical consciousness is elusive because the oppressed are blinded to the myths of dominant power the ones that oppress them and keep them in their place”.12 The imagery – and the critical discussion that accompanies it - that the outsider produces herself thus can become a bridge towards critical consciousness. However, we must be mindful of the complexity and potential appropriation of the marginal group even in this seemingly emancipatory context. For instance, though images generated from the detachment of a minority position have a great potential to reflect critically on mainstream society, the perspectives of the participants in this project are not necessarily representative, and like members of any other group, they may be susceptible to bias and stereotyping. We consider the images produced by the participants in more detail below.
Bloom (1999) Kincheloe (2008, p. 73)
Part III - Curriculum and Learning Agendas
Photography teaching spans a range of different pedagogical spectra - with individual projects held in various tensions; the balance between technical and creative, between analysis and capturing, and between theory and practice. Within the participatory photography sub-genre, curriculum is frequently weighted towards the poles of creative, capturing, and practical, and the course in questions is indicative of this constellation of learning values. However there is always a technical component that must be taught – the photographic syntax that allows visual creativity to emerge – we which will also examine. The WYPIN photography workshop curriculum had two main foci, or learning agendas: reading images, which include photographic topics of analysis such as ‘composition’, ‘emotion’, constructed images’; and creating images, which addresses the ‘how’ in capturing the image. This includes both technical skills – ‘focus’, ‘lighting’, ‘aperture’ – as well as developing the participants’ ‘ways of seeing’. Each class covered a different combination of these foci, including revision.13 We will explore each in term and evaluate their transformative potential with respect to Mezirow’s and Freire’s pedagogies.
Reading images – photographic analysis
The basic aim of this learning agenda is to expand the students’ ways of seeing the world, implemented through introducing students to different approaches to ‘reading’ photographs. A key model was ‘See, Feel, Think’. See referred to the basics of composition – what elements in an image (lines, contrast, shape) give rise to certain principles or meta-concepts (harmony, dynamism). Feel referred to the emotional content of the images, what emotional feeling arose from the latter principles and other image content. Think referred to the ideas implicit or explicit in the image, how they arose from the principles, as well as what concepts the photographer was trying to get across in the image.
See full class schedule in Appendix A.
Habits of Mind
From the perspective of transformative learning theory, what is crucial is the process of “…examining, questioning, validating, and revising our perspectives”14. These perspectives form a largely invisible filter to our experiences, determining what we evaluate, judge and believe subsequently based on them the experiences. Mezirow identifies habits of mind as a key part of these perspectives, and describes six are interlinked and interconnected types; epistemic, sociolinguistic, aesthetic, philosophical, moral-ethical and psychological. Transformational learning occurs when these implicit habits of mind are self-reflectively called into question. Two are specifically relevant in the photography class context – aesthetic and sociolinguistic. Aesthetic habits of mind describe how we think about beauty and aesthetics - including our values, attitudes, tastes, judgments, and standards. They are largely influenced by the social norms of our culture, and as such overlap with sociolinguistic habits of mind – those based on social norms, cultural expectations, and language conventions. By inviting students to view photographs critically, to peel back layers of conventional understanding and viewing, it invites critical reflection on aesthetic and sociolinguistic frames of mind. Examples One example of reflecting on sociolinguistic habits of mind was during Workshop 4, where the class explored representations of cultural diversity. I presented images that showed how particular photographs had had black people digitally added to make them appear more culturally diverse, and discussion centred around the difference between this practice and erasure of culture diversity in earlier photographs (Photograph 1).
Cranton (2006, p. 23)
In this way the visual concept of ‘cultural diversity’ becomes the site of questioning, with personal relevance to the participants’ own lives - being largely from multicultural backgrounds and living around Melbourne’s west, they were regularly exposed to both positive and negative constructions of multiculturalism. In a similar fashion Photograph 2 and 3 were presented and prompted discussion around ideals of beauty, critically reflecting on aesthetic habits of mind.
