Using photography as a method to navigate the day to day world

Open Eye Gallery discusses its ongoing rethinking of gallery education, through the role of photography as an educational tool in unlocking the way we navigate our daily lives.

This article describes a current partnership between Open Eye Gallery and Wirral Hospitals’ School. WHS is a small school setting for those who have been medically and/or CAMHS assessed, and as such are unable to access mainstream school. All students have medical needs which most often involve aspects of mental health, e.g. anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and personality disorders, often co-morbid with developmental disorders such as Autistic Spectrum Condition​. ​Due to photography being an activity that most young people engage with, this project sought to explore how photography could be used as an educational tool to engage the students and help them navigate their current circumstances.

We will address how the partnership was formed, the positives and negatives of the dual role of photographer and creative producer and how they exist together, the importance of a co-authored approach and the methods in which photography was used.

The project’s collaborative approach will be echoed throughout the article, representing the voices of both the School and the gallery. It was essential for both partners that the collaborative element should be central from the offset of the partnership. Therefore, together we created a shared list of aims in the first meeting that the rest of the project developed out of.

  • Engage students using photography to help encourage them to explore identity, wellbeing and other themes.
  • Develop a set of resources that encourages visual literacy for students with ASC (visual learning is a high priority for the school)
  • Increase the confidence of students through participation
  • Develop methods of working that are sustainable for the school beyond the residency

Embedding Phase

The initial embedding phase started with a week of Open Eye Gallery’s Creative Producer (Andy) spending time in the school, getting to know the students and observing sessions. This was a crucial stage to begin the residency as it allowed Andy to learn the day to day rhythms of the school and created space for the students to familiarise themselves with Andy and become comfortable around him before a camera was involved. Following this, Andy took part in the ELKLAN course ‘Communication Support for Pupils with ASC’. As Andy had no previous experience working with people with ASC, it was important for him to learn some effective communication methods in order to best support the students included in the project. This set the foundations for the residency and also helped form the methodologies used.

Methodologies

As we were exploring how photography can be used as a tool in unlocking how we navigate our daily lives, we looked at what daily activities the students of the school have difficulty with and identified travel as an area of focus.

Travel Training

A number of students find using public transport challenging. In an effort to help them in this area we developed a travel training exercise during which students would use photography to document the different stages of travelling by bus and train. Together we then used these photographs to create a visual public transport guide.

We took seven students on a trip to Open Eye Gallery and gave each of them an iPad or camera to document their journey. Having the camera helped as a distraction from the anxiety associated with taking public transport and helped embed the learning of the different steps required throughout the process. Being able to pause and capture each moment visually provided the pupils with a clear connective image between conceptual learning and the real event.

Visual aids are utilised throughout school life and are fundamental in helping students understand lesson plans and instructions, making them feel more at ease and confident about what is expected of them. Creating the Visual Public Transport Guide both consolidated this learning for the students on the trip and provided a resource to the wider body of students. The guide was made up of a combination of photos from all students who took part in the trip, giving them shared ownership and a sense of agency over the guide. The guide was then used across the whole school in preparation for a school-wide trip to Open Eye Gallery.

Birkenhead Park. Image: Wirral Hospitals School Students and Andy Yates

One-to-One Sessions

Another method of engagement was one-to-one sessions with students who had an interest in photography and who were struggling to engage in school. This worked on a referral basis from members of staff. The sessions included a series of activities ranging from photo-walks, studio sessions and talking about photography.

Photo-walks were particularly popular with the students. During these sessions, Andy and the student would go for a walk (often in the park next to the school) and photograph things of interest or collect flowers and other items to photograph later.Doing sessions outside of the natural school environment seemed to relax students and subsequently cause them to feel more comfortable engaging in the task. Upon returning to school, Andy would often review the photographs taken with the students, offering them an opportunity to talk about their images. This saw strong engagement from the students, who would open up and share why they took the image, what they liked about it and how it made them feel.

