Seeing through Photography: the pedagogical methodology of the online teaching resources of Through Our Eyes
“Picture-taking is an event in itself.” – Susan Sontag, On Photography
What kind of photography course is suitable for secondary students – adolescents who are inexperienced in life and in need of recognition? Founded in 2005 by The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, Through Our Eyes (TOE) Photography Education Programme has accumulated years of teaching experience and fruitful results through hard work and practice. Teaching plans and photography course materials from the past years have been put into an online archive by the TOE team for art educators’ and schoolteachers’ reference. As many as 60 class exercises in the archive fall under five categories, namely “self-awareness”, “photographer’s eye”, “visual storytelling”, “technical exercise” and “imagery reading”, which can be regarded as the key concepts of photography education. Let us explore the pedagogical methodology of TOE through the online archive and the five core concepts.
- Connecting photography, the self and the world
“Art is a journey of self discovery” – this essentially sums up what TOE is about. Raising self-awareness is one of the most important notions behind the teaching materials designed by Artist Educators.
Some years ago, I came across a book review of the biography of Chinese scholar Tschen Yin-koh. An interesting story was quoted in the review: “Tschen’s daughters recalled one of their father’s childhood stories. In his first outdoor group portrait with his siblings in 1896 at the governor’s office in Changsha, the children all wear similar outfits. The only difference is a peach blossom branch in Tschen’s hand. The reason why he reached for the tree branch next to him was that he wanted to stand out from the group – the young boy thought he probably would not be able to recognise himself in the photo when he grew up. He was seven years old when the photo was taken.” This is a telling story about how curiosity was ingrained in his personality and how his sense of self was developed when the shutter was pressed.
Teenagers often have a low self-esteem, and they are immature, sensitive and restless – this may sound condescending, but it is more or less the reality. It reminds me of the work of Hong Kong artist Choi Yan-chi in the 1990s. Past and Future (1997-98, I-V) is a series of installations constructed with school desks collected by the artist, all of which covered in white graffiti drawn with correction pen. School students in Hong Kong often have the urge to scribble over textbook pages or draw something onto their desks. It is part of the youth culture and an outlet for their desire and anxiety. TOE believes that young people can express their feelings or tell their stories through images, and photography is one of the mediums of choice.
From a philosophical point of view, self-awareness is the attention focused on the self as an object. But the self, of course, has multiple facets and different identities. When we say “art is a journey of self discovery”, one way to show self-awareness is to learn to express feelings and emotions through images, such as happiness, hope, fear, sorrow, calmness, excitement, freedom, pressure, anger, satisfaction and loneliness; personal history was the theme for the 2014/2015 edition of TOE, which encouraged students to create their own personal timeline as a way to restructure their memories, explore their own history and learn more about themselves through their family, neighbourhood, home town and old possessions, eventually embodying their discoveries in their own work. The selfie is a form of portraiture commonly used in TOE courses. However, in the age of the ubiquitous selfie (not to mention the space selfies taken by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide in 2012), is TOE actually promoting attention-seeking behaviour and self-indulgence? As a matter of fact, the programme is making use of the selfie, a form of personal photography, as a dialectical tool to allow students develop a critical point of view, reflect on themselves through self-gazing and explore hidden or neglected personal views.
TOE students are encouraged to broaden their scope starting with themselves, their daily life, and then shifting their focus to their neighbourhood and nature, so that they can find their place in the world. TOE also makes use of the narrative functions of images. “Visual storytelling – students use stories to connect themselves with their family, community, culture and social environment in order to nurture curiosity and explore the world from a new perspective.” Their visual stories can be presented in various ways, including linear narratives or collages combining different perspectives.
- The need for “slow photography”
Since the turn of the millennium, digital snapshots have become a prevalent part of our lives. An enormous number of images have been sent, shared or stored at an unbelievable pace. By October 2008, 10 billion images have been uploaded onto Facebook; by mid-2011, merely three years afterwards, the total number of images on the platform has reached 100 billion; and in 2018, an average of 300 million images are uploaded onto Facebook every day. By May 2015, there were 10 billion images circulating on image hosting service Flickr. And Instagram, which was launched in 2010, had as many as 34.7 billion images circulating by August 2017. “The digital network has transformed the tangible viewing experience of photo prints into a screen-viewing experience involving digital image transfer…” It is an era of snapshots where images are immediately viewed and rarely revisited (due to the astronomical number of images created). In view of this, Snapchat has rolled out an auto-delete function of images after the files are open for ten seconds.
We can say that TOE is inspired by a socio-cultural background based on readily available mobile phone images. The courses focused on the basic knowledge of photo-making tools and techniques, as well as its application in students’ work. On one hand, this approach allows more people, especially the younger ones, to understand traditional photography without necessarily having a camera; on the other hand, TOE treasures the physical existence of photographs, putting much emphasis on the printing process, such as cyanotype, lumen printing, photogram making and anthotype. The photogram and pinhole photography, which appear frequently in TOE’s syllabus, can be regarded as “slow photography”. As the programme encourages students to “establish a mindful photographic process”, we may see slow photography as a protest against the phenomenon of image overload.
