Looking Beyond Appearances

In July 2013, I collaborated with Andrea López-Portillo, a photographer, artist and educator to devise a two- day workshop supported by the Frauen Büro, (Women`s Office) Salzburg, Austria.  With 15 girls aged 11-13 from diverse areas of Salzburg, we developed a rich, two-day curriculum between 9-4pm that included social games; making a card pinhole camera; exploring photography in contemporary social media and the effects in their lives. Using participatory techniques, we probed into the development of portrait photography, with a discovery game that helped the girls learn about significant women who have become well known for diverse achievements in education, science, arts and law.  The aim of the workshop, was less about the learning how to become photographers;  more about working with photography as a tool to explore themes that are important in their own lives.
    The curriculum that we devised was developed on the basis of our combined skills and knowledge.  Andrea and I had met at Power in Whose Palm, The Digital Democratisation of Photography Seminar at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg. We had both joined the education discussion group.  The group collectively decided to have some continuation so that we can support others as well. So after the seminar we wrote the blog Photo Futures.  This elucidates visual research methods such as: Photo Elicitation and Photo Essays (although these are not the only methods for Visual Research) as a means to go more in depth into social themes explored through photography. 
  As an initial introduction to the workshop, we gathered in Mirabell Garden to play games created originally by the Brazilian Theatre Practitioner: Augusto Boal . He was politician and advocate of  oppressed people in both Brazil and across the world.  The aim was to build trust and collaboration as a foundation, and then encourage interchangeable leadership that is beyond oppressive power struggles that are so often the environment of large groups.  The girls responded well to the trust games.  They knew many of them already.  So we asked them to step into leadership roles directing and guiding the games for their peers.
    One of the games they seemed to warm well to was "The Vampire of Salzburg".  Firstly the name caused all sorts of excitement since they had interest in "Twilight" and vampires already.  The key for the educational practitioner is not to reject their interests and instead work with this as an access point to deeper understanding about the actual meaning behind the game through participating in it.
     Everyone walks around with their eyes closed and one person is designated as the Vampire.  The Vampire then squeezes another girl's shoulder and so she becomes a Vampire, so soon there are more of them, than people.  You can see the look of relief on the girl´s faces when they become a Vampire, no one likes to be oppressed.  People feel more comfortable being the oppressor.   They get to experience both roles and the dynamics between the two, so that they can better understand power relations and so that they can find ways to transcend them.
     One of the collaborative games that they showed and was new to me, involved girls pairing up.  In their pairs they had to decide an English phrase and a movement that they carried out simultaneously.  Once devised, the girls split up randomly within the garden. Two of the girls who had been with their eyes closed behind a tree, had to come out and points to one person who illustrates their action and phrase.  The aim is to find their "pair", like in a game of cards.  This was a great test of memory on both sides-remembering pairs and practicing English phrases with a movement helps things to stick. Real kinesthetic learning, and the girls were the ones that discovered this method for themselves.

