Photo Realism

By Samantha Stainburn — October 01, 2001 23 min read
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One renowned photographer teaches kids to document their own lives with a camera. And she’s training teachers to copy her method.

There’s a photograph in “Secret Games,” the retrospective of Wendy Ewald’s work currently on exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, that shows a skinny boy floating in space. Actually, he’s not floating. The boy, who’s black, is perched on a window ledge with his arms wrapped around his waist. The window is bathed in squintingly bright light, and the contrast between the washed-out background and the darker figure makes it look like the boy is levitating. The left half of the photo is draped in shadow, which gives the picture an ominous tone—the boy, in his cold, white space, has been abandoned, or perhaps singled out under a spotlight. He gazes stoically into the distance, enduring his isolation.

Ewald did not take the boy’s picture. She didn’t conceive of the scene, pose the kid, or develop the print. Phillip Liverpool, a 4th grader at a public school in Durham, North Carolina, did all the work. He planned the picture and focused his camera using a stand-in, then switched places and signaled his assistant to shoot. According to Ewald, Phillip had the highest IQ in his school, but he often landed in trouble because he couldn’t concentrate and struggled to finish assignments. The photo is a self-portrait, which he titled “I am alone in the wilderness.”

I am dead
—Palesa Molahloe

Ewald may not have shot the photograph herself, but she did create the conditions that enabled Phillip to tell his story. He is one of hundreds of people around the world—mostly children, but also members of other frequently voiceless groups, such as Saudi Arabian women—Ewald has taught to use cameras to document their lives.

“It’s to help them develop a sense of self-confidence,” the 50-year-old photographer explains. “When kids make pictures of things, they give value to those things.”

“It’s about power,” Leon McDermott, an art critic in Edinburgh, Scotland, writes in a rave review of Ewald’s show, which recently toured Europe before reaching the United States. “Maybe for the first time, Ewald’s collaborators have power of their own.”

Ewald, who has been producing pieces with her students for 30 years, never tells anyone exactly how to create an image. Instead, she asks questions designed to facilitate her collaborators’ self-expression. Early on, she considered her students’ photos as separate from her own; then she recognized how intertwined the works actually were. “At a certain point, I realized that all of this was what I did,” she recalls. “It’s not, ‘This is me as an artist, and this is me as a teacher.’ Both of those things come out of the same spirit, and are both art and education.”

The steps involved in Ewald’s art-making process, which she has officially titled “Literacy Through Photography,” are straightforward. Typically, supported by grant money, she moves into a community for several months or longer, teaches her collaborators how to use cameras—mostly 35mm, with fixed-focus lenses—and shows them how to develop and print film. Then she guides participants through a series of assignments that hit close to home: “self-portrait,” “family,” “community,” and “dreams.” Before shooting the photos, students write about each theme; afterward, they pen pieces about what their images reveal.

As simple as the process sounds, the results are striking and, in the case of children’s photos especially, surprisingly sophisticated. McDermott, in his review, calls the work “photography at its most honest.” The images, he writes, are “the minds of children captured on celluloid, and they’re as strange and twisted and funny and sad as you could imagine.”

White self
—Zavier Vereen

In his 1997 book, Doing Documentary Work, psychiatrist Robert Coles discusses the difficulties inherent in keeping personal biases out of documentaries. He calls Ewald’s methods “brilliantly ingenious” for sidestepping the problem by putting the documentary camera into subjects’ own hands.

Ten years ago, Ewald, who’s the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, began training public school teachers in Durham, North Carolina, to use her process in their classrooms. I Wanna Take Me a Picture: Teaching Photography and Writing to Children, a book based in part on that experience, will be published by Beacon Press later this fall. It’s a how-to manual Ewald hopes will be read, and used, by educators everywhere.

