Taking photographs – creating geography

Back to black… and white

Not long ago the window on the world through geography textbooks was monochrome. When I started teaching the department had what I called a ‘museum draw’ of little tins containing black-and-white filmstrips. It was a large, neglected, resource.

Now we almost take for granted the quality and sheer quantity of the visual media available to us. These days we consume photographs and create them at such low cost.

There is much that can and has been said about the use of photographs in textbooks and more recent media on how images are selected and how they are used to represent places. (For example, see Photos in global learning by Graham Eyre in Primary Geographer, Spring 2010. By subscription or purchase.)

However, my interest here is in the ways young people can create their own images and interrogate the decision-making process of photography for geographical learning.

One of the projects that first excited me about young people’s use of photography was Shootback. Photographer Lana Wong first visited Mathare, Nairobi’s largest slum, in shootbackJanuary 1995. Two years later she launched Shootback, a project that put basic point-and-shoot cameras in the hands of 32 teenage boys and girls from slum families. The book, Shootback: Photos by Kids from the Nairobi Slums (Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2000), is a collage of pictures and words, taking the reader into the slum without the mediation of the foreign photographer’s eye. The photographs speak eloquently of friends, family, football fever and the harsh realities of everyday life in the slums. Like the Shootback project itself, the book was backed by the Ford Foundation, Netherlands Development Assistance (NEDA) and the Stromme Memorial Foundation (Norway). Read this 1999 BBC review of the book. You can purchase the book here.

The Shootback website no longer exists but the project was cited in the Global Eye, Autumn 2005, with a learning activity based on some of the photographs. Global Eye also reported on school projects where disposable cameras had been taken by and sent to children in different parts of the world and processed in the UK.

More recently Plan UK has presented Shoot Nations with Shoot Experience and the United Nations “to encourage young people to express their thoughts on global issues through photography – a cross-cultural and language-free communication tool.”

Between 2006 and 2010 the project included an annual photography competition, photography workshops, and a global touring exhibition. 2010’s exhibition sat alongside the World Press Photo exhibition at the UN Secretariat building in New York City. Sadly, it has not continued due to lack of funding but the still site contains a superb array of images responding to each brief and is ripe for inspiration. Young people have created images of stunning appeal

Colliers Green FocusNow in its fourth year, Colliers Green Focus has offered workshops for schools’ fieldwork with a geographer, photographer and a digital camera for every pupil. The results are explored and selected and then submitted for a competition and exhibition. There is now a ‘mobile’ version for schools to submit their own images. Read more here.

For June 2012 Colliers Green Focus has developed My School in Focus, a project to celebrate the UK’s first ever National Photography Month.

“Whilst we are taking more pictures than at any other time, the fleeting nature of digital images means we are printing or keeping fewer of these important documents. National Photography Month aims to encourage the nation to get more involved in photography, and to explore new ways to capture and keep life’s most important moments.” Send for a booklet here.

Through working with this project I began to appreciate photographers more and became interested in street photography. I can highly recommend the 52-week blog project Street Photography Now and the book by the same title by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren (Thames and Hudson, 2011) available here.

If you are inspired by this approach, I also suggest Going Candid – an unorthodox approach to street photography, by Thomas Leuthard, July 2011, available free (or ‘pay a favour forward’) online here. Intriguingly, all the photographs are in black-and-white.

I believe, as geographers, we are inclined towards the visual media. We are keen to see places, near and far, and through our own photography we make places.

Is this personal, creating sense of geography strong in your department?

First published by Hodder Geography Nest

More on my interest in photography >

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