Photograph 3 Photograph 2
These examples prompt the question – is it enough to merely discuss? It is difficult to assess whether critical reflection has occurred simply as a result of discussion. Feedback sheets collected after classes consistently indicated that ‘talking about photographs’ or ‘looking at photographs’ was of significant interest.15 But is it enough? Mezirow’s early formulation specified an abrupt, ‘disorientating dilemma’ to effect critical reflection; these discussions certainly did not constitute this. Later however, Mezirow theorized that a more gradual, incremental shift occurring in the learner could also be transformative;16 it is this type of change that is more of a possibility in the photography classes. However the short duration (3.5 hours) of the classes is an obvious impediment to sustained, incremental transformation. As Sleeter writes, “…seemingly transformational learning experiences that occur in a classroom setting are consistent and lasting as long as the learner is in the classroom, but that learners often revert to previous ways of thinking and acting when they return to their work context.”17 Further post-workshop evaluation may be able to shed light on whether this is the case.
Creating images – how to take a photograph
The aims of this learning agenda was to equip the students with a basic knowledge of how to take photos, from both technical (camera operation) and creative (developing student’s ways of seeing).
Teaching the technical aspects of taking a photograph involves dealing with concepts abstract to the new learner – shutter speed, aperture, ISO, depth of field and so forth. Not only are the concepts abstract, their relationship is nonintuitive – for instance the relationship between f-stops and depth of field is an effect arising from the physics of lenses, remote from the learner's everyday
It should be noted that there are various issues around inferences drawn from feedback sheets – such as shyness to comment, wanting to please, language constraints that make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions from them. 16 See Kitchenham (2008, p.105) for a contextual description the ‘disorientating dilemma’. 17 Sleeter, cited in Hoggan (2007, p.193)
experience. Thus teaching these concepts can be difficult, and it was no surprise that students struggled the most with these concepts. One avenue for engaging with this difficult area through a transformative learning perspective is to look at learner identity. The adult learner’s prior life experiences and identity are critical for how they relate to new knowledge. These experiences “…form a strong basis for their personal beliefs, defining one’s self, and the knowledge base on which new experiences and knowledge are built”18. Every learning environment continually - implicitly or explicitly - constructs its learners as particular identities19, and the nature of this construction can have a great effect on the learning. For instance, in a study of food safety, it was found the identity of the learners as ‘cooks’ had the effect of them focusing primarily on the preparation and cooking, not the post-preparation, which was the critical factor for food safety.20 For the photography classes, I tried explicitly to treat the students as photographers – using statements like, ‘As photographers we should always…’21 I hoped that their emerging identity as ‘a photographer’ would have a positive impact on their determination to learn the technical content, for consistency of identity. It was a paradoxical balance however. By emphasizing the technicality of the medium itself, it may also have worked to neglect the creative side; just as to construct the students as artists could have left them vulnerable to socio-cultural preconceived notions of the nature of personal 'expression', particularly as distinct to technical accomplishment. Given these difficulties, how much is technical learning needed in a transformative learning environment? Feedback from the previous WYPIN photography workshops suggested it might be good to reduce the technical content of the programme, given that this year’s cohort had younger students with less command of English. In response, I removed some technical components, but retained a basic level that I considered essential to give creative flexibility and power to the students to create images. The results
Ellis (2007, p.135) EACCW (2007, p.124) discusses this in the context of privilege. 20 Ellis (2007, p.134) 21 However this was often ad-hoc and not part of a sustained consistent effort to shift their identity.
were mixed – many of the photographs in the exhibition could have been taken with a fully automatic camera (that is, no technical creative control); however it is highly likely that the process of learning the technical skills honed some of the ways of seeing of the participants. That is, it is likely that participants’ aesthetic habits of mind were influenced by the – often difficult – process of evaluating attributes such as depth of field, focus, and movement in the section of visual field framed by the view-finder. Thus not only does technical knowledge allow for a greater range and control over visual representation, it can also have a transformational effect.