It would seem that Ewald’s plan—to spread the LTP gospel—is too ambitious to work. What artist has ever managed to reproduce her method in a school setting, where funds as well as time tend to be scarce and art is usually the lowest of priorities? Further complicating matters, Ewald’s collaborations often contain violent and provocative imagery—the stuff of the intimate moments she encourages kids to represent. It’s not the sort of artwork teachers are accustomed to hanging on their walls. Nevertheless, many educators say, Ewald has transformed the way they look at photography and at their students’ lives.

On a rainy Monday afternoon in mid-June, the photographer is watching a roomful of teachers and other adults, all of whom have their hands deep inside nylon bags. The group is this year’s cohort for the “Introduction to Literacy Through Photography” workshop, which Ewald and her assistants conduct every summer in Durham. The 22 participants, 12 of them teachers from the local district, are learning how to transfer rolls of film from their cameras onto plastic reels without exposing them to light—hence, the bags. Most darkrooms are not large enough to accommodate the 30 or so kids who usually make up a class, so knowing how to safely transfer film outside of a darkroom will save these future instructors time.

LTP project coordinator Dwayne Dixon, a 29-year-old with earrings and a chunky metal chain looping from belt to pocket, leads the exercise, which requires participants first to pry the top off a film canister using a bottle opener inside the bag. “This might take a while for some of your students,” he says as a good number of the adults struggle. “They’re not as adept at opening beer bottles as they would have you believe.”

“One-hour photo—how do they do it?” giggles Susan Ward, an ESL teacher at Burton Elementary. “This is more like one-week photo!”

Teachers say Ewald has transformed the way they look at photography and at their students.

Ewald, wearing layers of rumpled linen and looking youthful despite gray- flecked hair, sits quietly in the back of the classroom. She’ll spend much of the week there, on the outskirts of a circle of desks. When the participants work their way through writing exercises, she’ll mingle wordlessly among them, dispensing encouraging smiles and looking over their shoulders with intense interest. Her behavior around children is evidently similar. “She talks to them like they’re her peers,” says Dixon, “like they’re completely capable, [and] challenges them to arrive at solutions on their own. She’s willing to sit there and act as a foil and talk it out. But she’s not going to pop out this little fortune cookie answer for them.”

In spite of Ewald’s light touch, she is a forceful presence. She’ll patiently follow a conversation, then jump in at a key point to illuminate an idea or help untangle a thought. Meanwhile, Dixon and Katie Hyde, another LTP coordinator, drive the workshop along, introducing discussions, explaining assignments, and announcing the arrival of politically correct lunches like vegetarian soul food.

Ewald also tells fabulous stories. She once conducted a workshop in apartheid- era South Africa, where she worked with both black and white kids. “The ‘community’ pictures the [white] Afrikaner children took were chilling,” she recalls. “One girl took a picture of ‘what I don’t like about where I live,’ and it’s a black man standing behind a fence with some shopping bags. The photo’s blurry"—as though the child couldn’t bear to look at the man. “It was like a visual representation of the psychological damage of racism,” Ewald explains.

As Ewald shares her anecdotes, Jaime Permuth, a photographer based in New York City, scribbles happily in his notebook. This is exactly why he’s here. An outgoing 33-year-old Guatemalan, he’s a member of the group of non-teachers who usually participate in the LTP workshops. This summer, 10 out-of-towners, including photographers and museum employees from places as far-flung as Hong Kong, have paid $400 each (which does not include travel expenses) to sit at Ewald’s feet. Two of them literally shake with emotion as they describe the effect her work has had on them. On the other hand, the teachers—whose participation has been sponsored by the school system—barely know who Ewald is.

Laura Blatt, for instance, is a 22-year-old Teach for America graduate who just wrapped up her first year of teaching math at Githens Middle School. She’s hungry for curriculum ideas—this is her fifth professional-development workshop this year—and she signed up for Ewald’s course because she thought that incorporating photography into her classes would be “neat.”

