The Educational Process Observed: What More is There to See
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The Educational Process Observed: What More is There to See

May 03, 2016 09:03AM
The Educational Process Observed: What More is There to See (and Who Should Be Seeing It)?
- Judah S. Harris, Photographer and Filmmaker (caps and italics?)


When I was photographing the March of the Living program in 1992 and 1994, documenting Jewish high school students on their two-week spring visit to Poland and Israel, I was asked a few times – and not always in the same words – if I was able, as a photographer, to experience the program as the other participants were, or if my being involved taking pictures precluded that opportunity.

I'm glad some asked about this. It was a good question (most sincere questions are good questions) and something worth thinking about. I was joining the March of the Living program, but I was behind the camera. Everybody else, and everything else was in front of it. They were participating and partaking, and I was doing something different... photographing.

Usually people perceive that there's a lot of work that goes into taking pictures at the professional level. Photographers certainly know it. We're carrying equipment, constantly choosing compositions, considering exposures and camera settings – and on top of that, when people are involved, interacting with them verbally or in some other manner. That takes energy and emotional involvement. It's work – the more effort the better the results – and it preoccupies us each time, even if we're skillfully attuned to what's going on around us, with a heightened sensitivity to our surroundings.

The camera is not only involving, it can be a barrier. Interestingly, some photographers while doing portraits, place the camera on a tripod and step off to the side, then releasing the camera shutter remotely when the time is right. They don't want the barrier between them and subject. They want to maintain eye contact. For most of us, we do similar by removing the camera from our face at times to connect with those we're photographing. (Some photographers embarking on a photo project have set out to meet their subjects without a camera in tow, or brought a camera but kept it packed up in the initial stages of meeting, only taking it out once there was a level of rapport and comfortability.)

I thought about the question of my ability to “experience” what I'm photographing, when asked back then during the March. This was not an hour-long assignment. This was two intense weeks of travel, a week in Poland, a week in Israel. The experience was formative and life-changing for many, maturing for all. What was I, personally, coming away with from this journey? Rolls of exposed color slide film – and what else?

My response that I articulated then – and I still believe it – is that as a photographer (and now also a filmmaker) I don't get to experience the event as the teenagers do, or even share a similar experience as the adults on the trip. Firstly, I don't have the same school or community connections. I am not one of them. And then there is my role as photographer, which really means that I'm an observer. I'm looking, I'm watching, I'm preserving moments. I don't partake of them in the same way as the participants. I can be inspired and learn, but I don't get what they get – and part of that is because of the activity I'm engaged in.

I shared that – more succinctly – with those that asked. “I don't experience it as you do,” I told them, “but I do experience and even in a richer way, at times, as I'm exploring at a deeper level. I'm always looking. Carefully.” I explained that after the event is over I have photographic record of what took place, and that revives the experience – for me and for others who will see the imagery. What is elicited will depend on the person. Were they on the program? What is their relationship to the subject matter? How well can they “read” photographs?

I get the same question at times when I photograph a wedding. The event is uber-emotional for family and friends, and the other quests to varying degrees. Where does that leave the photographer, or the videographer? What is our experience?

Certainly not the same. We immerse ourselves in the event, we study it, but we're, again, not connected in the same way as many of the participants, and we remain, behind our equipment, the observers, entrusted to capture the moment, to preserve the memories for a long time.

For close to three decades, I have photographed educational situations, both inside and outside the classroom, the formal and the informal learning experiences, in the US, Israel, and other world countries. As the photographer, I'm always a stranger of sorts who pierces a contained educational environment in a way that can't go unnoticed. But I try to be moderately unseen. I work minimalistically, avoiding the grand showmanship, or at least the visual pronouncement, that would be more suitable if I was, in fact, the one leading the educational session. I take charge by occasional direction provided in a softer, encouraging voice, or by way of moving a piece of furniture or, in more casual settings, suggesting a change of positioning that I need from someone, or even asking for a repeat of something that I saw happen, but need to have happen again so that I can “get it on film.” I whisper or gesture with stealth, but mostly I'm positioning myself physically to match the goings-on that I'm photographing. I'm always visible – people know there's a photographer in the room – but I find that if the manner of photographing is subdued and blends in somehow, people in the classroom, or during an activity outside the classroom (where visibility is less an issue), continue to focus on their studies or their teaching. That's their job, and I have mine (this reality applies to any situation where a photographer is present; elements of distraction usually don't linger beyond the initial moments when a “new” person enters the room).

