Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Primary educator's intro to PJ

Recently a few elementary and middle school teachers asked for help with lesson plans for introduction to photojournalism (PJ) classes. Personally, I think this is like asking children to repair a diesel fuel injector before they master riding a bicycle, but I'm probably underestimating some kids' abilities.

I should also mention that I'm probably too blunt for most primary school teachers' sensibilities. My only baby has interchangeable lenses. So, I'll hope professional educators soften the tone between what I write in this series and its eventual audience. :-)

General intro
There is a progression to PJ. It involves a mastery of photography (evidentiary), documentary and finally photojournalism. Most beginning assignments tend to result in evidentiary images. It's a good place to start, but it's only the first step if PJ is the desired goal.

A logical class design would teach students about the equipment, working with people, writing cutlines, basic event coverage and finally story telling.

I always suggest it's wise to include "basic photography" in introductory photojournalism classes. It teaches the students to use the camera as a tool for their vision. It also teaches the abilities and limitations of the camera so they can refine their vision.

Photojournalism - like journalism - looks easy, but it takes a lot of training and mistakes to get it right. PJs must understand how to be a journalist and a photographer as well as post-production (publication applications) and media law.

Setting ground rules
First and foremost, teachers need to protect themselves legally. With the world being as crazy as it's become, teachers need to be absolutely certain students understand what are "inappropriate" photo subjects.

A common beginning assignment could be for students to document their day. Part of most 3rd-graders' days is bath time. It could be their most or least favorite part of the day. They may wish to document it. However, when they turn in a photo of their bath time, it's placed onto a school computer and has an entirely different meaning.

Consequently, bath time should be strictly off limits. If they want to show their little brother brushing his teeth while fully clothed, it's OK. But, draw this line early and don't allow anyone to cross it.

Legal issues
As soon as a student has a camera in hand, legal issues arise. The camera is an instrument of freedom of speech and legal limitations. By including photography in a class setting, teachers must determine how much responsibility they're willing to accept.

Since this post is designed for primary and secondary teachers, it's probably best to tell the students and their parents that they're responsible for all their own actions. It's also best to inform them that the school is NOT willing to defend their freedom of speech or press rights. This keeps the teacher from having an unnecessary confrontation with parents, fellow teachers, a principal, school board members, a district attorney, etc. (and losing the battle as well as possibly a job).

Without delving too deep, the kiddos need to understand that if they do happen upon something scandalous, they won't get to publish it. Yes, it's newsworthy. Yes, it's a matter of freedom of speech and press, but they're in a controlled environment.

Juveniles have varying human rights. It's not fair, but it's a fact. Depending on the circumstances, law centers and other defenders will step up to protect children's rights (speech and press). But, don't count on it.

Prior restraint is alive and well for students (of all ages) in educational institutions.

What are the boundaries?
Again, I'm not going to digress into court case minutia of privacy, trespass, intrusion, false light or any of the other legal issues. I'm also going to hope these classes aren't taking place in a combat or other crisis zone.

These are some safe, broad boundaries to keep the kids and teachers out of trouble.

1) Establish who can and can't be photographed. This has become customary in the last decade or so in most school districts. If the district requires parental approval for photographs, then only those children with signed releases on file can be photographed. No exceptions.

Any student without a release shouldn't be in a PJ class. They can work in the office during photo time. If kids really want to be photographed or be in the class, tell them to get their parents to sign the school district release.

2) Establish what is "public" for the students. This is different than the professional level because the students are actually in the facility more time. Generally acceptable rules for students might include the photo classroom, hallways, cafeteria, playground and gymnasium or auditorium. Other areas such as gardens or libraries can be determined as needed.

Off limits areas would be other classrooms, offices and "private areas" (particularly health services).

3) Set off-campus shooting area limits. The general rule is anyone can shoot from a public place. Students may not understand a mall is a private business. This needs to be properly explained.

It's safe to limit photography to places the student lives, is invited to attend (friends' homes) and public facilities (parks, recreation centers and private vehicle commutes). In general, let the children know that if they don't see anyone else with cameras (excluding pro shooters), it's probably off limits.

Whenever possible, it's best to have all the students use the same style of camera. This makes critiques uniform and keeps the children from facing awkward/hateful conflicts from the kid whose parents own the universe.

For introductory classes, point-and-shoot digital or single-use 35mm film cameras are probably best. Single lens reflex cameras are best reserved for high school and beyond.

If film cameras are used, make sure there is some fair way to pay for the cameras, film, developing and printing. Poor kids deserve to express their vision as much as rich kids.

If the children must take turns sharing equipment, set firm, fair rules. How long does each student get to use the camera? What happens if the camera is left at home, stolen or breaks? Where and how are the cameras to be stored when not in use?

Don't freak out
Well-intentioned teachers want their students to be happy and use all their senses and abilities. After reading the cautions above, they might re-think their decision to teach photography.

Don't worry, as long as these rules are understood and enforced, everything should go fine.

The next few sections of this series are about making assignments and letting the students find their vision. From here onward, it's the fun stuff.

Enough for now,


ela said...

I am a teacher, and I don't find your blog harsh. I think it is well written i.e. noting the modifications that have to be made for both age and economic factors. thanks for sharing. As a teacher who wants to help students understand beyond the written word, your guidance is much appreciated.

caroleen said...

I agree. As a beginning teacher I already saw some things I hadn't thought about. Thanks for the help. I'm encouraged to know there's some down-to-earth help out there.

Denise said...

Ive been teaching photojournalism in a high school for six years, and your blog is extremely helpful! I'm so glad I found your post, and I especially liked the photos you posted to back up what you stated and your explanation of ethics. Thank you!

Mark M. Hancock said...

Hi Denise,
Thanks for your work for the future of our industry and public knowledge.