Self-portrait reaching for the Red Star sky
—Denise Dixon

Whatever the participants’ backgrounds, Ewald has designed the five-day workshop so they know what it’s like to be a kid working on an LTP project, albeit at an accelerated pace. These instructors have to learn in one week what most will, in turn, teach to their students over the course of a semester. So there’s very little downtime during the workshop. This morning, after distributing cameras, Ewald discussed “reading” a photograph-studying the content, the contrast between light and dark, and other elements to understand what an artist is trying to communicate. Later today, the group will split up and shoot the first assignment, “self-portrait,” solo, then write an accompanying narrative.

The rest of the week will follow a similar rhythm, with the group meeting at the Center for Documentary Studies, an old, white-shingled house with oversized rocking chairs on the front porch that is Ewald’s base in Durham. For a few hours each day, the participants will write about and discuss ideas for assignments they’ll shoot that evening; they’ll also develop negatives in the center’s darkroom and in public schools around town. Blatt is tickled when she learns she’s been assigned to the Githens darkroom—she didn’t even know her school had one.

But today’s crash course on how to develop pictures makes some of the participants nervous. Blatt, who says she would have been pretty clueless if she didn’t dimly recall a photography course she took in 7th grade, asks lots of questions. Ewald is confident that everyone will do just fine; she points out, however, that the film-developing phase is essential to drawing kids deep into a project. Taking film out of a camera, then turning a negative into a full-fledged print demystifies the process for kids.

“You’re handling all of this stuff, so none of it’s a mystery,” Dixon explains. “You can control how these things turn out, and you can learn how to manipulate them even further if you stick with it.”

With the developing process, as with so many aspects of their work, the LTP instructors emphasize the opportunity to teach kids broader personal lessons. “They’re learning how to use the clock, how to cooperate, [and how] to be careful around the chemistry,” Dixon says. “They’re given this position of responsibility.”

Late in the week, the participants spread their “community” photos on the floor for a group analysis. Permuth, evidently, had asked passersby to snap shots of him: He’s seen wearing an employee’s hat at Kinkos, posing with a spatula next to a grill in a restaurant kitchen, and pumping gas at a station. His photos draw plenty of laughs. Meanwhile, the group pays less attention to the pictures taken by Marva Peace, an African American teacher at R.N. Harris Elementary who’s been pretty quiet all week. But Ewald’s eyes lock onto the series, which, at first glance, looks pretty mundane—images of suburban houses, shot from a distance, through the rain with not a person in sight.

“Tell me about these,” Ewald says.

“Well, I guess it’s like a sequence of my life,” Peace explains. “They’re houses I lived in, growing up around Durham.”

“Do you go back and visit? Do you still know people in these neighborhoods?”

“Not really. All of these are just places I remember.”

‘You really get an intimate look into the lives of children.’

Denise Friesen,
Club Boulevard Elementary School

“This is what’s amazing,” Ewald says. “You can tell the photographer feels disconnected from this community, that she almost feels hesitant to be there. Here, you can see she didn’t even get out of the car to take the photo. And it’s just wonderful that her vehicle’s in the picture because it’s a trip back in time.”

The idea that you don’t have to be a professional—or even an adult—to take powerful photographs is key to Ewald’s work. According to Philip Brookman, a curator at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., which will exhibit “Secret Games” early next year: “Art is usually taught as something that’s very separate from people’s everyday lives and something that takes a technical mastery before you can really be an artist. What Wendy teaches is that, that’s not true.”

The assignments Ewald has devised also tend to flatten hierarchies in the classroom, both academic and social. Alan Teasley, a Durham administrator who has taught about the LTP method in the past, compares the program to a typical beginning-of-the-year assignment. "[If] you have them write on ‘My Summer Vacation'—well, some kids hung around home all the time, some kids went to Disney World. The Disney World kids have more to say.” Or so it would seem. But with Ewald’s work, he adds, students learn how to write about, then interpret with images, the everyday—their lives, communities, and dreams included. “Every kid has that.”