What's my goal in the classroom? I certainly want to imbibe from some of the things being taught by the time I exit out the same door I came in. But my primary raison d'etre is to try to create images that give a sense of what's going on. Isn't that what photography is all about? Here it's about showing the education taking place – the form, setup, duration, give and take, demographic involved, subject being taught.... By extracting some of the moment, I'm creating photographs that will put people in the room. I want others elsewhere to feel the education taking place, by enabling them to feel a sense of the place, some of the emotional and cognitive dynamic experienced by the participants. As a visitor now inside the classroom, I need to look around to see where I am and who's there with me. I find it's never the same, similar but never identical. Places may look alike, faces may look alike, but going no further than that won't, as successfully, produce photos capable of good storytelling. Pictorial cliches, things we've repeatedly seen, pictures that lack emotion... won't put people in the room. Educational venues come in different physical shapes and sizes, different colors and patterns, and with different streaming light shining though the windows or diffused through window treatments. Students and teachers dress in different ways, prompt, react and engage with variety. I look for these differences – the variety – during my observation, and as I identify ingredients for my images, I make effort to assemble them into something that will be visually, photographically successful. Novel – in the sense of something “truly original” – is elusive, but successful is attainable. A good word I'd use is “authentic.” If I achieve that, I feel that I've succeeded.

But the challenges – and resulting benefits – of observing the educational process in a more exacting manner are not just mine alone, as a photographer. I'd suggest that educators and their students need to also rise above the moment and their own participation in it, to observe themselves, as an observant outsider would. Being more attuned to the “obvious” in the classroom or in other educational situations reveals the presence of subtlety and nuance, and that defines what's really going on. From the educators' standpoint, questions to consider might be along the lines of how are we presenting today in contrast to yesterday, or in comparison to an hour ago when we began the lesson? Do we sound excited, tired, reactive (maybe even defensive), inviting, competent and knowledgeable? Are we being clear? What do we look like – how are we standing and where are we standing (if standing)? Are we employing some use of visuals in our teaching to complement the auditory, the reading, and keep things exciting? As we look out at the students – our audience – what are they doing (and are we making effort to glance also at the more distant planes, seeing beyond the first two or three rows)? How are they listening and what expressions can be read, and interpreted with likely accuracy, on their faces or by way of other physical detail? There will be no one student reaction, of course, and the observation will reveal that – even if an initial cursory glance might testify to near-uniformity.

From the students' perspective, how do we exude? What are we showing of ourselves to the educator and to our fellow students that sit alongside us? Even in listening mode we are communicating messages to others, sometimes clear, sometimes amorphous. When we speak, how do we craft our speech? What does our personal area look like – books, pen and paper, laptop, the way our coat is folded, or not, on the back of the chair or on the seat of the empty desk to our side? What variations do we notice in the presenter – the gait, stance, and motions... inflections in voice, facial changes, positioning and proximity to the board or the students? How is the light from fixtures or windows falling and does it affect, positively or negatively, the classroom experience, the productivity and enjoyment of our own learning? What is happening by the other students in the classroom – are they enthralled, participatory, aloof, or lost? How does our experience differ or match theirs, and if different can we conjecture why?

Being an observer in the classroom and during other educational activities informs educators, students – and photographers! – about a whole lot of meaningful things that could easily go unnoticed. There may be monolithic lunch menus (said in jest, as the vast majority of schools put a lot of effort into their food services), but there are no monolithic classroom experiences. Monday and Wednesday are not only different days of the week, they can yield significantly different possibilities in the classroom, even if the lesson plan regimen and all the other ancillary variables, not to mention the people, are consistent from one day to the next.

