ways of seeing, learning, and photography

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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.


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

"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

IntroductionThis 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 backgroundThis 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.


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.1 2 3

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


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 5

See Brown (2004, p. 86) for further elaboration of this analysis. 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)


Part II - Project, Audience and ContextProject OverviewBefore 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.

ContextThis 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 outcomes9

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.


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.

ParticipantsThe 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 such a context, critical consciousness is elusive because the oppressed are blinded to the myths of dominant power the ones that oppress them and keep them in their place.12 The imagery and the critical discussion that accompanies it - that the outsider produces herself thus can become a bridge towards critical consciousness. However, we must be mindful of the complexity and potential appropriation of the marginal group even in this seemingly emancipatory context. For instance, though images generated from the detachment of a minority position have a great potential to reflect critically on mainstream society, the perspectives of the participants in this project are not necessarily representative, and like members of any other group, they may be susceptible to bias and stereotyping. We consider the images produced by the participants in more detail below.


Bloom (1999) Kincheloe (2008, p. 73)


Part III - Curriculum and Learning AgendasPhotography teaching spans a range of different pedagogical spectra - with individual projects held i