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.