It takes some added effort and skill to actively observe ourselves and our environments, but the information gleaned is well worth it. The ability to reveal more of the story of what's taking place allows us a greater appreciation for the educational experience, the variety contained... and also motivates adjustment when necessary. Speech and listening can be adjusted, as can visual reactions, the visual-feedback that we send out to others by way of stance and expression, or even the pace of our actions. Being more attuned enables educators to adjust their style to the audience and the moment. They can shift their presentation to more-closely match the subject being taught, the educational venue and present dynamic. Our environment can be changed with relative ease (even mid-lesson). A window shade can be closed, or opened, a few chairs straightened, and aspects of the homeroom rearranged to better facilitate – or guide – attention and ability to focus.

The challenge is that when educators and students are really focused, immersed in the learning – and that's a good thing, the goal! – they may find it a lot tougher to observe from a different perspective, to attempt a bird's-eye view of the educational experience at play; or a zoomed-in focus on the patterned tie the teacher is wearing that is, noticeably, not the instructor's normal fare; or the inference to be made when a professor stands away from the desk or lecture-hall podium for a short moment, and what that might possibly say when considered alongside the spoken words expressed at the exact same instant.

Since immersion and observation don't easily go hand in hand (the ongoing challenge I have as a photographer), when is the right time to do this in an educational setting, to be less the participant and more the observer? I certainly don't think it should be attempted continuously; that would distract – and probably more than one person. Rather, I'd advise occasionally pulling away from the scene (I don't want to prescribe a specific frequency), to take an active look, to place the specific experience of learning in a more accurate context. This happens naturally – a shift to observing mode – when we see or hear, for instance, a distinct change in what might be considered the usual demeanor of the instructor, or when a few students ask very similar questions that clearly convey strong involvement in the material, or perhaps, instead, a need to clarify something that's confusing them. These breaks, if we can call them such, are noticeable, and depending on the situation we might interpret them with ease, or at least make the attempt. But the more subtle happenings in the classroom are what we also need to be looking for. They reveal the less than obvious and that which is equally, if not more, consequential. For those wanting to decipher the true tenor of the educational experience at hand, subtleties provide many of the hints. In observant mode students can notice their own emotional cues. And if they felt something – agreement, disagreement, sympathy, curiosity, insecurity or confidence, etc. – what is the reaction visible elsewhere around the room? What triggered the emotional response, whether it was theirs alone or everyone's – a word, a gesture, a tone, a glance, a book being closed and pushed aside, an expectation that wasn't fulfilled...?

In the classroom, I think I still have the edge. Actually, I know I do. It's easier for me, admittedly, to be the observer. I don't have the same responsibilities that come with the roles of being a student or educator. My mission is a different one and I take it seriously. And observing is my craft. While documenting educational situations, I'm always observing and constantly on the lookout for what's going on – and I do try, in tandem, to partake of some of the learning, to pay attention, even while working, and gain something. At times I wish I could put down the camera and just listen in (on select occasions I do more – I chime in, asking a question or perhaps contributing something that I think is relevant and helpful).

There are many facets to observing with the camera, and people do approach me, if they've seen me working (meaning: how I work), to ask about the process. They're often curious, sometimes quite intrigued (in a school, they might ask me after class or later when meeting in a hallway, “I saw you were photographing that.... What did you find interesting? Or even, “What did you find so interesting about...” whatever they saw me spending extensive time on).

I'll clarify that documenting with the camera is not always about working with precisely what is set out before me. Any good photographer can extract from a given situation meaningful visual statements. But at times, we, the image makers, need to arrange a stronger message. This can take the shape of moving a chair, pushing away a distracting element, or bringing a pen into view and placing it strategically on a half-written lined page in an open notebook, where it can symbolize learning activity. In some cases I am crafting the shots from basic ingredients provided me. I have asked students to repeat actions that I missed or that need to happen in a more visually-articulate manner to win the day. I remember the two female students at Ben Gurion University ( who were sauntering along an outside pathway on the campus. I noticed them and wanted that shot, so I had them backtrack a drop and repeat their walk a number of times, probably four or five, as I photographed from a low angle, before thanking them and “freeing” them to go on their way.