Creative operation – ways of seeing
If exploring the technical side of photography is delving into the objective – attempting to answer the question ‘How to take a photograph?’, then pursuing the creative side attempts to answer the subjective - ‘What to photograph?’ How do you teach students to develop their own ways of seeing? This is a core purpose of the workshops – to support and develop each student’s own unique way of seeing the world through photography. Freire and ways of seeing Turning to Freire, this question in paradoxical within what he describes as the conventional ‘banking’ approach to education, where students are passive depositories for the active knowledge of the teacher. Freire writes that in this oppressive system, “…knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others… negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.”22 In contrast, the teacher doesn’t 'own' the student’s way of seeing. She can advise, suggest, instruct, and even coerce a particular way of seeing onto the student – in doing the latter becoming part of the ‘dehumanizing social structures’ that serve to negate an individual’s subjectivity.23 The way of seeing cannot be conventionally ‘deposited’ as in the banking approach.
Freire (1972, p. 72) Freire, cited in McInerney (2009).
In contrast to the banking style, Freire sees all people as creators of history and culture – all of them have a right to “name the world.”’24 In this context, the ‘naming’ equates to owning and asserting their right to show particularly how they see through the photographs. The oppressed must “…achieve a deepening awareness both of their social cultural reality that shapes their lives and their capacity to transform that reality”25. Deepening that awareness comes from developing how to see the world. In the classroom: developing ways of seeing To encourage the development of a learner’s way of seeing without imposing your way of seeing through the didactic banking mode can be a challenge. For instance, a very common question at the workshops’ early stages was ‘How can I take a good photograph?’, with ‘good’ alluding to both technical and aesthetic considerations. The danger is that either the student’s want or the teacher’s desire to produce uniformly ‘good’ photographs may erode the learner’s subjectivity. Godden describe this clearly ‘Through presenting ‘what makes a good photo’, using ‘Western’ examples, focus on one particular style of photography… the trainer may already be influencing the type of photos the participants take…’26 To try to address this I taught ‘guidelines’ (e.g. for composition), stressing that they were not mandatory and could easily be broken for effect. Photograph 4 below shows one example.
<-Figure running on beach If you don't, here's what can happen! This jogger looks like she's going to run right out of the picture.
2nd view of figure running on beach By placing the subject in the lower-left position, we've used the rule of thirds and given the jogger plenty of room to run within the picture.
Freire (1972, p. 69) Freire (1972, p. 93) 26 Godden (2009)
There is always a risk that the authority of the teaching these ‘guidelines’ will have the effect of turning them into ‘rules’ in the student’s consciousness. This risk in developing a participant’s ways of seeing is part of a broader one that relates to the teacher’s authority, discussed in the next section. Of course, it can easily go the other way, where students do not engage with potentially transformative subject matter. An example of this was in Class 7- ‘Photography and social change’, which aimed to build participant awareness of the various ways photography can create social change. I grouped these ways into two – photographs which raise awareness of an issue themselves through their visual impact alone, and photography projects that have the ability to make marginalized voices heard through images. The students were interested in both, but not to the extent that I would have liked; both WYPIN and myself had placed high priority on increased participant advocacy skills, with myself being personally interested in the topic. Instead, the students generally followed their own projects, rather than adopting or experimenting components of this critical attitude.27 I realised that perhaps my own unconscious desires - to infect the students with social activism and to have them make overtly political images - could have partially blinded myself to being properly present to the students’ actual desires at the time. It is a complex situation, as the participants did not have the political language to discuss in depth ideas around oppression and hegemony, and the class was attempting to provide these through visual form. At the same time, Freire stresses the responsibility of the teacher to go beyond “…simply meeting the expressed needs of the learner… they need to take on the responsibility for growth by questioning the learner’s expectations and beliefs”.28 It is a delicate balance between supporting the participants’ desires and questioning them.
