3 Lessons I Learned From Mentoring Photographers
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3 Lessons I Learned From Mentoring Photographers
by Charlene Hardy

Three years ago, I started a new career as a high school photography teacher. I had never seriously thought about teaching, but after running my own business for 6 years, I found myself needing a career change. I love creating portraits of people but had a stronger desire to use my skills to make a difference in people’s lives. I had an amazing photography teacher in high school that turned my entire high school experience around with his passion for photography.

I often thought about my experiences in that photo class and how it helped shape the person I am today. As luck would have it that summer, the local school district was hiring a new photo teacher; I applied for the job. After going through several interviews, I got the call asking me whether I would accept a job teaching full time in a few short weeks. I did not have a formal teaching degree, I had never taught in a classroom setting before, and I had no idea what to expect. I knew it would be a challenge, but I was ready for the chance to work with teenagers. The past three years have been a roller coaster of emotions and experiences. I have learned so much about myself as a person and as a teacher while working with the next generation of photographers.

3 Lessons I Learned from Mentoring Young Photographers

Photography Can Help Unify and Communicate Ideas

As a teacher, I am always reminded that photography has the power to make everyone feel included. As the students streamed through the classroom doors on the first day I taught, I was struck by the fact that I was going to have to try to make my class interesting to an audience that was very diverse. I had students of all different ages, cultural backgrounds, and interests. As a rookie teacher, I began my first class by asking my students, “Why did you decide to take photography?” I asked for a volunteer to answer the question, and the student answered, “Because I need an art credit to graduate, and Photography seemed easy.” There was a bit of nervous laughter as the students waited for my reaction. I took a deep breath and thanked him for his honesty.

As we went around the classroom, all the students answered the question with the same answer. I went into the next class period wondering where all the passionate photography students were hiding. Throughout the day, I asked my classes the same question, and the students answered the question in the same manner as the first student. By the time I got to the third hour of teaching, I realized that the students just wanted to feel like they fit in, and were willing and able to adapt to the people around them to gain that sense of belonging.

On my first day, I was reminded of what it was like to be a high school student. It is a difficult balance between finding yourself as a person, and still being considered normal, or even, cool. As the week progressed, I tried as hard as I could to learn about each individual student, but they were not making it an easy task. It was not until later in the quarter when I gave the assignment of creating a collage of photos illustrating their likes and interests (which they would share with the class) that was finally able to get the students to open up.

As the students were working on the collages, taking photos and combining them in Photoshop, I heard a student yell across the room, “You have a real live duck in your living room?!” The normally shy girl sitting at the computer mumbled something about her family raising them, and then the entire class crowded around her computer. I heard compliments on her photos, and several students expressed their desire to have something so unique to take pictures of. I witnessed the attitude of the class shift, the students were no longer afraid to be different, they were united in the task at hand. As the semester progressed, I witnessed my students let down their guard, and shift their focus. Suddenly, they wanted to tell stories, help others, and create something, using the power of photography.

Two and a half years into teaching, I pursue this response over and over again by assigning my students projects that encourage them to unite and share a deeper side of themselves with their peers. Now, one of my first assignments is for students to take a photo that depicts how their first week of school is going. The photos range between happiness, frustration, sadness, and boredom. It doesn’t matter what the photo is, I always have students tell me they never thought anyone else was feeling the same way. Commonly, students express shock that a certain student is having an experience that’s different than how they present themselves on the outside. Sometimes, a student finds out that have a unique trait or experience.

One of my students had immigrated from China the year she took my class. Every single photo the student turned in for assignments was of the sky. At first, I thought there might be a language barrier with the assignments I was giving out. I eventually asked the student why she liked taking photos of skies and I was not prepared to hear her answer. She expressed to me that at her home in China, she had never seen a blue sky. She thought that the sky in Eastern Washington was the most amazing thing she had ever seen. She was taking photos and emailing the pictures back to her friends and family. I asked if she would be willing to share her experience with the class and she agreed. Presenting 15 different photos of the sky, she was able to teach the class a lesson that extended far beyond photography. That semester, the students not only gained an appreciation for the beautiful blue skies we take for granted, but also learned about the power of communication through the art of photography.

The more I review the basics with my students, the stronger my own photography becomes.

The first year I taught, I spent countless nights reviewing the basic principles of photography. I felt that if I were tasked with teaching the next generation of photographers, I needed to have more than a solid foundation of the basics. I poured over college textbooks that I hadn’t opened in 15 years, I searched the internet and read tutorial after tutorial on the basics of photography, and I picked up my camera with the intent of “getting back to basics”. I quickly found that by constantly reviewing the building blocks of photography, I was improving my own photos. For example, each year, I give assignments that break down composition into individual art elements. I not only have this concept fresh in my mind as I do my own photography, but I also get to see how 140+ different people interpret the basic art elements. Every year, I try to shoot the same assignments as my students; every time I do, I try to push myself a little further.

So many photographers are afraid to help new photographers. I have heard so many excuses for this attitude: The market is too saturated, I don’t have the time, etc. What seasoned photographers need to understand, is that by helping fellow photographers, they will end up helping themselves excel at their own craft. I give the same exact assignments to 140 students each year, and I am always amazed at how each student interprets the assignment and creates photos that are unique. I don’t think we need to feel threatened by the next generation of photographers; these “new” photographers will only push us to become better.

Patience

The high school students today are growing up at an amazing time. They get to carry cameras in their pockets, instantly share and receive images, and connect globally with other teens and photographers. One of the major downfalls of the new technology is that it plays a role in making students impatient. High school students that are entering the world of photography today are rushed. They want to see immediate results, and patience is a hard lesson to teach. At my school, we use digital cameras, so the students can see immediately what they shot. The bigger lesson is about waiting for the right moment to click the shutter; being intentional with what you are capturing. Occasionally, I will hand out the cameras for the day with the screen covered and assign the students to take one “epic” photo. It is a new and different experience that most students initially resist. Not being able to see immediate results pushes students outside of their comfort zone. Most students snap one photo, then run back inside to download their SD cards. Through this exercise, not only do they learn to trust their instincts, they learn that waiting for the right moment to press the shutter really pays off.

The lesson of patience also can be applied to their progress as a photographer. As a teen, it is hard to understand how, through regular practice over time, they will become better. At the beginning of the year, I hand each student a camera. Without any instruction, I tell them to go outside to take a photo. We download the photos as a class and look at each photo. Then, I tuck their first photos into a folder and we don’t look at them until the end of the year. At the end of the year, we pull out the folder and compare the last assignment of the year to their first photos, it is always so much fun to watch the students realize how much progress they’ve made over the course of a school year. Seeing the before and after photos side by side is a true confidence builder. As photographers, it is easy to get caught up in the daily grind of producing photographs. We need to occasionally take time to appreciate and acknowledge how far we have progressed and how much we have accomplished. This is a powerful lesson that students can carry through to other parts of their lives, from learning a new concept in math to training for a new job in the future.

Teaching high school photography has been a great experience for me. I get to interact with amazing teenagers 5 days a week. I have watched students with very different personalities and interests become friends through photography, I have seen students that were too shy to say two words on the first day, bond with their classmates, grow in confidence, and communicate intense ideas through their photos. I have witnessed social, economic, and language barriers disappear with photography. During the past two and half years, I have learned so much about how the next generation views the world and deals with difficult issues. I feel fortunate as a teacher to hand students a tool that teaches them the value of curiosity and the impact of unearthing the differences in people. Through photography, students have an outlet for their emotions, and a way to appreciate the beauty in everyday life.

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