Thursday, May 14, 2009

Connecting the Learning Process

photo by Becky Olstad

We're zooming through another session of intro and intermediate photography at the ICP and the avalanche of worry and frustration is beginning to feel overwhelming.

Apertures, shutter speeds, focus modes, flash ratios, bias controls, clipping indicators, framing options, not to mention working with the scene, feet on the ground, paying attention to light, texture, detail -- and how about actually talking to your subjects? Forgetaboutit. Lightroom? Photoshop? Printing? C'mon....

What are we learning when we learn photography? Let's back it up a bit and take a breath.

photo by Colleen Mullins

I recently reconnected with a friend from a previous orbit whom I haven't seen in a long time. Colleen Mullins directs the photography program at Art Institutes International Minnesota and we caught up with each other at the Photolucida reviews last month. Her story inspires me to keep inventing the process, to keep challenging the norms. At root she wants to inspire her students to think of photography as a way to engage deeply with a way of living, and she's invented a course to get the point across, The New Orleans Travel and Study Program, and co-teaches it with photo-journalist and fellow educator Becky Olstad.

In this course students study documentary tradition, the humanistic ideals, as well as sociological research methods that underlie the process of learning about something outside your own direct experience. Then, as part of the required course material, everyone goes to New Orleans together to explore and connect and make pictures. The photographs and stories that come from the experience are then available to news organizations and non-profits that need material to help them stay connected to their communities, to help us all keep connected to the continuing story of New Orleans post-Katrina. She's even prodding her students to get involved in the distribution mechanics by requiring them to maintain a website for licensing and tracking usage of their work: Nolastock.(Awesome site design by Chris Tetreault, Ai graduate of March 2009, by the way!)

Here's why I'm inspired: in addition to showing you about the apparatus and the tools and the history of the medium, Colleen and Becky wrap you in a particular way of engaging with a social context that is much larger. Their course teaches you how to learn about a community that is different from your own, and about how to document and share the experience, how to reflect on the expectations you had going into it, how to dig deeper and find the possibility of common ground, and how to construct a practice of doing all this in a sustainable way that can support the community itself.

photo by Ashley Miller

That is, in distinction from our fast-culture with quick expectations of fast-results, Colleen and Becky are modeling a way to make slower pictures that might become life-connections. In the process, they're visualizing a practice that digs into the foundations of concerned photography (think Eugene Smith's essay in Life about Maud Callan, for example, or his Minamata essay).

Okay, maybe I'm susceptible to a bleary nostalgia for an overly romanticized age. But sometimes I think that contemporary photojournalism and documentary practice is too much about parachuting into the crisis zone of the moment, collecting an assignment fee while making a bunch of fancy pictures that can be repurposed to the gallery world, and then scurrying away before actually touching the heart of the matter.

That is, not to get too cynical here — I know most of us, in our hearts, really do want to help change things for the better —I think it's partly about that.

But what intrigues me about Colleen and Becky's work is that they're searching for a way to use contemporary technology within the context of our particular culture to create a practice that is sustainable and connected to an idea of community; they're modeling that practice for students; and — perhaps most importantly — Colleen has somehow persuaded her institution to support the effort.

Back to my original question: what are we learning when we learn photography?

For me it keeps coming back to connecting and engaging with your life and with your community. There are a million ways to do this. And the opportunity for an expanded documentary practice (or social, humanistic, concerned documentary practice), might be one of the carrots that gets you up and going each morning — and it gets easier as you keep going. Yes, frankly, the start-up can be overwhelming because there's so much to learn about so many different things. All I can say is: you gotta keep going. Keep taking pictures; keep putting them on your computer, your blog, your flickr; and keep the conversation going. You can and will get over this initially vertical learning curve.

photo by Becky Olstad

I've written before on this blog about new forms of documentary practice (SalaamGarage) and about an artist extending the idea of committed participation in his long-term historical performance project (Hiroshi Sunairi's Tree Project). Both of these projects inspire me and might help you get through rough patches in the learning process.

For background on the idea "concerned photographer" see this bit about Cornell Capa, who coined the phrase and founded the ICP. In 2006 the Art Institute of Chicago presented the exhibit The Concerned Photographer and this page that links to organizations engaged in social change. The Aperture Foundation frequently highlights documentary practice in its books and exhibits, and there are hundreds of other links to explore if you google phrases like "humanistic photography" and "social documentary."

For a deeply engaging investigation of the documentary impulse and its cultural and moral implications, read Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others (review). And any fully nuanced discussion of this topic can't but help refer to Sontag's observations in On Photography — which, if you haven't yet read it, is one of the best ways I know to clear your mind of the clouds and cobwebs brought on by too much worrying about apertures and shutter speeds. (For an intriguing review from when that book was first published, check here.)

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