Photo Teaching in Primary Schools, Part 3: Studio Portraiture

Teaching Approach

Teaching photography to primary school children with Beaford, often felt quite pioneering! It wasn’t as if there was a syllabus I could work from, it’s not on the national curriculum and it may never have been taught before to children as young as seven. I worked alongside Matt Biggs, who taught them filmmaking. We often team taught and then split classes so that we could concentrate on smaller groups for our individual specialist subjects. We would always evaluate our teaching at the end of a school day, trying to refine, adapt and make it better for the next day with that class or for the next time we would teach that particular session.

Using photographic and film studios became more and more important in our work. Young children can be quite restless and we had been encouraged to allow them to run about outside to let off steam; and in the early days of the project tried to base a lot of the practical work out of doors. This had worked well for the older children, but the younger ones found it difficult to associate being outside in a playground with school work. Once they were outside they would just want to play. So we radically changed things and became far more studio focused. But it was still important to take the children out of the classroom or out of the classroom environment that they knew. This was achieved by completely transforming their classrooms into photographic and film studios.

The Photographic Studio

To introduce children to the photographic studio I would show them the high-key fashion photographs by Richard Avedon and low-key portraits by Yousef Karsh. The children would freeze movement in the bright, white, Avedon inspired studio and create emotional portraits with deep shadows using the background and harsh lighting of Karsh.

The conversion of the classroom to a studio was often done by the children who loved to help with these practical exercises and were essentially left to get on with the task, working as a team and problem solving how best to move the tables and chairs, where to put them, and how to stack them to make two separate spaces within the classroom.

To keep the children occupied each of them was given a role in the studio, roles which were continually interchanged with other class members so that they all experienced everything. This started with some of them being tasked with erecting the lights and opened up the reflectors. One of the children was responsible for the lighting, using a kill-spill to prevent light straying onto the camera and giving flare, another child used the reflector another a diffuser. There were another couple of children needed to hold the black screen in place to stop light falling on the black background, another child took the photographs and had another, confident child, acting as the photographer’s assistant with them. Finally, one of the children would be photographed in costume and sometimes two or three were photographed together to make a scene in their story.

Every photograph in the above videos was taken by a Primary School child, in their school classroom with assistance from their class mates. Once the children had successfully completed introductory excersises my role was as an overseer, advisor and encourager.


Photo Teaching in Primary Schools, Part 2: David Hockney’s Joiners

I have inspired students of all ages with David Hockney‘s Joiners for the past 30 years, both in this country and whilst on a teaching exchange in Tucson Arizona in 2003/4. There is something extremely satisfying about seeing a body or object in small pieces, photographing each part, joining them together in a very physical way, and then making a life-size picture from them all within one school day. It also works very well, because it is so participatory.

The Primary School children that I have been working with on the Beaford AVTTOS Project, had already got used to using the cameras and made some great stand-alone pictures. I started off by showing pictures that David Hockney had made himself in the 1980s. Some of these were in black-and-white, some were square from a Polaroid camera, and others were in colour. Hockney would always class himself as an artist rather than a photographer, and it is the art of seeing that he does so well. There are very few technical stills employed in his photographic image-making, automatic cameras were always used, and the prints were processed automatically too.

Hockney’s great achievement though was seeing the big, finished picture, in his mind’s eye before the first photograph was taken. This was a big leap for Primary School children to try and imagine how something might be before they started making it, using equipment that they were still only just starting to get to know.

I find that a big part of the teaching and learning process is allowing mistakes to be made so that you can learn from those and make something better. With this Joiner exercise, the mornings were often spent trying, but often failing, to make successful combinations of prints which joined together. But once the children were able to cut these contact sheet sized images up and try to fit them together like a jigsaw, they were able to recognise how to make the images better. They were always very keen to make more photographs and try again. There were also some children in all of the classes who naturally got the hang of it a lot quicker, and they were always happy to help those in their class who were struggling.

I tended to use the image above, by Hockney, as an example for the children to try for themselves. They wouldn’t be taking nearly as many photographs as he did, but the guidelines were to include themselves in the photograph and photograph one of their classmates sat on a chair including, the space between the two of them in the Joiner. For best results, they were to keep their lenses as long as possible.

Some children would take their Joiner making on a completely different creative trajectory, cutting their friends up and joining them in different, non-human ways or they might put different heads on bodies much like the old happy families card game. Distortion was also explored where legs were extended or like a photograph of a boy with a guitar where the neck of the guitar was stretched so that it was a lot longer than it should be, through the joiner process.

Once a good Joiner was achieved it was worked up into their sketchbooks and the children would write down how they made it. If there was time these finished sketchbook images were recreated life-size, using an A4 paper sheet for each individual image, and tacked to the classroom or corridor wall. Seeing their work in this way was a tremendous achievement for the children who would proudly show them off to their school friends.


Photo Teaching in Primary Schools, Part 1: Introduction

How do you teach photography to primary school children? That was the question I set myself prior to starting my work with Beaford Arts on the storytelling project A Voice to Tell Our Story. My own background in teaching had been primarily Further and Higher Education with a year in the USA in a High School with children as young as 14 and the occasional Beaford workshop day with Primary school children. How high or low do I set the bar; how much can children of this age understand? Set the bar too high and all but the very gifted will switch off, set it too low and it will not be challenging enough, the children will soon lose interest.

