I spent the first two weeks of June teaching a photo-essay class to university students in Finland. When I started the class, I was worried if it would go well. I have a hard time working with college students, since most of them don’t want to speak out in class, out of fear of “sticking out from the crowd.” Since those same students were Finnish, a notoriously shy people, it had all the makings of a train wreck. I am thrilled to say it turned out much better than I expected.
Like in any great teaching situation, the students were not the only ones to grow and change as the workshop unfolded. In this blog I am trying to explore their creative growth (and by extension my own.)
The workshop was held at the Institute of Design and Fine Arts of Lahti University of Applied Sciences, which their website describes as “a large, multidisciplinary institution of higher education, located some 100 km north of the Finnish capital, Helsinki.” See more at: http://www.lamk.fi/english/design/Sivut/default.aspx
I had twelve students, who were drawn from a pool of about forty photography students. Some were first year students and others were fourth year, with a mix of students from the classes in between. We started the workshop by defining a photo-essay, looking at their existing work and then brainstorming and plotting out the photo-essay they would create during the workshop. Not surprisingly, their initial approach to their photo-essays changed once they start working on them.
One of the most educational exercises (for all of us) involved having the class, as a group, edit approximately one hundred 4” x 6” prints from my Foreclosed Dreams down to a top 15. This is an exercise that nearly all of my groups go through. The Finnish college students loved it because:
1. It was more hands-on than listening to another one of my lectures.
2. It gave them an excuse to talk and argue, which is something they love.
3. It gave them an opportunity to critique/edit my work after having listened to me critique and edit their work.
The real education, for me, was when I showed them which images had been selected as the top fifteen by other groups who had been through the same exercise. The fifteen selected by the Finnish university students were mostly outliers as compared to other groups I had worked with. When I showed the Finnish students the images that had been the most commonly selected elsewhere, their response was “too obvious.” As I kept showing them what worked best for other groups, we settled into a routine where I showed a photo and they said “too obvious.”
This clash, between the more subtle Finnish aesthetic and the “too obvious“ aesthetic of me, the American teacher, repeated itself throughout the class. Elsewhere in the class I encountered other strange intersections between Finnish culture and the culture of photography:
The Finnish language uses the same characters we are used to in English (and in other romance languages.) Though it looks like I should “get it,” I can’t, which I thought of as an apt metaphor for the challenges my students faced. They were sure any outside viewer would “get” their photos but my job was to make sure that really happened. (By way of background, prior to the Middle Ages, Finnish was only an oral language. The first comprehensive writing system for Finnish was created in the 16th century, based on the orthography (practice or study of correct spelling according to established usage) of Swedish, German, and Latin.)
Another student finally helped me understand the political philosophy behind the Anarchist movement/ideology. To put it simply, Anarchists oppose any involuntary structures. Based on readings that she suggested, I learned:
Creating a blueprint for any society, even an Anarchist’s society would require demanding certain behavior of our fellow men, which is in essence a government. Under anarchy, a society under freedom and equality, one has only the right to oneself and answers only to oneself. It is not a society without masters, but a society with only masters. Not that I am about to endorse the Anarchist’s philosophy, but at least I now understand the connection between anarchism and involuntary structures.
The language of photography is a similar involuntary structure and the Finnish students, like so many students I work with, were working through the conflict between what they (the authors) want and what the viewer actually gets. Not surprisingly, the most successful photographers are the ones who understand the involuntary structure that is at the heart of photography. Knowing how viewers of photographs interpret composition, how they experience framing within images, how they can be directed by the use of focus, these are all examples of understanding the involuntary structure at the heart of photography.
Some of the better projects (either as ideas to be acted upon or projects that were in fact completed) looked at religious practice in Finland that exist outside the mainstream Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, dangerous mould in Finnish schools, what Spring means to Finns, a new vision of old age in Finland, time spent waiting and activity in the night time in a country where the sun never fully sets in summer.
The most successful students in my Finnish class were the ones who built photo-essays that drew on their understanding of and passion for Finnish culture. They also used a photographic language that communicated their ideas within the involuntary hierarchy that is photography. In the end I was reminded how balancing those two, the personal and the public, the internal and the external, are how all good photo-essays are made.