Photographers photograph a range of perspectives. Included are the wide shots to familiarize and allow entree to the landscape we're portraying, or to capture a scene as it unfolds over a larger area. But we also like to get close, to enable the viewers to almost touch something in the picture. It might be a blackboard or the modern equivalent. Up close I can feel the chalk ( or the marker as it touches the board, feel the presence of the instructor, feel the lesson. Close makes it all more real. I can focus the viewer's attention on a face, that of the active teacher up front, or a close-up of the inquisitiveness of the students, the concentration, or the symmetry of reaction – when including a number of faces ( – that strengthens the feeling and message imparted by the photo.

When observing I look for peak action – the one or two frames when a story is told with fullness. In real life, or in film – which comprised of a progression of rapid frames approximates real life – we partake of an extended scene and gain the gist of what's happening. In photography we have to distill it down to one image that says it all – not everything, necessarily, about the entire story being witnessed, but a complete narrative thought. Peak action is when the gesture or expression is right, when the elements in the scene come together, and when there's some feeling of action or movement, because captured action, by making things more real, more visceral, engages the viewer and suggests a before and after (all stories have a beginning, middle, and end).

I want the viewer when they see the photographs I've taken to feel as if they're there – in the back of the room, or maybe up front, or maybe moving around. As I've mentioned, I am putting people in the room, introducing them to the characters in the story, their individuality and humanity – a word we as, journalistic photographers, tend to use a lot. I get close physically and emotionally. I let the viewer eavesdrop, bring them somewhere they haven't ever been, or back to a place they might have been to in the past, even the immediate past.

In an afternoon biology class (, during one three-day assignment at a day school in Southern California, I assembled a group of boys and asked the science teacher to show them the skeletal model that was waiting there as a perfect prop. The actors were willing. The teacher held the arm of the skeleton and I directed, encouraging proper focus of attention from the students and waiting for levels of interaction between them and the instructor, who was talking about anatomy. For about five minutes a real lesson ensued, even if initiated in a somewhat contrived manner. In another science class, this time chemistry at a day school in NJ (, I also recreated a story that happens in the classroom, but that wasn't going to transpire on its own at the time I was there. Students, as my actors, were provided. They came into the room and I set up my equipment to obtain a higher-up view of their lab experiment, focusing my lights to illuminate this beautiful plume of white thick steam that shot up high. They were involved and it was real. We repeated a few times and then I packed up.

Fortunate are we as photographers when we can find nice props in the room to work with, or bring them in and make them fit seamlessly. They allow more of the story to be told. The entire image becomes more visually-stimulating and the people portrayed become more interesting, more dimensional, more informative. I also get to be more creative in terms of compositional choices when I have objects to work with. At the end of a day of photographing researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, I asked one woman to hold a plastic tank container with fish specimens higher than she might usually during normal inspection. This allowed me a more dramatic image. Because of the compositional perspective I chose (, we see the outlines of the fish much better and connect with the young scientist's eyes that are looking at the fish in the small tank.

If I'm to share a few a more insights of the creative process, I'll mention that photographers also need to be thinking about what's happening at different distances in the picture. By this I mean distances from the camera position. I'll often look at my subject in front of me – the core part of the picture I'm about to make – and also try to capture or construct more happenings in the background, on a different plane, and sometimes in the foreground or to the side. The goal is to lead the viewer deeper into the picture, or bring them closer. The more that our eye moves around a photograph to absorb the information, the more time we spend looking at the picture, as we go from one place to the next and even back again to study the content... which means that the picture has more opportunity to impart its message.

I mentioned earlier about action, some sort of movement that can be shown in a still, non-moving image. Perhaps second to the face, photographers like to focus on the hands. Facial expressions aside, hands are the parts of the body that are likely to move the most in non-sport activities, so it makes sense to pay attention to them if we're looking for some action in our pictures. They can be extremely expressive, and they certainly speak.

When photographing small children – a common situation in school settings – it's important to get down to their level. I either sit opposite them or even lay on my stomach or side to look up at them, to give them stature and importance, and to remove distracting backgrounds that will no longer be visible from a very low angle. In one image of three kindergarten girls reading a book (, I am actually directly above them looking straight down at the three immersed in a children's story. A photograph I have of a slightly older girl eating a cracker ( is also taken from above, and she's looking directly at the camera, her eyes holding tight to the viewer's gaze.

