Turning the Lens toward Community

Traveling across the world to teach any form of media arts to youth requires a willingness to rethink what we already know about the processes of teaching and learning. What is perhaps more important than developing a curriculum is our willingness to incorporate into our classrooms the values that govern the social environment in which our students live.
When I lived in Ghana, West Africa teaching Junior High English, I became friends with a local photographer named Godwin Yao Azameti. We discussed the idea of teaching children photography as a way of combating what Godwin termed the “Western cultural tsunami,” a powerful wave that not only drowns indigenous perspectives in Ghana, but also shapes the way youth value their own culture. How have those shiny and impossible images beamed worldwide in the form of western magazines, movies and TV affected the way Ghanaian youth see themselves in relation to the outside world? What does it mean for their generation that even representations of their own culture in mass media have largely been shaped by the words and lenses of foreign visitors?
Godwin and I decided that the first step in reinstating an indigenous approach to media making was for youth to own and understand cameras—”foreign” instruments that had historically been used by visitors or researchers to document “cultural” phenomenon. Understanding the process of creating permanent images—the choices and consequences of capturing and reproducing information—could help students develop a sense of subjectivity in the midst of the great “wave.” Our hope was that an opportunity to redirect the lens would encourage them to seek out and emulate the values of their own communities.
Zongo Junction Youth Photo Program
Thus began the Zongo Junction Youth Photo Program, a series of afterschool photography workshops at the Gina International School, in which we encouraged Ghanaian youth to reflect on their communities. At first, we opened the program to only five of my most serious academic students in junior high English at Gina International. The intimacy of this group was beneficial in the early stages, but more importantly it reinforced the values of the school by rewarding those who worked hard, motivating others to follow.
In the first few classes, we talked mainly about the technical aspects of our cameras; essentially, how does this machine work? How do I hold it? What is happening inside? We looked at pictures from the local newspaper, foreign magazines, and even pictures taken by other children around the world. We listed all the objects within the frame and all the objects we imagined were outside the frame. Then we cut squares out of paper and practiced making smaller pictures by reframing existing ones. We talked about how the image in the viewfinder changed depending where we stood. The idea was to help the students see that each photograph constituted a series of choices.
For all the students, this was their first time holding a camera, a machine that had until now been used to take pictures of things out of their grasp—New York skyscrapers (buildings that actually touched the sun), Arnold Schwarzenegger (the most powerful man on earth), and Kwame Nkrumah (The champion of Ghana’s independence). But these were all objects from a world to which they did not belong—famous and impossible things.
The idea was to first demystify photography as a phenomenon. As a Ghanaian, Godwin had a unique way of communicating with the students and helped reinforce the idea that photography was something that could belong to them. After all, Godwin explained, photographs were how he made his living.
I knew as their English teacher that for these students there were right and wrong answers to every question. The trick to school, they had learned, was discovering the right answer, memorizing it, and being prepared at all times to deliver the information on cue. Often this included chanting in unison as a class.
For this reason, my creative writing assignments had worried them. I was encouraging them to say something different and unique from one another. Creativity was dangerous, for it left them exposed. For instance, I’d asked them to write about a dream and later to describe someone they admired. They found these exercises challenging, for what is the most interesting and relevant dream to have had and what are the four most appropriate reasons to admire one’s older sister? These rules had yet to be defined and memorized. Godwin and I recognized that there were rules concerning photography in Ghana too.
Approaches to Youth Photography in Ghana
First of all, a camera was a strange object for a child to carry around, unless he or she was on his way to deliver it to someone older. Many parents would have never owned a camera themselves and would be wondering how their child could have become qualified to undertake such an adult, if not foreign, task. For this reason, I sensed my students were hesitant to take on this responsibility and were relieved to hear that our first week’s assignment was to take portraits of family members to be presented as gifts. This was an important first assignment because it began the process of establishing trust with the students’ families—a very important step to teaching photography and youth media in Ghana.