The fact that this particular class was towards the end in the workshop program may have effected this, as the students had less time to take onboard new ideas. 28 Brown (2004, p. 87)
Examples One example was the popularity of fashion as a theme in the exhibition and participant’s class photographs (Photograph 5).
A critical pedagogical reading of youth fashion steps back to examine the power relationships at play, as Frymer writes “…youth identity has become a commodity that is being bought by media conglomerates and sold back to youth themselves.”29 Lacking power through being denied political or social agency by repressive social forms, young people frequently negotiate their identity in expression through self-conscious and socially-mediated consumptive practices. As one participant writes to describe his photographs,
Frymer, cited in McInerney (2009, p. 28)
“People express their true emotions and character through fashion. What you wear is what you are”.
On one hand, these statements are an authentic insight into the lived experience of this young person; on the other hand, they tend to reflect the dominant ideology about consumptive identity described above. Greater exposure to critical reflection may have been able to bring out a more selfreflective stance. At the same time, expressing these ideas alongside these photographs which mimic fashion photography poses and composition – makes the viewer think more critically about fashion itself, as models in the photographic genre tend to be Anglo-Saxon. Another popular theme with participants was nature (Photograph 6).
Here some of the participants focused on visually attractive aspects of the natural areas around Footscray.. However, the writings that accompanying these photographs showed more than just a personal appreciation of nature for its beauty – the students also had particular views that they wanted to express:
“…unfortunately, lots of greedy people haven’t understood that nature is heaven. Therefore they are destroying our beautiful nature” “Nature is very important. It is relaxing – when you’re tired, you can get out and breathe in the clear air, see the natural world coloured by wonderful flowering. That way you can feel wonderful again”
The specific attitudes expressed here – one about the importance of protecting nature from humans, the other about the vital need humans have for nature – complement the photographs and let the viewer read more into the images. They also show how the camera as a tool has given these young people increased agency to express their views. “As students become literate they are empowered to change themselves and to take action in the world.”32 Here this literacy is visual, and the action is putting out these images into the world.
WYPIN (2010) Kincheloe (2008, p.74)
Photograph 7 shows some participants’ images around the themes of multiculturalism which similar operate to critically engage the viewer around the concepts of race, representation, and identity.
Part IV - Democratic education – power and control
In this final section, I examine some of the power relationships in the classes and how they act to engage or limit student participation from a critical pedagogical position.
For Freire, the learner’s identity is always in a state of becoming, and thus the potential for transformation and liberation is ever-present. The role of the teacher is to engage the student in dialogue to expand their self-knowledge. Thus the authority of the teacher is based on the knowledge and insight she brings to class – not simply because she is the ‘teacher’, and they are the ‘students’.33 Of course, it is complex situation regarding student-teacher perception. During the photography workshops the students would treat me very much as the teacher despite my attempts to equalize the relationship. Cultural differences existing around respect for the teacher varied widely amongst cultures: non-Anglo-Saxon participants tended to respect my authority as positional and hierarchical, while Anglo-Saxons showed less respect.34 An added complexity for authority in this context was the presence of peer facilitators – three WYPIN staff and volunteers who assisted me in the running of the class, predominantly through each facilitating small groups during class activities. In terms of control, I rarely gave over curriculum control or lesson planning control - while peer facilitators had input, I was the final arbiter. While there were practical reasons for this (their lack of photographic knowledge, time constraints, curriculum consistency), on reflection I could have made many more opportunities for the facilitators to take sessions themselves. By giving up some of this control, there may have been more dynamic opportunities for dialogic interactions arising from the expanded diversity of facilitation personality types and styles.
Kincheloe (2008) See also Southern’s (2005, p. 450) discussion of this phenomena. She makes the observation that for some of her Asian students authority and distance in one realm (classroom), seemed to pave the way for informality and distance in another (the home).
