Photography

This Week in Photography: Teaching Children

I photographed some chickens the other day.

(And some cows.)

The latter creatures had escaped their pasture up the valley, and were officially on the lam.

I watched the herd descend my father-in-law’s driveway, across the field, and quickly went to investigate with my camera in tow.

The kids were enraptured, far more than I expected, but then again, so much of our lives here the last 18 months have been repetitive.

(A bunch of cattle descending upon us was anything but routine.)

I figured it would be easy to get a great shot, under the circumstances, but that was simply not the case.

Whether due to the overly harsh light, once or twice, (or the family dog finally getting to experience the cattle-herding for which she was bred,) it took me two days and 200 shots to get exactly what I saw in my head.

Certainly, it was worth the trouble, and I had to learn how not to antagonize the massive bull, so he’d forget about me while I skulked around.

But in the end, after many attempts, I got the shot.

Soon, my daughter suggested we stop eating beef, as once we’d all hung out with the cows, and saw their intelligence first-hand, it was hard to imagine them getting slaughtered, methodically, to add protein to the collective food supply.

Rather, we saw the cattle as fugitives, running for their lives, and we secretly hoped they’d stay one step ahead of their owners, who didn’t come searching until Day 3.

As to the chickens, they were in the front yard of a neighbor’s house, and I asked for permission first.

The light was perfect, the chickens naturally photogenic, and I made the exact photo I wanted within a minute.

(Sometimes it’s hard; sometimes it’s not.)

At the time, though, my neighbor, whom I’ve gotten to know better over the last few years, insisted that I never take his photo.

Ever.

I said, “Sure, no problem,” and reminded him I’d never so much as raised my camera in his direction.

Still, when I stopped back by, after we’s shot hoops at the basketball court across the street, (behind the firehouse,) I wanted to ask if he knew anything about missing cattle.

As a joke, while I approached, I pretended to take his picture with my finger. There was no camera in my hand, as it was safely zippered up in the bag slung over my back.

Anyone could see I was kidding, but he got offended, thinking I was making fun of him, and he said, angrily, that he hated being photographed, and didn’t like being teased.

I apologized, of course, said I was trying to funny, (and had obviously failed,) so I changed the subject quickly, and that was that.

But you can be sure I’ll never do anything like that again to Morris.

(No sir.)

Being an outsider in an insular, poverty-stricken, mountain community at the edge of the Universe, you learn it’s very hard to be accepted, (takes years really,) and you can blow all that good-will in an instant, if you make the wrong move.

We came back home to New Mexico in 2005, straight from Brooklyn, and I was hired to teach photography to school kids within a month.

In order to circumvent the University bureaucracy, UNM-Taos was able to get me working, straight away, if I’d be willing to teach “college classes” at a high school for at-risk youth.

I had no experience working with that population, and barely any teaching experience at all, aside from one semester as a professor of Beginning Digital Photography at Pratt.

This was a different kettle of fish, teaching black and white, chemical darkroom photography to disturbed teens, in the back room of a falling-apart, old school-house, where we had to worry about getting Hantavirus from all the stray mouse droppings.

I kept that job for ten years, and over time, the school’s head raised private funding for computers, digital cameras, and Epson printers.

I still remember harping on the need for secure storage, and being told, “Yeah, yeah,” until one of the students in my program “allegedly” broke in with a few buddies and stole it all.

We couldn’t prove it, but he walked around that week with a little twinkle in his eye, and that was enough for me.

After that, they took my opinions a bit more seriously on the subject, and built some massive, sturdy, fire-safe cabinets, where we locked everything up tight.

(Nothing was stolen again.)

But a few years later, a bureaucrat, (who soon washed out of the system, and was most recently seen teaching skiing,) shut the entire school, and it’s still sitting there, empty, rotting in the harsh-mountain-sun.

I shot some photos there a few months ago, and watched the tumbleweeds roll around the dirt parking lot.

Times change, but when you live in the 48th or 49th poorest state in the US, for this long, you begin to understand that cycles of poverty and violence are nearly impossible to break.

That said, I still recall one student, who studied with me for two years.

When we met, she was non-verbal, resting her head on the table the entire class. She made no eye contact, and wouldn’t respond to questioning.

Still, I did my work, starting each class with a check-in, asking about their days, and family lives, as they would only open up and relax, letting their creativity settle in, once they felt safe, and knew I cared about them as people.

By the end of the second year, that same young student was making the best work in class, taking the camera to shoot her family home on the Pueblo, and was regularly conversant.

One day, she told me secrets about what happened in the Kiva, the ancient underground educational system for boys, and it was, without exaggeration, one of proudest moments of my life.

I likely didn’t change many, or any, lives in that decade, but I’m sure I taught the students that art, and creativity, are powerful coping tools for life’s difficulties.

And yes, I miss the work.

As usual, there are reasons when I reminisce.

Something always sets off a thought train, and today, it’s that I just spent an hour and a half reading and looking at “Portraits and Dreams,” a re-issued and updated book by Wendy Ewald, published by MACK in 2020.

Though I admit I hadn’t heard of the project before, it was apparently first published in 1980, and later became a documentary film by Appalshop, a well-known media lab in Appalachia.

I first assumed it was set in West Virigia for some reason, (maybe it’s all the Joe Manchin talk in the mainstream media?) but the project happened in Kentucky, where Wendy Ewald taught photography to extremely poor children in a two-room-school-house, in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

If you’ve ever seen the excellent TV show “Justified,” you might have a sense of the mise-en-scene, and coal-country-issues people live with down there, but that was a fictionalized account, starring the dreamy Timothy Olyphant. (And the phenomenally charismatic Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder.)

This book, though, is straight truth, no fiction.

I admit, I wondered once or twice where the money came from to get this all going, (though the children had to raise $10 to buy their cameras,) and the end notes confirm there was grant funding made available by the NEA, and a couple of other sources.

As to the book, it features images made by the students, and written statements as well, though I do wonder if those were transcribed from audio interviews? (Not that it matters.)

Dead cousins, shot uncles, slaughtered pigs, fathers with black lung, fun times walking in the mountains, it’s all in there.

We see the world through the children’s eyes, and hear their thoughts. I could relate to some of their ideas in ways that seemed impossible, across so much time and space.

One boy, Delbert Shepherd, shocked at watching a chicken killed, actually imagines what it would feel like to be chopped into pieces and served as food. Another, in a pre-Climate Change age, writes that if all the humans disappeared, the Earth would be able to regenerate, after the ravages of human greed.

Powerful stuff, for sure.

At the end, Wendy Ewald shares details about how she got to Kentucky, and then fast-forwards the book to the present day, as she reconnected with her former students in the last decade, and we see images of them, pictures they’ve shot, and read about their current lives.

One woman practices photography, semi-professionally, and others are engineers and educators.

From a two-room school house, up in hollers with no running water, some of these kids actually made it out into the world. (One ended up running factories in China, another went to jail.)

But to a person, all the students remembered their time in Wendy Ewald’s photo program fondly, and it seems their experience as young artists stayed with them always.

Maybe today’s not a bad day to ruminate on that, and cultivate some hope in our dark times?

To purchase “Portraits and Dreams” click here

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