     We had asked the girls to bring in something from their home that was important for them.  They described what this object was to each other and why it was important to them.  Some of the girls brought in books or something related to their hobbies like a horse-riding hat.  From this point the girls had, through object elicitation, begun to explore more of what they found to be their values in their lives such as freedom, knowledge, learning, the great outdoors, friendship, caring for animals and the environment.  Their object of importance had become a starting point for them.
     We used a cultural mapping sheet (see slide one above) to explore what they valued and enjoyed in their present lives and how they saw themselves in the future.  To give an model of what the task was I filled out my cultural mapping sheet, so they could see how they could develop their. 
  So for example: I have always enjoyed writing, traveling, reading and photography.  So I value freedom, independence, gaining and sharing wisdom and arts.  In the future, I aim to continue curating exhibitions, writing books, teaching and learning in many places across the world. 
   As they filled out their own biography, they were able to explore firstly how they saw themselves before they go on to discover the biographies the range of women with varying careers and personalities.  This is how they create the link between the two. "Know thyself through the other". 
      After the break, we spread portraits and biographies of significant women from a variety of disciplines, professions and of many different nationalities around the room.  Just as they had done for themselves, they picked out from the text specific information that told them about their childhood values, interests and dreams and how these had influenced their adult lives.  
     So for instance, Ida Pfeiffer as a child had loved adventure stories. She received a good education, was headstrong and opinionated. As an adult she was a trailblazer and one of the first women to go solo on long expedition to distant lands and to document her stories in books.  Through this discovery game the girls were able to see how the women`s values when they were girls, led to their professions and how they lived out their lives as women.
   The girls in the workshop were then able to go back to their own cultural mapping biographies, related to their values and to link these up with the women that they explored.  Be seeing themselves as being similar to some of the women that they learnt about in the discovery game, they were able to project themselves into a future scenario and give their own narrative greater clarification.  We often learn about ourselves through stories of other people, this is why biographies can be so interesting to us.  Studies have also shown how much more we remember and learn through narrative, rather than just facts alone.  
     Each of the women in the portraits was composed in a certain manner.  Some were with objects that illustrated their profession, others just poised alone in the frame.  By giving the girls the opportunity to contextualise the women`s portraits with their biographies, it was in this way, that the girls were able to look beyond the appearances of the women alone.  Hedy Lamarr for instance was an actress, which may have come across well in the frame, composition and manner of her pose, yet she was mathematically talented, a spy and inventor of spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping that was useful in the Second World War.  So this was enabling the girls to look beyond appearances.  
    When it came to their turn to use Polaroid to shoot their own portraits, we asked them to think about their own biographies, what they valued and how their wanted this to be represented in the way that they appeared, or perhaps they wanted to reveal one thing and disguise another simultaneously.  We wanted them to see that they were in control of how they wanted to be represented to the world.
Appearances Can be Deceptive

Hedy Lamar, Actress, Spy, Inventor, Mathematician 
We linked this understanding of photography portraiture, that has its historical influence from portrait painting, into practice.  The girls created their own portraits with Polaroid cameras.  This is a slow and careful process. We decided to work with this type of film so that they could see how photography was once used.  Working with Polaroid they were able to see the paradoxical elements of 'instant' processing as it was once seen, without the ability to delete, try again or immediate circulation.  With this type of 'instant' processing, they could watch the chemical react to the light right in front of their eyes.  They had to be careful so as not to destroy the image by flapping the photograph dry, which inevitably happened, leaving a few of the girls asking to take another shot.  Luckily there was enough film for just one more shot each, but we stressed the scarcity of this type of film.  With only one shop in Austria, The Impossible Project, still selling Polaroid.  They were able to see how this photography is different from working with omnipresent digital photography.
Saba Douglas

Hamilton Wildlife Conservationist

 We live in such an immediate landscape that is full of streaming images that often mean little or nothing the following day.  By slowing the photography process down, we were allowing the girls a chance to think a little more about the image that they were making, how they wanted to construct and frame the image and themselves within those images.
   So much of social media encourages young girls, to look or behave in a certain way that has little to do with who they are inside or what they want to achieve in their lives and more to do with obsessing about their own superficial style.  This is increasingly damaging as it erodes their values to become little more than what society dictates to them.  
Claudie Haginere, French doctor, politician and former astronaut


