How to Get Your Students Thinking Deeply With Photography

One of my favorite ways to wrap up a middle school photography course is with something called the Social Identity Project. It’s a chance for students to use the technical skills they’ve been learning while also digging into deep questions; questions surrounding identity formation and what’s important to them. It culminates with a display of their work and written statements about their various identities.

Focusing on identity development also allows students to look outward. It allows them to find language and an understanding of how identities shape the world around them and their interactions with others. This project can lead to some pretty intense conversations. But, it’s so important and valuable for students at this age to start to engage with the topic.

The Project in 7 Steps

student projects hung on a wall

1. Explore the concept of identity.

Before you dive into artmaking, you’ll want to give students a solid foundation. It’s important for students to know what identity is and how it connects to them. You’ll want to build student understanding and define any new terms.

We discuss the ways that people identify in the world, and what some of these various categories mean.

The eight primary categories I use (in no particular order) are:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Social Class
  • Religion
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Age
  • Ability

Of course, other categories come up. Students have added things like First Language and Left/Right Handedness. However, we focus on these main categories to start.

Questions arise, especially around the differences between race and ethnicity. I explain this difference as race being focused primarily around physical characteristics (skin color being the main one most people think of), while ethnicity is specific to the culture of a person (i.e., language, traditions, etc.). The two can overlap, but they are distinct.

We also discuss how some of these identities are visible and others are not, and the ways people are judged or treated based on the various identities. We look at photographers who have done work around identity and how their work has an impact on representation in the world.

Once we’ve spent some time in conversation, students turn the focus on themselves. They write about how they identify within specific categories.

Often, students are challenged because there are certain things they’ve never thought much about. Social class is one that often emerges for my students, who are, for the most, part fairly affluent. Another, surprisingly, is ethnicity. Many of my students aren’t clear on where their families are actually from, and end up going home to ask their parents what their ethnic background is.

2. Assign the first set of photos.

The first part of this assignment asks students to find other students who identify in the same way they do. When they find someone, they have to take a portrait of that person (with permission, of course!). Then, they must create a Google Slides presentation with the images.

We discuss, at length, the appropriate way to approach someone. We talk about how to avoid making assumptions about other people’s identities. You don’t want your students outing anyone or making them feel uncomfortable.

3. Go over some photography basics.

After we talk about the project, we get into some photography basics. In my class, I review the basic concepts of exposure, focus, and composition and emphasize the importance of taking a good photograph.

Taking the time to create solid portraits is an important part of the process. It’s a challenge for many students who aren’t interested in slowing down.

Inevitably, someone comes back with an incomplete set of photographs, or blurry and poorly lit images. Setting aside time for them to continue shooting and emphasizing that quality of the images is paramount allows students to make some mistakes and work on getting the right shot.

school studio

4. Teach your students to stay organized.

When working digitally, it’s really important to stay organized. In my class, images are stored on Google Drive. We talk about strategies to name files and organize those files in folders.

5. View and discuss the first set of photos.

When students share their presentations with each other, there is a lot of conversation around who they include within their chosen identities. A particular point made is around gender. Most male-identified students typically take only portraits of other males (and vice versa for female-identified students) even though it’s not a factor for any category besides gender. As we dig into this question, students unearth the reasons for these tendencies and their own unintentional biases in looking at their peer groups. It’s a fascinating process to witness and really enlightening for the class.

6. Assign the second set of photos.

After finding others who identify similarly, students spend time taking more formal portraits of each other in class. We use the studio space set up at my school, but any clear and well-lit space will do. We create a three-point lighting set-up, and students are encouraged to shoot lots of images to capture the personalities of their peers in these portraits. These are the only portraits we print.

7. Have your students do a bit of reflective writing.

The last part of the process is for your students to do some reflective writing. I ask students to write about three identities that are important to them. It is often challenging for students to put their thoughts into words. They know what feels important, but it takes some digging to get to the core.

Some useful prompts include:

  • Why do you believe an identity might be important to a person?
  • How might your life be different if you identified another way?
  • Is this identity something you have always felt strongly about?
  • Does this identity provide you privilege in the world?

Community Response and Dialogue

The final images and anonymous statements are displayed in the school. The display always draws a crowd as people stop to admire the photos and read the statements. Conversation and dialogue are generated, questions are asked, and some real understanding is gained around identities.

I believe the two most important parts of the project are the reflective skills and pride students develop as they think about their identities and the dialogue it generates among their peers. It is one of the most important and most valuable projects I do with my students all semester.

How do you tackle identity in your classroom?

What techniques and approaches do you use to teach students portraiture?

Raymond Yang

Ray Yang is a Middle and Upper School Art Teacher and Teaching Artist in Seattle, WA. He is a passionate advocate for social justice and believes the arts can change the world.

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