Literacy Through Photography

One summer during college, I took a two week intensive photography course at the Penland School in mountains of North Carolina. My teachers were Katie Hyde and Dwayne Dixon, two teachers with the Literacy Through Photography program, which is based at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and has chapters around the country and around the world. The program teaches school children the fundamentals of photography, technical and stylistic, and then sends them out into their worlds, their schools, neighborhoods, and homes, armed with simple point-and-shoot 35 mm cameras. Started by photographer Wendy Ewald in 1989, the program has traveled to a diverse and ever-growing range of communities. The photographic assignments the children are given are concentrated mainly on four themes–community, family, dreams, and self-portraiture. Other similar programs exist, such as the Kids with Cameras program, the results of which were highlighted in the 2004 documentary, Born Into Brothels.

I’m particularly interested in these kinds of programs because I think they fit nicely within a broader agenda of media literacy and media education, something I’m very interested in and believe in very strongly. In terms of the categories of photography we explored last week in class, I think these programs, and the photographic work the children in them produce, fall best under the heading of “photography as art/investigation/expression”. However, the work these projects are doing is not as simple as that heading suggests. I believe, in fact, that the act of empowering these children, often children from under privileged backgrounds to tell their own stories and to explore and understand themselves and their surroundings in new ways, is an incredibly transgressive and potentially socially revolutionary one. The photos the children in these programs produce range from whimsical, mundane scenes to haunting, iconic images. They let the viewer into new worlds and are imbued with all the wonder and all the fear of childhood. Through the lens, we encounter the world as these children do. In looking at these images the first time, and now again, I continue to be struck by how moving, engaging and beautiful many of them are, and how, even at such a young age, each of these young photographers is already developing a unique point of view, a unique creative voice.

The photos below are culled primarily from student works produced through various Literacy Through Photography chapters across the country, as well as in other countries. Several of them also come from the children involved in the Kids with Cameras program. Most of them came from archived student works and are unattributed by name.


Attached shadow: both the grapes and the arm in this photo have attached shadows which indicate that the primary light source is coming from above.


Cast Shadow: In this photograph, the cast shadow indicates that the person creating the shadow is standing just out of the frame. It appears that the shadow belongs to the photographer him/herself.


Falloff: In this photo, the little boy’s face (and hand) illustrate fast falloff, transitioning from strong light to shadow extremely abruptly.


Spatial Orientation: In this photograph, the lighting, and the shadow it creates, help to spatially orient the young boy, in relation to the ground (his feet are touching it) and in relation to the sun.


Tactile Orientation: This photograph orients the viewer to the tactile realities of the environment pictured, with the strong light and, therefore, quick falloff creating a clear sense of the dry, dusty, rough, and pebbly ground upon which the subject’s feet are walking.


Time Orientation: The long, dark shadows in this photograph orient it temporally as having been most likely taken late in the afternoon.


Establishing Mood and Atmosphere: The combination of the close-up, frame filling nature of this portrait and the subdued, softly shadowed lighting on the face create a strong sense of intimacy and connection with the young subject.


Predictive Lighting: The overall subdued lighting of the photograph, particularly the hooded, darkened face of the little boy and the complete blackness of the space behind him at the top of the stairs hints at a sense of slight foreboding, or at least gives the photograph a sense of subdued melancholy which seems to hint at a broader story line.


Dramatic Lighting: Just as in Zettl’s description, in this photograph, the actual light source (the sun’s rays) are incorporated into the image, adding a sense of interest and drama. This drama is further enhanced by the reflection of a shadow from an unseen figure on the sidewalk.


Standard Lighting: This photo appears to embody standard lighting in that there is light separating the subject from the background, there is controlled, minimal falloff, and, most importantly, the focal point of light within the photograph is on the young boy’s face, drawing the focus there.


Expanded Lighting: Though there is light inside the house, as in the expanded lighting technique of kicker lighting, the light from the window, coming from behind and to one side, illuminates part of the side of the children’s faces, leaving the rest in shadow.


Chiaroscuro Lighting: The two attached photos below embody chiaroscuro lighting due to the selective illumination (of the boy’s face, and in the bottom one, of the arm as well), fast falloff and heavy light/dark contrast. The photos are, over all, rather dark, particularly the backgrounds. This creates a sense of heightened drama and emotion, particularly in the bottom photo.


Flat Lighting: This photo embodies flat lighting, or as close as a photographer not employing studio lights usually gets to flat lighting. The photo has very slow falloff with few if any visible shadows. The viewer is not aware of any principal source or direction from which light is coming, but rather the light is diffused more or less evenly throughout the frame.


Silhouette Lighting: This photo embodies silhouette lighting because of its heavy background lighting  and dark foreground, which render the subject and the foreground as black outlines of shapes against the bright light of the background.


Media Enhanced Lighting: While the Literacy Through Photography program and Kids with Cameras both use standard film cameras and do not incorporate much if any digital manipulation of images into their curricula, this image, taken by a child in Calcutta’s red light district, was highlighted in the documentary Born into Brothels, and has been digitally enhanced for those presentational purposes, probably including the increasing of contrast and  over all sharpening of the image.


Finally, though I didn’t end up using this photograph to illustrate any of the lighting concepts, I wanted to include it because I find it incredibly striking. This was a product of a Literacy Through Photography assignment which asked students to photograph their dreams. Apparently, this child wrote that he or she dreamed that their sister and a pig were dead on the ground, and staged this scene to recreate that dream. I find the image incredibly moving and very creepy and disturbing, and in this case  I think the light really works to enhance the mood of the image. Bright sunlight has such a strong association with cheerfulness, clarity, innocence, playfulness, and a feeling of aliveness and animation, that the contrast of the motionless child and animal on the ground, under the bright sunlight is all the more jarring and enhances the sense of eeriness and unnaturalness of what the viewer is seeing.


One Response to “Literacy Through Photography”

  1. […] I’ll probably try to start cross-referencing, in the interest of expediency. In that spirit, here is a class assignment having to do with identifying different lighting techniques in photography. I […]

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