Learning Storytelling Through Picture-Taking
Free Online Photography Class Commencing This Summer
Jessica Jimenez always liked taking pictures of things just for fun, but after recently completing a five-week photography class, the 15-year-old now shoots photos that pack meaning.
“Photos can tell really important stories about life, historical moments and experiences,” said Jimenez, one of a dozen Santa Ana teenagers who took part in the class, a pilot for “Phonar Nation,” that will open to the world for free online this summer as part of the Cities of Learning initiative. A number of cities — including Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Pittsburgh — are taking part in the project, which is supported by the MacArthur Foundation and powered by the Digital Youth Network and Badge Alliance.
The Phonar Nation class, designed by award-winning British photographer Jonathan Worth, builds on his #Phonar (Photography and Narrative) course that he’s taught at Coventry University and online to more than 35,000 students since 2009. The class is ranked No. 1 by The Guardian.
Phonar Nation caters to teens and younger students, but anyone can take the class, Worth said, using any mobile device, equipped with a camera and Internet connection. It will kick off with two five-week sessions this summer — beginning June 23 and July 28 through Pursuitery.com, a youth-focused project of the Connected Learning Alliance. The CLA is a network that brings together organizations, projects, initiatives and individuals working to leverage today’s technology for more equitable access to learning and opportunity for all young people.
“Anyone can drop in, mix stuff up, step out, come back again — whatever works,” Worth said, “and, together, we’re going to build the biggest and best photography class in history.”
But, it’s not just about taking photos that tell stories, he said. “Photography is going through a second paradigm shift. The first was when photography broke away from painting. The second is the image breaking away from the photograph. It’s about everybody having the capability to make an image and publish it. That’s a profound moment and, suddenly, it’s not just about photography. With an Internet so visually led, this becomes about visual literacy and digital fluency. It’s about being able to read and write with images, being able to speak clearly with images and being heard through all the visual noise.”
Today’s youth are growing up with technology, Worth added, “so, the noise is normal. This generation’s kids can make images and share them, but they don’t automatically understand the value of being credible and trusted to get a signal through all that noise. Look at the staggering stats: hundreds of millions of photos are being uploaded on social media daily. In other words, everybody’s talking at once.”
So, how do you get heard?
“If you don’t feel as though your voice is being heard, then how do you engage? How do you get civic engagement? How do you encourage it? What you end up with is people feeling as though they are anonymized by the network,” Worth said. “What Phonar Nation seeks to do is to start them on a path to feeling empowered by the network.”
That’s what the students said they learned from the pilot class.
“Jonathan taught us how to seek and find meaning behind all images,” 17-year-old Dean Padilla said. “He has an interesting perspective on photography. Now, when I see a photo, I question who took it and why and I try to take pictures that have some meaning to me, some depth.”
Padilla and the other students met on Friday afternoons at The Cambodian Family, a community center in Santa Ana where they were provided iPod Touches to take the course, which was tweaked and improved with their input along the way. They chatted with Worth face-to-face a couple times but mostly online as he taught the course from his home in England.
Supporting them locally at the center was Claudia Caro Sullivan, assistant director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, who helped revise the university-level course for younger learners and led discussions about the weekly lessons; and James McMillan, DML Hub’s systems administrator who provided technical assistance.
The DML Hub, an initiative of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, has been supporting Phonar Nation as part of its research on how to connect youth to high-quality educational offerings in the digital arts.
“Offering quality enrichment opportunities fills a big need in this country,” Caro Sullivan said.
For Jimenez, it’s even proven lucrative. She recently was hired by family members to photograph a wedding and a birthday party.
“I’m actually earning money doing what I love,” she said. “At the wedding, the couple was so in love, you could see it in the way they looked at each other and that emotion showed in my photos. My family really liked the pictures because of the story they told.”
Phalen Lim, The Cambodian Family’s youth director, said the experience was something none of the students could have participated in were it not for Phonar Nation.
“A lot of our youth here in Santa Ana are interested in technology and photography, but many don’t have access to these kinds of learning opportunities,” Lim said. “This really enriches their lives, opens up doors to new skills and possibilities.”