Feature image by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark.
This post was written by educator Jenna Conner-Harris.
Photography is like cooking and baking: they are forms of art. All are done with love and care, meticulously created and crafted. Each work is meant to be better than the next, and then shared with others for enjoyment. Similarly, a photograph captures a slice of life and tells a story in a moment. This is what drew me to photography early on in my career as an educator. Like cooking and baking, photography is a skill you can learn at any age and stage, and continue to develop over time. I was originally inspired in my photographic journey by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore and his work from The Photo Ark. In the years since, my students and I have delved into the world of digital photography as a means of exploration, communication, and advocacy. Now, as we continue our learning from home, we’re finding new ways to channel our skills, exploring new ways to take action, tell stories, and document a rapidly changing world from our lenses.
I stumbled upon Joel’s endangered species photography many years ago and found, to my delight, that my students were just as fascinated as I was with his artful storytelling. His work inspired me to develop a digital photography station for my middle school classroom and, much like Joel’s work, it was designed to be interdisciplinary in nature. Soon after creating this center, I found my science-minded students were equally as fascinated in photography as my writers and my historians. What went from one center for one student, grew to several classes asking for lessons in photography, in how to research endangered species and, inevitably, what concrete actions they could take to make a difference.
Joel reminds us all that photography can—and I would argue, should—be approachable. Every shot does not have to be formal and use expensive equipment, and photography certainly should not be an adult-only hobby. Through diving into Joel’s work as well as exploring the outdoors and our own visions as budding photographers, my students and I have grown into empowered storytellers and changemakers. Nowadays, most of us forego fancy camera equipment and use our cell phones to capture the stories of our day-to-day lives. The best camera, we learned together, is always the one you have on you! Together, we relish the challenge of deciding how to define moments we experience into a compelling story that documents each of our journeys.
In this COVID-19 world, now is a great time to delve into photography as a means of learning because there’s so much you can do with this special craft from home. Joel’s work often focuses on critically endangered species that may be hard to find from our backyards or window sills, yet from our current vantage points there are still endless stories to tell about biodiversity, or simply the beauty in our daily lives. Students, teachers, and families can all capture snapshots which represent the changing seasons in a garden, a potted plant, tinker toys, a family pet, or a sibling. I encourage kids to examine the wings of a butterfly found in the backyard with the same passion Joel dedicates to his animal portraits. As we work, we use the confines of our space—a yard, apartment, bedroom—to creatively craft a message of our choosing. My students are realizing that, even from home, we all still have unique stories to tell.
One specific project we’ve been working on is photo journaling. Keeping a journal is a great practice anyway, but especially in this historic time, for we will all be different people the next time we meet. I’ve told my students that these journals will serve as priceless collections of their thoughts and experiences throughout the pandemic. Through journaling we can reflect, create, and track changes, both within and around us. I challenge them to take one photo a day, handwrite a note to go with it, and date the page. I also encourage them to press leaves and flowers, add drawings—whatever tells their story! And I always remind them, it is a practice for you, and can be something you choose to share in the future, too.
As students grow into the practice of taking their first 10,000 “bad” photos, I help them to explore new photographic endeavors. I encourage them to experiment with various photographic techniques and styles, like cropping, use of black and white, macro, and landscape. By design, my students’ stories are creatively contained, pieces of original art. There is something special about witnessing them capture these moments. Their photo books have the power to become a priceless family heirloom, much like the precious recordings of my great grandmother’s voice I keep secured in my safety deposit box. I know my photo journal will go right next to these treasures I will pass down to the next generation, and hope that my students are proud of their creations and will do the same.
Like Joel models, I aspire for our stories to grow and evolve into ones full of connectedness and conversation, debate then action. All voices—whether from students or animals—can have strong messages and can be amplified to impact the world in great ways. Joel’s portraits both tell powerful stories as well as serve as calls to action: to protect the weird and wonderful species with whom we share the Earth. Similarly, I’ve seen how young people are inspired to drive change now while they’re at home. For example, my students have noticed the impacts of millions of people staying home around the world and how, in now quiet and traffic-free communities, nature is making a comeback. They’ve expressed a desire to harness this momentum, to find ways to help the Earth heal and give plants and animals a chance to thrive. Given this interest, I’ve been encouraging them to start by having discussions with their families about how their own actions can impact the planet: How can we use less? Recycle more? Instead of buying new, how can we buy second hand? They are learning that we can all do our part to chip away at the challenges of our time.
While so much has changed during this moment, one thing that has persisted has been my students’ curiosity. And as their teacher I continue to remind them, even from a distance, that they don’t have to be passive in this world; they can be creators and life-changers long before they “grow up.”
For me, skills and practices like photography—and cooking, baking, even recycling—are all about family and community. We have an opportunity to pause, reflect, think about our physical and human world and how they are all connected, and then decide on our next steps together. Like Joel, we can use these practices to uplift all voices and communicate big ideas to create lasting change.
Jenna Conner-Harris is a middle school teacher in Virginia.