ways of seeing, learning, and photography

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    Ways of seeing, learning and photography: a critique of a learning

    environment

    "True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our

    kinship with all beings." ~ Pema Chdron

    Introduction

    This paper explores how principles of critical pedagogy and transformational

    learning operated in a series of photography workshops that I ran with

    multicultural youth, evaluates the expression of these principles, and sketches

    out potentials for further transformation.

    This is achieved in four parts. Part one presents a theoretical

    background in relevant concepts from transformative learning and critical

    pedagogy. Part two introduces the project itself its context, participants, and

    how it was run. Part three explores the projects explicit and implicit learning

    agendas, critically examining the assumptions, issues, and transformative

    potential around firstly reading photographs, then secondarily making

    photographs. Part four analyses how power operates in the workshop context

    and ramifications for democratic education.

    Part I - Theoretical background

    This paper draws its theoretical background in critical pedagogy and

    transformational learning from the ideas of Paulo Freire and Jack Mezirow

    who have contributed foundational insights in the two related fields. I briefly

    sketch out here ideas relevant for the subsequent analysis.

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    Paulo Freires critical pedagogy developed as a response to the

    systematic exclusion of the poor from education in Brazil where he worked in

    the early 1960s. His theory of liberation education recognized that the

    marginalized could not escape oppression within the standard education

    tradition what he called the banking approach, where active teachers

    deposit knowledge in empty and passive students. He writes, The more

    students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop

    the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the

    world as transformers of that world1. This critical consciousness - or

    concretisation - is needed to reveal the social, political, and economic

    contradictions that form the oppressive matrix that anchors them in an

    underprivileged position. It is the vital step that paves the way for them to take

    action in the world against this oppression.

    Coming from a very different context almost a decade later, Jack

    Mezirow began to similarly explore the types of learning experiences that are

    able to fundamentally change the way people see both themselves and their

    world. Based on his pioneering research with adult learners, and drawing

    from Habermas theory of communicative action, Mezirow outlined a theory of

    transformative learning. This theory has evolved considerable over the last

    20 years in light of numerous critiques2, but essentially locates the act of

    critical reflection on ones lived experiences as the basis for transformative

    learning. Through this critical reflection, a learner can perceive and

    subsequently transform her habits of mind the complex meaning structures

    that continually filter an individuals way of seeing the world.

    While critical reflection is crucial for both theories, they differ in the context in

    which this occurs: Like Mezirow, Freire sees critical reflection as central to transformation in context to

    problem-posing and dialogue with other learners. However, in contrast, Freire sees its

    purpose based on a rediscovery of power such that the more critically aware learners

    become the more they are able to transform society and subsequently their own

    reality.3

    1 Freire (1970, p. 60) 2 Kitchenham (2008) 3 Taylor, cited in Brown (2004, p. 86)

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    In this way according to Freire a reflection is only truly critical when it leads to

    transformative social action, in the outside world.4 For Mezirow social action

    is a natural and desirable consequence of the process of transformative

    learning however it is not intrinsically necessary to the process.

    Photography for both is a powerful medium that can effect

    transformative change. Freire has himself on occasion used participatory

    photography to draw attention to conditions of oppression.5 In Freirean critical

    pedagogy, photographs taken by learners themselves have the potential to

    play a key role in helping them to critically reflect on their own lived

    experiences, in clarifying and articulating how they face injustices, and in

    framing their ideas for action. Freirean inspired photography projects have

    tended to focus on the to literal and rational reflection of the socio-political

    context of the learner.6

    For Mezirows early work, rationality was also paramount, as

    expressed through dialogue and critical reflection. His later writing gave more

    recognition to emotional or intuitive experiences such as image-based

    reflection - having the potential of leading to transformative learning.7

    Lightfoot-Lawrence and Davis note that making and finding meaning

    through art is a transformative experience. Once we have encountered seeing

    and thinking in the aesthetic realm, our ability to think and see more generally

    is altered.8

    Having sketched out the basics of the theoretical background, we turn

    to the project in question.

    4 See Brown (2004, p. 86) for further elaboration of this analysis. 5 One example dates from 1973, when Freire was conducting a literacy project in a barrio of Lima, Peru. He asked people the question "What is exploitation?", and requested the answers in photographs. The ensuring images spurred widespread discussions in the Peruvian barrio about forms of institutionalized exploitation and ways to overcome them. See Singhai (2004). 6 Singhai (2004) 7 Mezirow (2000). The mytho-poetic view of transformative learning subsequently developed by Dirkx expanded on these intuitive ways of knowing. 8 Lightfoot-Lawrence and Davis, cited in Morton (2007, p. 268)

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    Part II - Project, Audience and Context

    Project Overview Before engaging with the project analysis itself, it is useful to get an overview

    of the photography workshops and the context in which they sit. The project

    was run through a youth led advocacy group, the Western Young Persons

    Independent Network (WYPIN), based in Footscray, Melbourne, which works

    to empower and connect young people of multicultural origin, and advocate

    more generally on tolerance and multiculturalism. The project consisted of a

    series of 8 x 3.5 hour photography workshops with multicultural group of

    young people, that culminated in a public exhibition of the participants

    photographs in a local youth centre.

    Context This project is located within a broader field that is generally known as

    participatory photography; such projects use imaging technology

    (photography and video) for empowerment and advocacy in marginalized

    groups. Project participants are encouraged to document and co-share their

    own reality and views though their photographs the latter which may

    generate stories that may have been previously rejected or overlooked. The

    images themselves can then become participatory sites for wider storytelling

    and engagement by the community, encouraging a reflection on local issues,

    while the photographic skills learnt by the participants may build their own

    vocational opportunities.9

    With such a wide range of possible goals, it is critical that participatory

    photography projects are clear about their specific aims, else they can risk

    becoming tokenistic or at worst tacitly exploitative of their already

    marginalized participants.10 For this particular project, the explicit outcomes

    9 See Singhal (2004) for a more extensive summary, and Godden (2009) for a thorough critique of the field. 10 Godden (2009) includes some relevant discussion relating to project aims, As for advice to those running a similar project, I would recommend that they reflect upon the ultimate goal. If the goal is to bring the world of photography to children as an art form for creativity, then their approach may be very different than someone who wants to teach photography as a life skill. The approach would be determined by the desired outcome.

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    were to increase the photography and advocacy skills of participants,

    documenting the West in the eyes of young people, celebrating cultural

    diversity and building awareness through its public exhibition.

    Participants The workshop participants - young people from Cambodian, Sudanese,

    Afghani, and Thai backgrounds face marginalisation on multiple levels:

    economic, cultural, and linguistic. Additionally they are exposed to a media

    environment that persuasively affirms the centrality of the Anglo-centric

    subject; with different ethnic groups being constructed visually and through

    narrative as exotic and Other, as objects rather than subjects.11 As Kincheloe

    writes, In suc