Documenting the Unknown

With the last weeks of summer approaching I felt it would be appropriate to look back at this past term while we soak in the remaining warmth.

This summer I taught a documentary course to high school students in which I allowed them to create individual pieces about a topic of their choice. I have to admit I was terrified to give my students that type of freedom without the proper time for me to plan in advance needs for locations, interviews, time, subjects etc. So, as a class we would all be learning together.The first week was brutal. I allowed my own preconceived ideas of how class should go to rate the success of the work we were doing, and I rated poorly. While at Marwen I’ve only had enthusiastic classes where the students connect with one another, are talkative, and proactive in the work they are producing. The students in this class were introverted, shy, and when they worked in groups very little got done. I did not understand what to do, and read their reserved behavior as boredom. Throughout the course we watched several documentaries, ‘Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home’, ‘As I Am’ and listened to ‘Ghetto Life 101’, to name a few. I wanted my students to understand what it meant to tell a visual informative story. The students were intrigued by the films and understood the different elements required to make a documentary come to life. Still the actual process of beginning our work didn’t go smoothly. I had the students brainstorm in groups and use a journal to collect their ideas, sketches and research revolving around their topic. Being a documentary photographer myself I realized I was pushing them to talk about subjects they weren’t passionate about but that I thought would make a great piece. The moment a student wrote down ‘poverty, education, or oppression’ I jumped at the chance to make them build upon that idea. But that wasn’t the case. They wanted to discuss topics that were personal to them. Skateboarding, coffee, being a twin, creativity, dreams, violence; these were the passionate ideas coming out of my students. Accepting and realizing that, I began to show work that they could relate to such as ‘Exit Thru the Gift Shop’, ‘Sunlight: A Skateboarding Documentary’ and ‘Intel Visual Life: The Sartorialist’. There were bumps throughout the journey of this class, but I wish more than anything that I could do it over and truly appreciate the process. I did not and I’m disappointed in how I allowed myself to feel as if the class was a failure because it was small, and the students were quiet. These classes are not about me. They are about the students, and how I can best assist them and make sure they are creating work they are pleased with. Looking at the videos of my students, and their journals consisting of notes and research they collected, I am very proud of them. They created a documentary piece in 2 weeks consisting of interviews, b-roll, audio, text, research, and most importantly passion. I’ll never forget my student Vanessa. She wanted to do a documentary on violence in her community, so I encouraged her to use her phone to collect interviews from the youth she knew. At the end of the class she told me she’d never done anything like this before. Or Victoria, who did a piece about dreams and got discouraged the moment interviewees didn’t have an answer that fit what she wanted. I told her not to get discouraged but to listen to their answers and discover how to form new questions based off of their responses. She did just that during her next street interview and received such an interesting answer. Jose and Sean, two of the quietest young men you’ll ever have, but they created a humorous and moving piece about being twins that the class loved. These are the things to focus on. I am so thankful for this course; for the challenges, the students, their ideas, the successes, and the stories. I am happy class didn’t go as I planned; if it were perfect if would have been boring, I wouldn’t have grown, and my students wouldn’t have created pieces personal to them. Thank you Bridget Kevin for all of your help during this course.

Below are student documentaries from “Documentary Video Stories”

Sophia Nahli Allison About Sophia Nahli Allison
Sophia Nahli Allison is a photographer and arts educator based in Chicago. Using photography and video as a method of educating and inspiring youth, she is a teaching artist with Marwen, Street Level Youth Media, a photographer and writer for "SIFC: The Chicago Arts, Archive and Collective Project", and has worked as the photojournalism teaching artist with Step Up Women’s Network. As a visual storyteller she is dedicated to using photography to examine identity and social issues. Sophia believes art is truly an effective way to educate, empower, and evoke change. She loves sunshine, coffee, the ocean, laughter, and being around phenomenal educators and artists.

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