Liz Orton / Project Diary / Queens Park Community School

Queens Park Community School: Sessions 7 and 8

Challenging Heights School, Ghana.Challenging Heights School, Ghana.

We began a new module on self-portraiture as part of the curriculum. This is usually taught at the school through painting so we were embarking on something new in using photography. We began the module at the end of last year with a trip to the Taylor Wessing Portrait portrait prize. We used this as a broad introduction to the genre. Using prepared worksheets,  pupils had to find portraits they liked and disliked; a portrait that used narrative; a portrait which hid as well as revealed the subject; a portrait which told them a lot or a little about the subject.  They then had the chance to make their own portrait award for the winner. The value of being in a gallery setting and engaging directly with work on the wall cant be underestimated.

Back in the classrooom, in session 7, I spread numerous portrait prints across the tables and asked pupils to each chose one they found interesting.  This is where working with prints is far better than a digital slideshow – pupils can sift through prints, move freely from image to image in making their choices. Working in pairs they discussed the portraits using a visual language of mood, gesture, pose, background, frame, angle and expression to explain why they chose the photograph. They compared similarities and differences and this was all fed back to the group.  I stressed the fact that appearance, or ‘looking good’ is not the most important part of a portrait. How do we evaluate portrait photographs? There is no right answer to this of course but we considered the idea of something about the subject (mood, personality, circumstances, work, character) communicated through the image.  From this we had a good discussion about the differences between a selfie and a self-portrait. We felt that they differ by planning, audience and form (especially now that most selfies are part of social media and rarely printed).

I gave out the point-and-shoot cameras and we practiced using the self-timers by balancing cameras on tables in the classroom. We then divided into groups, and worked in different areas of the very large playground, the pupils taking about 10 self portraits each. They experimented with background, pose and angle. For most of them this was fun but for others it was hard. They preferred to turn away from rather than towards the camera. For a teenager who feels vulnerable about appearance, a self-portrait might feel too confronting. We discussed other options – turning away from the camera, being a small part of the picture, not showing the face. I had to stop many of them from the instinct to delete photographs they didn’t like. This is a really important part of visual literacy – judging and editing images which fail as well as succeed, of showing a process of decision-making through materials.

In session 8 we gave out contact sheets from week 7. Pupils had to chose three photographs: one showing a successful image, one showing a weak image and one showing an image that could be improved. Pupils cut these out and annotated them, providing reasons for their choices, in their sketchbooks. We continued with self-portraiture by experimenting with self-portraits that exclude  the face. This is a useful way to consider the importance of the face, in relation to other parts of the body in relation to identity. We live in a culture which values the face very highly as the site of personality.  I didn’t show examples this time as I wanted them to be creative rather than to copy ideas. There were some very inventive images – from eye and hand portraits, to strange angels across the body, which I will post next week.

(photo above by Rosie Hallam, Taylor Wessing exhibition)

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