The photogram is one of the basic techniques introduced by TOE. It is the easiest way to explain the use of light, a major component of photography, without using a camera. “A photogram is a photographic image made by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material.” Making photograms is about playing with elements such as materials, textures, compositions and unexpected effects; each photogram is one of a kind (as opposed to the plurality of photographs). If “painting with light” is a common metaphor of photography, then photogram can be compared to pencil drawing. The essence of drawing lies in making traces and marks, which is similar to making photograms. On the other hand, the photogram may have other underlying qualities: in the 1920s, Dadaist artist Man Ray (1890-1976) called the photograms he made “rayographs”, although the photogram’s history can be traced back to the beginning of photography. The reason why Surrealists are captivated by the rayograph is that it lingers between abstract art and reinterpretation, revealing a more precious form of reality. As curator John Szarkowski pointed out, “The picture is a visual invention: an image without a real-life model to which we can compare it.”
On TOE’s website, the working principle of the pinhole camera is explained with the help of the ancient Chinese writings of the Warring States philosopher Mozi: “An inverted image is formed by intersecting light rays entering a tiny hole. The length of the image depends on the position of the hole.” When we talk about the formation of images in pinhole photography, we usually start with the western concept of the camera obscura, but TOE chooses to quote Chinese philosopher Mozi as the first example on its webpage. Besides showing how Chinese scholars understood the basis of optics back in the ancient times, this particular detail might in fact boost the enthusiasm of students in pinhole photography. One of the cherished qualities of pinhole photography is that you can build your very own pinhole camera. Upcycling is a concept promoted by TOE, so even something as simple as a juice box can be turned into a pinhole camera. What’s more, the webpage neatly explained the characteristics of pinhole photography: small aperture, high f-number, nearly infinite depth of field, which means everything appears in focus; long exposure; inverted and negative image. Solargraphy is also introduced in the programme, a technique characterised by its exposure time. It is a photographic method for recording the paths of the sun using pinhole cameras, the exposure of which can range from several days to years.
- Turning observations into insights
Under TOE’s guidance, students are trained to carefully observe, reflect on their purposes and properly express them. The “photographer’s eye” and “imagery reading” exercises can be regarded as the two sides of the same coin. “Photographer’s eye – photography is about the ability to feel, observe, understand and see from different perspectives, all of which are transformed into art.”; “Imagery reading – there are different ways to read an image. We can boost our imagery reading skills by mastering different methods.” The former technique lays a solid foundation for creativity, while the latter is a form of reflection and helps train students’ visual literacy. Though TOE is a practice-oriented project, “imagery reading” is still not to be ignored; living in an internet-driven visual era, according to Nicholas Mirzoeff, it is important to nurture our visual literacy before moving onto photography critique.
There are over 20 TOE exercises focusing on improving observation skills, and an exercise called “The studium and the punctum” is probably one of the most interesting exercises about observation and visual imagery training. It is based on the concepts of the studium and the punctum coined by Roland Barthes – the appeal of a photograph depends on the interaction between the studium and the punctum. The studium refers to understanding an image using one’s experience and knowledge, while the punctum points to something stinging from the photo that stimulates viewers’ interest and attracts their gaze. The exercise trains students’ imagery reading ability and allows them to “analyse the intention and the connotation behind an image. This helps them to further explore the narrative of photography and the ambiguity of images. At the same time, the exercise trains the imagination and logic of students.”
And what is the “photographer’s eye”? Those who possess the ability are defined by one Artist Educator as “the photographers who are equipped with the vision and knowledge [of previewing] the effects of the image before clicking the shutter. They could adjust the camera according to their own will.” When it comes to photography training, it means using our observation and imagination to compose an image from different angles, for example capturing the subject’s most well-known characteristics, taking full view shots, close-up and macro shots, as well as revealing the subject’s relationship with its surroundings and creating different variations. Perhaps we can study the notion of the “photographer’s eye” using a concept introduced by German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). He raised the concept of optical unconsciousness in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in which he wrote that just as psychoanalysis introduces us to the idea of unconscious impulses, film techniques such as slow motion, close-ups and montage not only enrich our visual world and reveal the things we do not pay attention to in daily life, they also show the unknown ones.
 The “photographer’s eye” exercise is about making observations and nurturing the ability to detect “the unknown things”, eventually putting our knowledge into practice.
 The programme was handed over to kaitak, Centre for Research and Development of the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University in 2013.
 Books4You, November 2010, Issue 38, 31.
 Source: https://philosophy.hk01.com/channel/文章/48105/黑格爾%EF%BC%9A自我覺知—EP44, viewed on 19 April, 2018.
 Source: https://royal.pingdom.com/2009/01/22/internet-2008-in-numbers/, viewed on 10 May 2018.
 Source: http://royal.pingdom.com/2012/01/17/internet-2011-in-numbers/ , viewed on 19 December 2012.
 Source: https://zephoria.com/top-15-valuable-facebook-statistics/, viewed on 10 May 2018.
 Source: https://expandedramblings.com/index.php/flickr-stats/, viewed on 10 May 2018.
 The data is taken from statisticbrain.com (8 August 2017). Source: https://www.quora.com/How-many-photos-are-being-uploaded-on-Instagram-daily, viewed on 10 May 2018.
 May-Ling Chang, ‘Snapshot Photography of Everyday Life: From the Presence of the Real to the Networked Image of Digital Lifestyle’, Research in Arts Education Issue 19 (2010), 120.
 Cyanotype is an ancient non-silver photographic process.
 It shares the same origin as the photogenic drawings created by William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s.
 Source: https://zh-tw.facebook.com/pinhole.hk/posts/537721532935217, viewed on 19 April, 2018.
 Nicholas Mirzoeff, translated by Lin Wei, How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More. Taipei: Flâneur Culture Lab, 2016.
 Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/futari-issue/493396258, viewed on 9 April, 2018.