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.

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