Aside from those images that tell a story, or part of a story, there's always a place for some good portraits. They often won't sufficiently elaborate enough on what's going on in an activity, but they do provide connection to the people who inhabit the larger story. Portraits introduce and familiarize the viewer with the personalities (or personality types) who inhabit the other photographs that the viewer will probably be looking at.

The effort we all need to make to utilize photography to relay information doesn't cease at the creation stage. After successfully crafting photographs out in the field, there's more work to be done. There's the editing process and advanced digital-imaging computer work – but I'm referring specifically to how we present the images. We've got them, but what do we do with them now?

One component of good visual storytelling is about using multiple individual images together to make a larger statement – in accordance with the wisdom that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” A series of photographs, sequenced in a proper order, can usually convey more than a single photo can. I say “usually” and not “always,” since the medium of delivery or presentation of the images must be carefully considered (squashing 15 photos into a small print ad just to say “we showed a lot of the school” is not what I advise). For the last six years, I've been creating online slideshows of my work ( – photo essays of about 50-70 sequenced images that can grab more attention and stand a better chance of bringing the experience being depicted into the hearts and minds of the viewer. Because there's so much truth in the idea that it's not just what we present, but how we present it, the slideshow is one of the visual marketing tools (products and mediums that utilize strong visual content to enhance marketing) that I suggest my clients consider.

Many schools do a slideshow – I didn't invent this technique – but often it's homegrown material. That's fine for some everyday uses, but especially important messages require more powerful visual marketing. When I create photographic and film content for educational institutions (I've focused on the entire range, from early-childhood to graduate school) I also have discussions and consult on a visual marketing strategy for using the content effectively during the next 8-12 months. Content positioned in the context of a marketing plan simply accomplishes more and provides better investment value. There are educational institutions out there, I find, that aren't proactively thinking along these lines. They might decide “we need a new video” and then go out to secure one. They're not always contemplating enough about the lasting power of the video, nor exploring if a few “spaced” videos released at periodic intervals (which would offer a greater frequency of communication with their audience) might achieve better PR and marketing results and make it easier on both the recruitment (including staff recruitment) and fundraising effort.

Photographic or film presentations that communicate the educational experience can be used in many forms of printed material – including catalogs, brochures, newsletters, and advertising – or shown and displayed at live events. But the primary medium of sharing would likely be on the institution's website, which can be accessed anywhere and works for us round-the-clock. I think we've all seen that when we have good content in hand – things that are effective, that we can be proud of – we make it easier on ourselves in many areas, and don't have to expend as much of our limited time, energy, and money elsewhere to make the case in a convincing manner. When content is compelling, you can more easily raise a school's profile, change perceptions, and condition people to await eagerly the next installment, the next "episode" you're going to release, if you're doing a series of spaced presentations (if what we say is compelling we set an expectation level for the next communication and we establish a higher-level of desirability).

As a creative person, an artist, and a communicator, I do believe that homegrown imagery or video has a justifiable place on a school's website or, for instance, in a newsletter-type publication, when used for the regular, and more casual, “what's-happening-in-school” updates that are shared on a regular basis. But for the heavier lifting, journalistic, richly-narrative photography and film that quickly grabs attention – and keeps it! – not only edifies and entertains, it makes an institutional statement. When educational programs put forth their message in a professional and creative manner they exhibit good judgment and imply that they are vibrant, alive, growing in the right direction, and proud of their mission. They demonstrate that they know how to strut their stuff. There are multiple audiences out there eagerly waiting for the story to be told well – those most directly involved in the school (students, faculty, administration, and parents), supporters, alumni, referral sources, and the general community at large.

Photographers and filmmakers, especially those with a true penchant and grasp for the educational process, can be enlisted to help raise the bar higher. Their creative observation, inside and outside the classroom, can inspire in others an active response, by depicting for people something worthwhile... by giving the environment where teaching and learning takes place the palpability it deserves.


Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker, writer and marketing consultant. He can be reached at

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 05/03/2016 09:05AM by mlb.
Subject Author Posted

The Educational Process Observed: What More is There to See

Judah S. Harris May 03, 2016 09:03AM

Re: The Educational Process Observed: What More is There to See

Minna H. Heilpern May 03, 2016 09:08AM



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