Many of the sessions were team taught with Matt Biggs, the filmmaker on the project. Matt’s experience was much like mine; many years of working within photography and filmmaking and with plenty of teaching experience but only with young people and adults, none whatsoever at this level! However, this enabled us to find solutions together, to try different approaches, reflect on their effectiveness and to make adjustments, often within the same session.

We always started with an introduction to ourselves and our own personal image making through a slideshow of images in my case and some film clips in Matt’s. Matt and I would describe ourselves as creatives within our chosen media and the images we showed the children would inspire them because it was both professional and visually stimulating.

Photographic history was introduced to give a context to our own work and the image making that they would be doing for the storytelling project. This was started, like most new concepts, with a mixture of practical and illustrated presentation, always with questions and answers. I brought in a very cheaply made camera obscura; a brown box with a small hole on one side covered by a simple lens and the opposite side being cut away and replaced by tracing paper. A couple of children would then volunteer, one holding the magic box and the other, whose face was lit by a bright studio light, stood close by. The child with the box would move it forwards and backwards until seeing something on the screen. This simple, practical experiment was hugely successful, the children getting very animated with excitement once they were able to see the upside-down face in the box. The camera obscurer was then illustrated on the classroom smart board.

Sketchbooks were introduced very early in the project. It had always been our intent to run the photo/ filmmaking sessions in an art school fashion, but there was also a very practical use for the sketchbooks. Class sizes we’re often in excess of 30 and our teaching methods were severely limited addressing the whole class all of the time. A class was often split in half or into quarters, with smaller groups of children learning different things and working on different tasks. The sketchbooks became a perfect tool for independent or small group work, writing up an exercise, editing images, writing scripts, reviewing or drawing.

I introduced children to the Panasonic Lumix camera in their first session with me. At first, I had set the cameras up in complete manual mode, with a black and white screen, as a way of teaching the fundamental technical skills using shutter speed, aperture and sensitivity. This worked extremely well with some of the older, year 5 children, but some of the younger or less able became lost in confusion. To enable more children to get good results at an early stage, I changed the default setting to shutter speed priority. A big advantage of the Lumix camera is the wide aperture of it’s Leica lens, and so f2.8 was set as default, giving the children images that very much looked like they had been shot with a camera rather than a phone.

The early practical exercises were all about experimenting with those camera settings and making visually interesting compositions. Subject matter was less important than a range of shutter speeds to freeze and blur images, different lens lengths and angles of view. Images were later reviewed on the classroom smartboard to learn from good practise and to increase their vocabulary.

Some of the photographs the children made were based on photographs in the Beaford Archive by James Ravilious and Roger Deakins. Ravilious had made many photographs within primary schools in the 1970s and 80s and some of these were recreated by the children in their own classrooms or playgrounds, or similar, contemporary images were made to show how things have changed. The freedom the children were given to express themselves through their photography, at this introductory level of the programme, brought unexpected rewards. These images became in themselves a story of school life in the 2020s.



A Voice to Tell Our Story

Back in the Spring of 2020, as the United Kingdom was imminently following Europe’s lead and locking down as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, I received the welcome news, via email, of a two year part-time post with Beaford Arts working with a small team and delivering a storytelling project through photography, art and film to primary school children.

I had often been asked to contribute to the development of the project, A Voice To Tell Our Story (AVTTOS), over the proceeding few years, as a freelance photographer and educator. The timing of receiving funding for the project was evidently on a knife edge because the threat of Covid had put everything on hold. The Project was to start in September 2020, and my two years beginning a year later. However, delays through lockdown of schools ultimately meant that my start, in a physical face-to-face sense in the classrooms, wasn’t until January 2022.

In 2021 there were many planning meetings with team members, Caroline Preston who led the project and was responsible for the Art side, Lisa Schneidau storyteller, and Matt Biggs filmmaker. It started virtually, via Zoom, and became in person later on. However, Covid still prevented me experiencing any time in the schools until Caroline and Lisa’s very last session with each class. After this I started to really grasp what the project was all about.

I was to essentially teach photographic skills, alongside Matt teaching filmmaking, to primary school children 6 to 10 years old. All of the project equipment had to be bought prior to seeing the schools or meeting the children or teachers. This itself was a nightmare, because of the huge uncertainties that Covid brought on international trade – the 8 Panasonic Lumix 10 cameras all ultimately coming from China.

Despite my many years of teaching full-time to adults and 16+ year-olds, no amount of planning meetings, without classroom experience, would ever prepare me for walking into the schools in January 2022. The biggest problem was gauging the level at which to teach photography. The 10-year-olds would pick up things for more quickly than six-year-olds but how much. how would I be able to keep the children engaged in learning if there were not continually things to learn? I didn’t want to make the cameras automated because the children would simply point-and-shoot just like they might with a smartphone, but I couldn’t make things so complex that they would lose interest through the bar being set too high. It’s not as if a handbook was even available because primary school children simply aren’t taught photography!

The children were very excited to have Matt and I in the classroom. Firstly we introduced ourselves and showed them examples of the kind of photographic and film work that we do. later, on the very first day, we introduced them to the cameras, film (GoPro) and Lumix, that they would be using and encouraged them to start to play with them and make pictures. it was fascinating right from day one seeing what kind of things the children would see through the camera lens, how they might compose, what took their interest. I always wanted to give those children enough room to make their own choices in the picture making process so that photographs through child’s eyes were produced instead of simply copying an adult.