Above and below: student photography
About the Author: Alice Obar is a media producer and educator. She holds an MA in International Affairs from The New School and is currently a Curriculum Development Consultant for The Babel Project.
The irony of teaching youth media, and probably teaching anything to kids, is that at a certain point you’re not really teaching anymore so much as you are standing back and giving students the space to learn by themselves. I realized this a few weeks into my job teaching the Tuesday Photo/Film class with middle schoolers in The Babel Project and Global Kids program at the School for Human Rights in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. When a student holding a camera asked how to zoom in, I would find myself almost reaching for the lens to show them. Then I would stop myself — I already know how to do this. Explain how to zoom, but let them take ownership of their own skills.
I joined the Babel Project in Fall 2015 having been inspired by my graduate youth media work in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2013, where Executive Director Palika Makam and cofounder, Carlos Cagin, began conceptualizing the Babel Project. The human-rights-based approach to youth media we had learned at The New School took shape in the Amazwi Wethu (which means Our Voices in isiXhosa) workshop, and I quickly became passionate about the world of youth documentary and media programming. My experiences have made it clear that youth voices and opinions must be central in the media they make.
Furthermore, I wanted to expose the ten participating Global Kids students to a variety of media so that each student might find something that piqued their interest. Palika and I met regularly to discuss lesson plans and logistics around maximizing the students’ use of the Babel Project’s camera equipment. Together we decided to incorporate a variety of projects and equipment in ten weeks – including sound equipment, instant cameras, and DSLRs (professional cameras). We used this equipment to engage students in concepts of social activism and human rights.
In the first week, students took digital photos in different styles such as macros and landscapes. Later they used Fujifilm Instax Mini 8 cameras to illustrate articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). During the last month, students were separated into two groups, in which they conceptualized and shot a short documentary on a topic they wanted to cover (and relate back to human rights).
Students planned out their instant photos that represented articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights photographically.
Article 16: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”
Some students thrived during the digital photography weeks, checking all the boxes in the “photo hunt” activity and snapping portraits of each other, leaves on the ground, and green barrels with beautiful shadows. Then when we moved on to instant analogue photography, and they were very excited to use the cool pastel pink and blue cameras. They proudly labeled all of their photos with the UDHR Article it portrayed.
Above: Student photos taken during the photo scavenger hunt in the second week
Student photo illustrating Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”.
A student reviews her polaroids
Instant photo of a student playing basketball, illustrating Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 24: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure”.
Because the Fujifilm Instax photo project was about the ability of media to reflect real-world issues, it was a great segué into making documentary films. To introduce the students to documentary film styles, I had students watch previous Babel Project films and a documentary called The Art of Fighting, which is about an Iranian refugee in Australia who has a dream of being a martial arts movie star in Hollywood. The film is an amazing example of how documentaries can use personal stories to raise awareness about global issues. With this as inspiration, students brainstormed issues that were important in their own lives and would make good topics for a documentary.
I am proud to say that the students made their documentaries in just four weeks. The first step was drawing storyboards , and thinking of key people to interview and scenes to shoot. Each student took on a production role on the interview set such as interviewer, camera person, audio person, and producer. Each crew filmed and record interview subjects with lavalier microphones, and discussed the human rights implications of their topics.
It was an amazing feeling to see the students present the photos and films they had produced during the last session. One student remarked that she liked taking photos because she was “in control of the camera”. One student loved saying “1 2 3 action”. Another hoped that through the basketball film, more girls would be exposed to why basketball is so fun.
A student films scenes on the basketball court.
A scene from Our Basketball Journey
Students reenacted one of their peers’ experiences with bullying in their film Bullying in School
For many students it was the first time they had produced media and taken ownership and pride over their creative media work. I was also happy with my decision to give the students the space, equipment and training to create different forms of media without being overbearing and pressing buttons for them. When I was their age, my passion for photography came through improvisation and practice. While guidance and mentorship are key, media production is ultimately a very personal practice. In the end you won’t take your best photo with a teacher looking over your shoulder to tell you how they think it should be done. I look forward to using the lessons I learned with this workshop in my future work.
– Alice Obar