Most of the student’s early rolls of film were of household chores—cooking, cleaning, bathing their younger siblings and putting them to bed, and studying their daily lessons. While younger siblings proved ever-loyal subjects, after a few rolls of shots in the confines of their own rooms, we began encouraging our students to venture out into their larger communities, though not without warning.
According to the custom of their culture, an elder member of the community could call a younger child and question him/her about his camera, even confiscate it if the elder felt that the child was behaving disrespectfully. And what is more disrespectful then taking a picture of someone without asking permission? Still, we wanted the students to take photographs that truly captured the vibrancy of their environment. Thus, in those early classes, we practiced both hiding the cameras in the torn seams of school uniforms and asking permission to snap a photograph.
In the next few months, we allowed more students to join the class. The understanding was that hard work and good behavior were the ticket to get in and would have to be redeemed weekly. The school was pleased about this policy, and my students seemed to work harder. I asked the first group of five to teach the next group what they had learned.
Peer to Peer Training
Peer-to-peer training became a staple in our workshops and allowed students to process what they had learned. For example, after a few weeks of shooting, the experienced students could explain in their own words what “capture” and “portray” were supposed to mean. This greatly enhanced the experience of new students in the class because photography immediately appeared to be something that they too would be able to grasp.
More experienced students proudly warned new students about amateur mistakes they’d made, like forgetting the flash in the dark or allowing a finger to block the lens. Godwin and I urged the students to return to this idea of each photograph consisting of a series of choices. In these classroom discussions, the students were able to see the ways in which their photographs affected their peers, and relate this to their choices in setting up a shot. We urged them to notice which questions their images answered or left unanswered, the elements they found undesirable or beautiful in each other’s work, and most importantly, the aspects of their shared existence that they had all chosen to represent in their work—the values they shared as 11 and 12-year-old Ghanaian children.
Capturing Culture through Writing and Photography
In many ways, learning photography was for these students—like learning English—a process of internalizing a second language. Their assignment in both mediums (written and visual) was to capture and portray their immediate environment—their community. While a novice in any language may be able to instantly convey basic ideas, they will often create garbled and meaningless sounds (a finger over the lens) or accidentally convey the opposite of their intended meaning (the subject’s smiling face appears as a grimace in low light).
Bringing the photographs into our English classroom enhanced our students’ skills in both media, while enabling them to express a more holistic perspective of their environment. In my English class, we suddenly had amazing visual tools to work with. Simply describing the events that took place before, during, or after the time a photograph was snapped became page-long essays. While the people and events depicted in these photographs were obviously important to the students, what they seemed to value even more was the opportunity to explain an image that might otherwise generate a rumor or embarrass someone—something not taken lightly in this close-knit community.
For example, Bushiratu Abubakar, one of the braver and more curious photographers who had snuck through her house to snap her father asleep in his bed, was quick to explain in her essay that her father was a hard-working man and only slept so deeply after a full day working to support his family. In fact, she was so eager to disprove any semblance of laziness portrayed in the photograph that the next week she did a series of portraits of her father in the same bedroom drinking his early morning tea and reading the newspaper, which she titled, “Lost Time is Never Found.” Mr. Abubakar, for his part, would become a willing and dramatic subject in many of Bushiratu’s photo essays because, I believe, he trusted his daughter’s motives for snapping his picture. Seeing Bushiratu’s pictures, the other students also began to construct and direct scenes.
Theophilus Ansah photographed himself with his friends in various poses with his uncle’s mobile phone. It was here that we asked the students to consider the question of truth telling and encouraged them to seek out examples of media that might convey a false truth. For instance, if a well-dressed man is standing next to a new car, should we assume he is wealthy? How easy is it to wear another man’s clothes or borrow an object for a photograph? What are some scenes from films that might not be real and how might a photographer have used a camera to create an illusion? These were questions we hoped our students would be brave enough to ask of Arnold’s Terminator.