This giving and retaining of authority and control for transformative learning is a dynamic, contextual process. Some degree of authority is required to focus the students (e.g. on learning camera technical functions); too little authority (e.g. lack of enforcing time constraint) can detract. As Southern reflects on this balance,
If I hold my authority over students, how likely will they enter that space of unknowingness and vulnerability that is necessary for transformative learning? If I don’t hold my authority in a way that challenges them to question their own assumptions, I also greatly limit their learning.
Physical space has critical effects on learning environments; creating or shutting down the possibilities of physical interactions, inscribing or diluting specific power relations, and emphasising or de-emphasising particular knowledges. Communication and interaction between learners is an embodied, spatial experience, “…learning is seen as a function and emergent process of bodily subjects within an embodied context, in which a learning person is embedded passively and in which he or she takes part actively in a responsive practice”.36 For the photography workshops, two main spaces were used for learning: inside and outside.
The inside space where the classes occurred was at the Melbourne Citymission building in Footscray. Space was tight and feedback indicated that students did not like crowded rooms – after a few attempts we were able to find a passable yet cramped working arrangement. Most critical in the physical arrangement was the orientation of the students and teacher – the teacher was at front by the whiteboard, with the students in a circle. This arrangement took more space than if the students were in rows – however it allowed them all to easily see and communicate with each other, an important way of encouraging inter-student dialogue and discussion. Further, the
Southern (2005, p. 448) Kupers (2008, p. 391)
lessons usually involved a combination of dialogue in a whole-group format and smaller groups – the latter providing less spaces that were easier for the more quiet members of the group to talk. This flexibility and safety is critical for transformative learning, as Dahl writes in his study of youth camps, “…safe and flexible spaces in which to experiment, debate, and take on increasingly more responsibility… essentially provide young people with the kind of thinking spaces they need in order to engage in transformative learning.”37 When in a large group, the default position of the teacher was standing at the front. This was convenient for knowledge dissemination, but usually limited interactions to be student-teacher interactions rather than studentstudent. I found sitting down during group discussion altered the hierarchy of my frontal position and seemed to enable greater student-student interactions.
The outside spaces were used for photography excursions – opportunities where participants could take photographs in the streets of Footscray. Naturally these spaces were coveted after hours in a cramped office, and feedback showed that students wanted more of them – however it was a balance between having excursion and photographing time outside and discussion and conceptual learning inside. This may have reflected my own privileging of the content and communicative learning inside over practical, individual learning outside – however the participants in this year’s classes also kept the cameras outside of the class and so had many other opportunities for practical shooting.38 Attempting to produce an optimum learning environment during the excursions rested on various balance points: 1. The un/decisive moment. The balance between encouraging the students to pick the ‘right’ moment to take the photograph – when they could see the what they wanted in the frame39, and on the other hand encouraging them to take many photographs of
Tove (2009, p. 230) This was an important change designed to give more autonomy to the student’s learning – in the previous year’s class the students handed their cameras back in after each lesson for security reasons. 39 This notion of the decisive moment in transformative learning is discussed by Altobello (2007) in the context of contemplative practice.