This Is Me. Image: Wirral Hospitals School Students and Andy Yates

The structure of the photo-walk sessions seemed to have a significant impact on the students’ communication engagement.At the start of these sessions, students would often be extremely quiet, offering single word question responses. However, as the photo-walk progressed and they became more engaged in the activity, their communication simultaneously increased. Inthe photo review section of these sessions, Andy saw a significant change in students’ communication as they shared openly and enthusiastically about the photographs they had taken.

THIS IS ME

Exploring identity and how this impacts our daily lives was integral to the partnership. ‘This Is Me’ offered the students the opportunity to have an image taken that represents who they are.

Each student was asked to consider the things that make them who they are and then decide how they would like to be photographed. This process helped improve confidence, as students were offered a safe space to talk about things that they love and then celebrate them through the photograph.

This Is Me. Image: Wirral Hospitals School Students and Andy Yates

One student chose to have their image taken at the stables they volunteer at. This student has a close connection to the animals on-site and being able to go there and help, provides great relief from their challenges. During the shoot, the student demonstrated high levels of confidence in sharing their chosen subject and took ownership of the session. Their mother said that they usually dislike being photographed and that seeing them so comfortable in front of the camera was amazing.

This Is Me. Image: Wirral Hospitals School Students and Andy Yates

Dual Role as an Artist — A reflection from Andy Yates

Part of the original intention for the partnership was to explore what could be gained from the dual role of artist in residence and creative producer of Open Eye Gallery.

As an artist I was provided with a range of resources that I may not have had otherwise, ranging from the expertise of other staff to various contacts and connections with other cultural organisations. My role also gave the project added weight through the backing of a cultural organisation and the gallery’s reputation and presence. The possibility of potentially sharing work at the gallery and the access to its audience also extended the opportunities offered within the project.

One of the more difficult elements of the dual role was having artistic license whilst representing the gallery’s image and brand. While no restrictions were set on the work produced, I was mindful of representing the gallery throughout the project. The gallery has high emphasis in a co-authored programme, which allows for process to be held as important as output, whilst still producing high-quality work. Despite this, I did still experience the tension of wanting there to be a high-quality output that represented the students and partners well. Experiencing this tension led me to ensure that the process included a high level of support that would facilitate a quality output. When asked to reflect on the dual role, the school’s deputy headteacher Sarah wrote:

For the school, the project has been wholly positive and reinforced our view and commitment to learning beyond the classroom. Furthermore, it highlighted that support and mentoring in school is often best placed when the students’ special interests and talents are being employed. The kudos of the ‘artist in residence’ title and link to the gallery has opened up a new world of potential work-related learning for our young people and established a form of creativity to them that they can all access via their phones! When resilience and self-worth is low, the opportunity to spend time creating an image of themselves and then to see that image enlarged and displayed is a powerful tool in the work to re-engage a young person with poor mental health.

A key factor to the success of the work was also our commitment to ensure that Andy was trained and continually updated on the specific needs of our students. This enabled him to forge positive relationships with even our most complex and vulnerable students.

By working closely with us it has also developed the skills of our staff – who can now work with other students. As this reflects the only negative outcome — time! We had to prioritize which students worked with Andy which has meant that not all students have been able to participate on a 1:1 level with Andy.

Conclusion

The final output of a project can often take over the partnership and result in overlooking the process. However, seeing how the students engaged with the process and the impact it had on their general wellbeing elevates process to being as, if not more, important than the final output.​​Seeing engaging in photography or any of the arts become a catalyst for a young person to re-engage in school, demonstrates the process used can be far more impactful than an exhibition at the end. Using photography as a method to navigate our daily lives is becoming more common and can become a tool for learning. Whilst it is not why photography is used in schools, it has the potential to enhance a learning experience. The moment to pause, take notice and capture is a perfect way to embed a process.

Andy Yates
Creative Producer, Artist In Residence
Open Eye Gallery
@OpenEyeGallery

Sarah Marrion
Deputy Headteacher
Wirral Hospitals’ School