Not much older than a kid herself, Ewald began her career in the summer of 1970, when she was just 18 years old. The daughter of a prize-fight manager, she left her hometown of Detroit that summer for a job with Native American kids in Labrador, Canada. Ewald had been a budding photojournalist since she got her first camera at the age of 11, and she wanted to share her passion with other kids. So she organized a photography class using 10 cameras and 100 film packs donated by the Polaroid Foundation. She also intended to document the desperate conditions on the reservation with her own pictures. But she quickly became frustrated. Her shots, she felt, often were compromised by her desire not to be intrusive or exploitative.

One day, she and a local boy, a 14-year-old named Merton, decided to photograph the reservation’s graveyard. The results were telling. “My image shows what a Native American graveyard looks like. You can read the inscription on the gravestone and see the simple handmade crosses in the background,” writes Ewald in Secret Games, the companion book to her retrospective exhibit. “Merton’s picture doesn’t do that. It is grainy, washed-out, and the proportions are ‘wrong.’ But his cemetery is a frightening place. No one goes there—or if they do, they often see ghosts.”

I asked my sister to take a picture of me on Easter morning
—Ruby Cornett

That afternoon was a watershed in Ewald’s life—the moment she realized that people who belong to a community always will portray their experiences more accurately and expressively than a visitor. So she decided to document people’s lives in a new way, by assisting and empowering community photographers, particularly children, to reveal themselves. In the years since, her mission has taken her to rural America and six countries, including Colombia, India, and Morocco.

In 1989, the peripatetic photographer was invited by the Center for Documentary Studies, a Duke University affiliate, to work as a visiting artist in three public schools. Two years later, she also started teaching a course on photography in Duke’s education department. By that time, her expertise was being sought by more schools than she could handle. So she came up with a way to lighten her load: requiring her college students to work as photography interns in local schools.

“At a certain point,” Ewald recalls, “we decided to make [Literacy Through Photography] school- and teacher-owned"—hence the impetus for the summer workshop. “Now the teachers decide how [their kids are] going to be taught, what they’re going to teach, and how the college students are going to help them.” They also do their own fund raising to cover costs, which, for a class of 30 kids, is approximately $3,500 (unless a darkroom also has to be built, which adds another $3,000 to the bill).

The idea that you don’t have to be a professional—or even an adult—to take powerful photographs is key to Ewald’s work.

Although Ewald’s efforts generally have been well-received, some find the LTP images too unsettling. A few Durham principals have refused to let classes exhibit the work in public venues, fearing that those not acquainted with the program would misinterpret the photos. There’s the “weirdness” factor, too, the disturbing scenes that may be a natural outgrowth of assignments like “dreams,” which include scenes from kids’ nightmares. Ewald’s collaborators have produced pictures titled “I killed my best friend, Ricky Dixon,” “I am the girl with the snake around her neck,” and “I am dead.”

“The creepy question? Oh, we get that all the time,” says Ewald. But the photos, say many LTP educators, simply reflect children’s realities. As Ewald notes, the pictures show that “kids do have complicated lives.”

Nobody encourages the amateur photographers to be gloomy or gory in their work. “We don’t show kids other kids’ pictures before we start,” says Dixon. “We show them what can be possible, like what does framing do? What does placement of the camera do?”

Do such personal images have a place in the classroom?

“I’m not bothered by it,” says Teasley. “I know some English teachers who gave up on having kids do journals because they would find out about things that they would then either have to act on or ignore, and they didn’t want to do that. They didn’t want to be engaged with their teenagers’ reproductive lives, for example. And I say that’s great—don’t ask for it, if that’s not what you want.”

I took a picture of myself with the statue in the back yard
—Janet Stallard

Whatever the reactions, Ewald is happy her process has found a home in Durham, where 14 schools now conduct regular LTP projects. She divides her time between that city and the house she shares with her husband and 6-year-old son in upstate New York. Eventually, she’d like to see LTP initiatives in school systems around the world, with the Center for Documentary Studies acting as a consulting partner. While she could have picked from various venues, she explains, “I prefer to work in schools because I like working in a structure that’s already part of children’s lives.”