As our English assignments often mirrored the photographs, the photo assignments began to compliment the essays. One assignment was to interview an elder in the family to learn proverbs or wise sayings. In their essays, the students tried to explain what these proverbs meant. In our photography class, we thought of ways to represent these proverbs using still images.
After the rolls of film came back, the students wrote second drafts to their essays, using the photographs they created to elaborate on the themes. Since our students were mostly girls, most of the proverbs they heard from their elders were about charity and chastity, though many touched on greed, forgiveness, respect for one’s elders, and even the inevitability of death. While the act of writing down one’s parents’ rules might not have appealed to junior high school students in the U.S., our students seemed to love this assignment most of all. As a class, it enabled them to represent the rules of their culture, the values they shared as Ghanaians. As individuals, it allowed them to honor and respect their families by displaying in a more public way the extent to which they had been raised well.
While the students treated their photographs like collectors’ items—hiding them in their textbooks, under mattresses, and in back pockets—what impressed me most was their willingness to give them away to family and friends. In this spirit, in January 2006, with the support of the school community and the blessing of the students’ families, Godwin and I organized an exhibition of the students’ photos and writing at the University of Ghana. The event, like the images themselves, was a celebration of the school community. It became a forum for parents, teachers and visitors to praise the students’ creations. It was in many ways the most essential aspect of our program for it helped the students grasp the greater impact of their work and assured them that what they had created now truly belonged to them as well as their community.
Best Practices to Teaching Youth Media Globally (and locally as well)
Gain the trust within your community and include them throughout
• Learn people’s names and how to greet people in the local language as well as gain familiarity with cultural customs and taboos. Getting a sense of culture and language will better situate a youth media educator in a foreign country to teach and implement a media program.
• Ask permission from parents to conduct a media arts workshop. One way of sustaining a trusting dynamic with parents and the community is to have students involve their families in assignments early on. For example, taking family portraits or “day in the life of” shots work well.
• Generate opportunities for families to see their children’s work on display and offer feedback. Having a culminating exhibition was powerful for the photographers, their families, and their community.
Incorporate cultural customs into classroom
• Assign students to write about or demonstrate the rules of their society as they pertain to expectations of youth. Such assignments serve as a guide for young people to examine their own interpretation of culture, social rules, and identity.
• Create rules for your own class that incorporate or parallel these customs. For example, even having access to the photography class required young people to work hard and have good standing with the school and local community.
Collaborate with local media makers
• Include members of community in the teaching and curriculum building process. For example, my relationship with Godwin helped create and launch the program. Additional collaborations helped organize the culminating exhibition of our students’ work.
Incorporate Peer-to-Peer Training
• Allow experienced students to teach new students and incorporate the language and teaching methods they use with your own teaching. This was extremely effective in my classes in Ghana, where experienced students could explain and teach photography, expressing their interpretations and lessons learned to their peers. Educators ought to observe and learn from youth as they lead and interpret/share information.
Combine media
• Encourage students to act out, write about, or discuss their own photographs as well as each other’s work. Writing a story alongside a photograph engaged Ghanaian youth to represent their perspective, their choice of story, and their community—a task that was unfamiliar to youth who are often taught to memorize and recite as opposed to create and analyze.
There is much to be learned from teaching youth media globally. Our most important challenge is to alter our existing pedagogical approaches to meet the needs of the communities in which we work. As educators, we need to encourage youth to own and represent their cultural identity rather than passively embracing western conceptions of identity, which affect youth around the globe.
Our success as facilitators is dependent on our ability to provide young people with the tools they need to explore and our willingness to follow their lead. This will allow youth media makers to work within the value system of their own communities to produce media that they and their families can be proud of.
In the Zongo Junction Youth Photo Program, our students turned the camera lens toward their community, a space beyond the reaches of the Tsunami in which to explore their identities.
Sam Bathrick is the Co-founder of Deviwo Projects, a collective of media makers and educators who seek to enable Ghanaian youth with the skills to document, preserve and re-invent their own culture. A native of Atlanta, Bathrick lives in New York City and aspires as a writer, teacher, and musician.