anything to improve their framing, composition and practical learning. 2. Is it good enough? Related to the first, this was the balance between taking many photographs and not thinking critically about them, and between taking few photographs and being overly critical of them. 3. Staying safe. The balance between giving ‘heavy’ safety warnings to participants about camera use in public space (which made some participants more reluctant to take photographs), and between being more relaxed and letting the students engage in riskier camera use. 4. Staying together. Related to the previous, this was the balance between the small groups staying close for safety (constraining the photographs taken and encouraging groupthink) and between being more relaxed and letting the students explore more independently (riskier). There was no specific ‘right answer’ to where to set these balance points – they were highly contextual. However from a transformative learning perspective, a safe learning environment is not just limited to physical safety, it encompasses the space to experiment - according to Schapiro these environments can be “...a platform from which learners can leap into the unknown, and a safety net that can catch them if they fall...”40
The exhibition was the culmination of the photography workshops. It showcased what participants’ chose to be their best images, in a theme of their choice. We have examined above several examples of types of images students produced. Here we explore the exhibition as a site for democratic education. The simple fact of having an exhibition at end of the classes forced the students to think about what kind of theme they wanted to show in their work,
Schapiro (2009, p.98)
moving them beyond thinking on an image-by-image basis to a more complex expression. Each participant was given a large section of black cardboard as a space for their photographs; they choose the number, type, and arrangements of the images. This participant control was essential to give them the space to develop their way of seeing more fully. As Godden writes, “There is an over emphasis on who takes the picture… but photography is a longer process, involving editing and presentation to an audience…What is important is that participants are involved in whole photographic process.”41 We should remain critical though is the context in which this occurred – in practical terms there was only one class where students looked specifically at a photographic series in a structured way rather than dealing with single images – limiting their ability to fully explore this structure before the exhibition. Aside from the specific arrangements, how the photographs were generally presented at the exhibition was also important in the public construction of the participants. There is a definite risk of paternalism in participatory photography, where notion of charity can construct the participants as passive subjects – essentially we see but do not really hear their voice. To make sure they are heard, the participants write their own biography statements and artist statements about their work which were displayed alongside their images – ‘naming the world’, in the Freirean sense.
Discussion and Conclusions
Photography is an ideal medium for transformational learning – it offers rich possibilities for critical reflection on the learning subject’s lived reality, as it can directly present sections of this world to the viewer. However, learning to create images cannot be separated from learning how to read them; both processes inform each other and generate the potential for transformative experience. By learning how to critically read images, the participants were given an opportunity to engage with and challenge their unconscious habits of mind. As these habits are strongly linked with how we see the world, this critical reflection gave space to develop their ways of seeing, providing critical influence in photographs that they take. While Mezirow’s transformative learning theory emphasises these personal transformations, Freire’s critical pedagogy continually focuses on their relevance to social change and overcoming structured oppression in the world. In this regard the public exhibition was the clearest expression of social influence – however, as a one off event, its impact was limited. Freire would judge whether the photography participants stayed in touch and expanded their critical conversations into other parts of their lives and world after the workshops, as testimony to wider-scale influence. Of course, these processes were far from perfect – one recurring aspect was the shortfall of time in both session length and series duration that can severely limit the transformation potential of the processes. One way to achieve this would be to reduce the course content covered, giving more space and time to creating further opportunities for critical reflection. The photography workshops are still in their infancy, with so many more ways to develop. We are surrounded by images, most of which urge us to consume. The images created by the young people show something very different – not a broad critique of capitalism or oppression, but rather the sharing of local stories, identities, and perspectives that would have otherwise remained silent. As viewers, these images invite us to explore other worlds that we so often neglect, and ultimately help us to see the common hopes and fears inherent in our shared humanity.
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time… But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." ~ Lila Watson, Aboriginal educator and activist
Appendix A - Photography Class Schedule
Class 1 2
General Theme Intro to Photography Past - where have you/we come from? Present - What's going on now?
Photographic Ideas Reading photographs Composition Emotion
Technical Camera basics Focus Shutter/Aperture/ISO
Date Tues 29th June Thurs 1st July Tues 6th July Thurs 8st July
3 4 5 Future - where are you/we heading? Our Footscray - what is our community? Optional workshop (limited numbers) 5a Advocacy/Action Another World is Possible Optional workshop (limited numbers) 6a Other Worlds 7 Optional workshop (limited numbers) 7a Where to from here? 8 Final exhibition Preparation Exhibition Launch! Exhibition Packdown and Class Dinner Exhibiting your photos, continuing as a photographer Digital photography/technical extensions Macro, abstraction Photography and social change Digital photography/technical extensions Constructed photos and series Representing diversity Lighting Digital photography/technical extensions
Sat 17th July TBC
Sat 24th July TBC
Sat 31th July TBC
Sat 7th August Sat 14th August Fri 20th August TBC
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