Ewald shrugs off any suggestions that schools, with their tight schedules and set curricula, inhibit creativity. “You just need to find teachers who are open to who their students are, flexible in developing ways of carrying out projects, and willing to learn from what their students are doing. Oh, and organized,” she says. “There is a lot of work to do.”

Part of the work involves figuring out how to integrate photography into curricula. On the third day of the summer seminar, two teachers who’ve already put Literacy Through Photography into practice stop by for a little show and tell. Denise Friesen, a 4th and 5th grade teacher at Club Boulevard Elementary, and Katja Van Brabant-Stevens, a very pregnant language arts teacher at Shepard Middle School, have brought examples—photos on poster boards and in-class magazines—to the workshop.

Friesen relates how she’s used LTP to teach math concepts. “Go find symmetry in nature and photograph it,” she’s told her students. Van Brabant-Stevens stresses the necessity of helping kids plan ahead. Sticking to the LTP method, she doesn’t tell students what and how to shoot. But she does ask lots of questions, such as: “What 12 pictures would you take if you wanted to explain who you were? What about the camera angles? Where are you going to be when you take the photo?” If you don’t guide the students, she cautions, “you’re going to get a whole lot of pictures in the cafeteria of their friends, with their heads cut off.”

Kids are not the only ones who learn from LTP. Friesen says the program has helped her understand and, thus, support her students: “You really get an intimate look into the lives of children. You see what the inside of their houses are like, and maybe you see a poster on the wall and you [say], ‘Oh, you like that?’ What I learn about them really drives my instruction.” In fact, if she notices in the photos that a student has taken a particular interest in, say, dogs, she might call on that kid as an expert when the subject comes up in class. “It really builds their self-esteem, so they’re able to cooperate and maybe be a little more engaged in school,” she explains.

‘I never sell LTP in terms of test scores or student achievement, partly because I don’t think that’s why students are in school.’

Katja Van
Shepard Middle School

Inevitably, the question of assessment arises. “Did you see writing and test scores go up?” one workshop participants asks.

LTP does make students more comfortable with the writing process, Van Brabant- Stevens says. But, she adds: “I never sell LTP in terms of test scores or student achievement, partly because I don’t think that’s why students are in school. Maybe I’m different than the rest of the world right now.”

In fact, Ewald never set out to improve academic skills. For her, the “literacy” part of LTP is a reference to the students’ ability to interpret the world. But district leaders, who have to keep an eye on the bottom line, would like to be able to measure LTP’s academic effects, and Teasley is seeking funding for a study. Meanwhile, many report that, after practicing the LTP method, kids have become better critical thinkers. Lisa Lord, another Club Boulevard teacher, says: “They’re really doing high-level thinking [in LTP] — lots of drawing conclusions, making inferences, the kinds of things that are hard to teach people. Even the act of pointing the camera and framing is decisionmaking and discriminating what’s in and what’s out.”

For Blatt, who, like others, has been wondering how she’ll make use of LTP in her own classroom, Friesen and Van Brabant-Steven’s visit is the highlight of the week. In the class magazines, she says, “I saw students who were similar to mine.” And although she’s enjoyed the philosophical discussions sparked by the program, she notes that the visiting teachers made the LTP process “real in my world.”

By late August, six weeks after the LTP workshop ended, it’s clear that Permuth, whose livelihood derives in part from visiting-artist gigs at K-12 schools, has taken Ewald’s teachings to heart. He’s already led his first LTP-type project. “I really wanted to do something soon. I didn’t want to let it sit there for months,” he explains. “I was inspired by Wendy, and I wanted to see what would happen and how it would change my experience as an artist-educator to use her methods.”

