Photography is a passion of mine. It offers a chance to look back on what I did paired with a certain anticipation of future possibilities. Photography can also be a space of salvage. I return to the photographs to browse in expectation to stumble upon an abandoned image that can be rescued to underscore a message, to convey a mood in ways that were unanticipated at the time of capturing. During my Master’s Thesis, designing a video workshop for and with youth, I experienced the use of photography to explore everyday challenges and a way to imagine future, perhaps more desirable, practices. Having thought back on this experiences from time to time through my work on Open Portfolios, which centers around understanding portfolios as a tool for capturing, curating, and assessing the rich learning of youth making, I wanted to try to bridge my current work with that of the past.
My LRNG playlist is called Critical Photographer. It is an introductory taste to exploring, imagining, and remixing impressions through photography. Through hands-on engagement right from the start, 6 XPs invite youth to question possible meanings of photographs, extending the camera as a creative tool, showing different experiences of the same situation, documenting everyday challenges, and editing images to visualize desirable alternative realities. Throughout the XPs youth capture and share their work online and build a portfolio that could potentially become the basis for bolstering a job or college application.
XP 1: 99 Snapshots – Youth get started by clicking 99 snapshots of anything they like. They are asked to upload all of their photographs online and to write captions or hashtags for every picture. The amount of images is intentionally high for three reasons. First, youth get used to the idea that any situation could become a photograph, a story. Second, youth build a repertoire of work as the basis for other XPs. Third, youth take a second pass at their work to get them to question photography as representation of one true reality.
XP 2: DIY Filters – The visual effects a camera can achieve is endless. Exploring the physical tool is one way to find out about this versatility. In this XP, youth question the fixed nature of the camera by creating DIY filters with everyday materials, such as cellophane foil, orange nets, and tape. The idea is for youth to see the camera as a playground for innovation, that can be added onto. The ideas explored here can expand the productions of later XPs by incorporating diverse visual effects.
XP 3: Petite Picture Plots – Photography can be a powerful tool for storytelling, underscoring emotional messages or highlighting key turning points. Expanding preceding XPs, youth select a limited amount of photographs from their repertoire and create three short stories by arranging and curating the same images in three different ways. Youth explore position and narrative order to produce nuanced alternative meanings.
XP 4: Rediscovering Home – Returning back to a space youth are connected to, youth view the place from two new and contrasting perspectives, for example from the perspective of a tourist and that of an artist. Youth consider what photographs by tourists and artists might look like and how they might contrast and select angles and subjects to represent. In the process, they create images that represent different possible experiences of the same space, and explore how to document them photographically.
XP 5: Empowering Photography – Building on the preceding XPs, the last XP before the Capstone is about identifying everyday challenges and envisioning more desirable alternatives. Youth explore a public space, document a challenge photographically, discuss the photographs with friends and/or family, and edit the photographs to represent a more desirable situation. The youth question the use of photographs as solely documentarian by crafting photographs that serve to imagine possible futures.
Capstone XP: Photography Portfolios – Having documented and captured their work throughout each XP, youth take another look at their repertoire of work. They curate their work for a specific audience, such as their friends, their family, or college admissions, and to highlight the work that is most meaningful to them and the work they think might resonate well with their audience.
Design Process Highlights
The written format of presenting design processes calls for linear representation, distorting some of the criss-crossing that often takes place in design. In the hope to preserve some unintentional tangents, I highlight three examples that shaped my playlist unexpectedly:
Once I settled on a theme, XP ideas started flowing. Of my 15 ideas, only 6 made the playlist. To decide which, I wrote short descriptions for all 15 XPs. The main idea crystallized into one hopeful learning outcome: visual questioning. I held onto this message as I made cuts. Along the way, I lost ideas, such as (1) Locating Legends, an XP for youth to research photographers online, and (2) Capturing Characters, an XP for youth to capture creatures and faces that hide in everyday objects. Even with a very concise list of XPs, possibilities seemed endless. Each XP could be complexified into its own playlist. Consciously not overthinking helped keeping it simple.
As I cruised around the website, I design for speed. I discovered that I could underline text to highlight the essentials, facilitating quick reading. Applying this across XPs, this strategy became a way to explain away concerns about my Show and Proof. All of these written with consistency, producing coherence, minimizing reading time, and introducing familiarity. I liked the idea of inviting youth to build up their capstone along the way.
Knowing that other things would be on my plate, I wanted to get my playlist out of the door ASAP. When I published my playlist I realized that no further edits were possible. Feeling o.k. about my playlist, besides the many spelling mistakes, I wonder how intentional this design choice was. I understand that the badge needs to be connected to a stable playlist so that the badge can remain meaningful for the youth who earned it (e.g., earning a badge might mean that its holder can do the things the playlist asked for, but might not be able to do the things a revised playlist might ask for). – Designing around badges and with in mind seems tricky. While powerful, badges seem to lock in design processes and create overhead.
The Critical Photography playlist is production centered. Youth create photographs, camera attachments, imaginative collages, and a portfolio of the work they feel good about and would like others to see. The documentation of work is at once a way to keep track of and remember the amount of work and thinking done, a way to share rich learning experiences with others, and an invitation for youth to broker new opportunities and new connections. The optimistic gesture towards the future is by design. The playlist was designed based on Connected Learning that emphasises production-centered, openly networked, purposeful creativity with interest and peer driven learning (Ito et al., 2013). Emphasizing open and public sharing of work, the learning of Connected Learning is intended to foster personal development and a collective shift (Ito et al., 2013). This is particularly predominant in the XPs, where youth look sideways to see familiar spaces in new ways, notice things about the spaces they had not seen before, and identify alternative ways of doing.
Photographs can shift in meaning over time be it by looking back at a snapshot or re-mixing or narrating a large body of work. These engagements can surface the layered ways of photographs: An image can be blurry one day and on another funny or tragic. The XPs are sequenced to complexify possible uses of photographs. This way the photographs and the camera are encouraged to become objects to think with, inviting youth to document, explain, and imagine. The creative practice with the object can surface new ways of understanding the world and can help explore what it means to know and how knowing comes about (Papert & Harel, 1980). With an object to think with, anyone can engage in epistemological work (Turkle, 2007). This very much connects the playlist also to material feminist approaches to learning and design for learning. Material feminist theories consider that the sense-making instrument that detects a phenomena (Barad, YEAR), e.g., the microscope in biological research or the camera in the LRNG playlist, have a way of shaping the way in which the phenomenon comes about. This dynamic shaping means that there is always necessarily a multiplicity of realities and that the person behind the camera and the camera itself shape how these realities can be perceived, read, and made meaningful. While not explicitly referencing such complex theories, the Critical Photography playlist was aimed at inviting youth to think about underlying assumptions of what reality might mean to them and how the camera work can shape and shift the way reality is documented and put back to work.