        Back in class we explored further photography in social media (see from Slide 4 onwards in above slideshow).  How images circulating in social media manipulate the girls into perceiving themselves and the things around them in a certain way.  For either consumer, political or emotional purposes.  We juxtaposed popular memes together.  One that gave a somewhat negative connotation, with Beyonce being caught contorting her face and body in the super bowl, that became a meme once her PR requested a website to remove them (obviously the website did quite the opposite).  The other a Ryan Gosling meme, that uses text placed upon pictures of himself to play on the girl`s affections towards him.  By using the same medium the media machine uses to manipulate the girls to idolise him, these memes turn this around by putting text on their idol that tells them to keep studying and stop continually gaze at him.  Or reminding them that to just look at his body, is being superficial and so this meme gives the message to the girls to look beyond appearances.  Both are memes working with the same medium, but to different ends.  
    With the advertising images, again they are using the same medium.  Both are using models posing against a particular setting, yet both are giving very different messages.  One to buy mindlessly, the other to show how consumption is in comparison with people`s livelihood in other parts of the world.   
   By revealing perspectives of war / protest photography and how the what goes into and what is left out of the frame tells us a different story, we were able to see how these kinds of images can used as powerful political weapons of propaganda for either side and in the worst case manipulating people into further conflicts. 
  With both authentic and contemporary vintage, we explored how both have been used to elicit  strong emotions in people.  Ansel Adams was able to evoke emotions of American patriotism that is still used today for this purpose.  Whereas the Lana Rey has been known through her imagery to stir up melancholy, regret, and nostalgia (to name a few).
Using a "Spice Cam" (that was given as an ironic present from a photographer) now a relic Polaroid based upon the infamous girl band

This technique, called Photo Elicitation, enabled the girl`s a safe space in which to see how their perceptions have been dictated by the triangular relationship of subject, viewer (themselves) and social life of these photographs.   Power relations dynamically form this triangular relationship, however it is not fixed.  These power relations are open to question.  By revealing and questioning the dynamic of power relations that form, construct and circulate images, it is then that we can collectively change it.  The aim of this Photo Elicitation exercise was to see how the girls themselves can become critical viewers, instead of passive consumers and that they can actually influence the way that these images are constructed, consumed and circulated. 
Exploring how a Box Brownie works
The girls quickly became engaged and enthused to try out many different techniques including portraiture with their own text written below their Polariods.  Little life inspiration memos to themselves like, "Be who you want to be"!

Furthermore, their perception of the world around them sharpened and they began to notice more that they had before.  With their own digital cameras that they had brought to the workshop, they experimented with colour, composition, symmetry, illusion and capturing time.

As Paolo Friere said: "Nobody liberates anybody else, and nobody liberates themselves all alone. People liberate themselves in fellowship with each other."

As a resource for further workshops of this kind, here is a list, of the women that the girls explored in their workshop:
Claudia Haigner, France: Physician, Astronaut, politician, medical doctor.
Ada Lovelace, Britain: Inventor, philosopher, daughter of poet Lord Byron
Irma von Troll-Borostyani, Austrian, writer, journalist and campaigner for human rights.
Marie Sklodowska Curie, Poland, Scientist, researcher, physicist and chemist.
Marjane Satrapi, Iran, Artist, Graphic Novelist, Illustrator, Animated Film Director and Children`s Book Author.
Indira Gandhi, India, Prime minister and Central Figure of the Indian National Party
Maria Bashir, Afghanistan, Activist, politician and lawyer.  First woman to hold such a position in Afghanistan.
Saba Douglas-Hamilton, Kenya, Wildlife conservationist, TV show host, the daughter of zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton.
Ida Laura Pfeiffer, Austrian, one of the first female explorers and travel book authors
Millicent Fawcett, England, she was a suffragist and helped women in England get the vote for the law that was passed in 1928. She was interested in politics, medicine and education and she liked reading a lot.
"Lee" Miller, Lady Penrose, American, war photograpaher and fashion model. She was one of the first that photographed Hitler`s apartment in Munich after he died...and took a bath in it!
Danica Patrick, American, a racing car driver and auto racing driver.  She is the most successful woman in the history of American racing.
Barbara Kraft, Austrian Painter, she was very influenced by her father who was a painter as well.
Maria Anna (Marianne) Mozart "Nannerl" Austrian, excellent Harpsichord player.
Amelia Mary Earhart, Austrian, Pilot and she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Phiona Mutesi, Ugandanese, African, when she was nine she had to leave school as her family didn`t have enough money to send her, but she loved chess.  In 2012 she won the Woman Candidate Master.  She was the first female players in Ugandan chess history to win a title.
Hannah Zeitlhofer, Austrian, Assistant Rider at the Spanish Riding School.  In 2013 she became the world´s first female rider there.  For 436 years women were not allowed to take part in the school.