In mid-July, Permuth organized a free photography camp for children in Brewster, New York. He chose nine youngsters from two social groups that had been experiencing some conflict: local and migrant-worker families. During his four days there, Permuth worked with the kids to produce an exhibit of photos and text on “Scary/Safe,” a theme of his own devising.

“I reviewed all of my notes, and I also read especially carefully the section of Wendy’s handbook that had to do with dreams,” he says. “What I really applied were the anecdotes that she told us about working in difficult bicultural dynamics.” He was happy with the creative photographs the kids produced. One student illustrated “safe” with a picture of a houseplant she’s responsible for watering; another depicted “scary” by photographing maggots crawling around an open trash can.

From the African American Alphabet
—Wendy Ewald with students at Central Intermediate School

The exhibit was a success, and one participant, a kid who had a reputation for being a troublemaker, seemed particularly affected. “He came four times in a weekend to see his pictures,” says Permuth, who plans to continue working with his students throughout the year. “I’m addicted!” he admits. “Everybody can use photography to express an inner world. And sometimes, when you’re really young, it can come as a revelation to you that you have a voice, that you can express your point of view and share it with an audience. That’s one of my notions—that self-expression is an essential aspect of being human.”

Blatt, however, has yet to find a way to work LTP into her schedule. At the start of the school year, her head is bursting with new lesson plans and students, so she’s proceeding more cautiously, trying to work out a way to start a project next semester. She’s even talked to a social studies teacher about teaming up, so as to expose their kids to twice the amount of LTP time.

Despite the logistical obstacles, Blatt is determined, and she’ll get ample help from Ewald’s crew. Hyde, for example, recently phoned Blatt to ask her if she needs a university intern for the semester. Blatt jokes that there is a cultlike aspect to LTP. “At the end of the workshop,” she says, “there was this sense of expectation that you will do this.”

In I Wanna Take Me a Picture, Ewald notes that all people feel a need “to articulate and communicate something relevant about our personal and communal lives.” Interestingly, the projects she’s designed to help children have injected pride and energy into another underappreciated group: educators.

Durham art teacher Robert Hunter, who’s worked on LTP projects since the early 1990s, for example, has helped design a race-relations curriculum that will be used for the first time in several schools this fall. “Wendy was the catalyst,” he says. “I no longer just see myself as ‘that Shepard art teacher.’ I see myself as a facilitator and an educator for a community.” Others say that without the space that LTP gives them to teach creatively, they would have quit the profession years ago.

Ewald notes that all people feel a need ‘to articulate and communicate something relevant about our personal and communal lives.’

Teasley recalls that he was working for the Durham Public Schools in 1994 when Ewald asked a group of middle schoolers to imagine what it would be like to be a member of a different race. Each kid wrote about his or her “black self” and “white self” before posing for Ewald.

The students then scratched or wrote on the images to further express their visions. The portraits are extraordinarily candid, especially considering what was going on in Durham at the time. Two years earlier, the state had forced mostly white suburban schools to merge with mostly black city schools. The results were revealing. Many of the white kids wrote in superficial ways about being black—"I would like shows like Martin,” for instance—and some of the African American students heartbreakingly described their white selves as being “nicer” or “smarter.”

When the Corcoran Gallery decided to exhibit Black Self/White Self in 1997, Teasley was so excited that he drove to Washington for the opening. “I had had nothing to do with taking a single photograph, working with a single student. . . . I [simply] felt such tremendous pride that my school district would host a project like that. I kept wanting to go, ‘Hey, I live there!’ ”

Walking among the images, he came across a Durham middle schooler who’d probably never heard of the Corcoran, let alone imagined his art would be displayed in such a venue. Teasley asked him if he was one of the artists. “Yeah, that’s my photograph,” the boy said with pride.

“That’s one of those goose bump moments that you just can’t purchase,” Teasley says today. “And I’m really grateful to Wendy for providing that for our kids, but also providing it for me.”


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