The Language of Light

The Children's Photographic Collective at Andrews Elementary

There's a slide projector beaming an image onto the white screen in Patricia Nuñez's third-grade classroom at Andrews Elementary. There are two kids in this image: two little boys standing on the asphalt near the school's playground, their eyes covered by oversized safety goggles. These two kids (now sans goggles), and maybe a dozen others, are in the classroom, checking out the screened image, passing around photographs, talking excitedly. Over to one side, temporarily waylaid by a badly twisted ankle but very much present, sits their teacher, Ms. Nuñez. Near her stands Christa Blackwood, director of the Children's Photographic Collective, the group of which this class is one of several subsets. It's Friday. Every Friday during the past three years, the CPC has held workshops in which the participating kids get hands-on photographic experience.

"Xavier," says Nuñez, "tell us about this picture, what you liked about it."

The class' hubbub subsides. A boy -- one of the two pictured on the screen -- smiles shyly, looking at his classmates, checking out the stranger with the tape recorder. "I liked that I came out there with my friend Hugo," he says, "and that we had those glasses that made us look like mad scientists. Like ... cientifico muertos, como zombies," he adds in Spanish, leaving this monolinguist at a brief loss.

"Dead zombie scientists," supplies Nuñez.

Xavier grins, nodding. "You can't see the black of our eyes, because light is reflecting on the glasses. We're dead zombie scientists!"

Scientists -- live, non-zombie ones, at least -- tell us that vision is merely a matter of light stimulating the rods and cones of our eyes, and our brains then translating those stimuli toward correspondent meaning. The vision I'm getting, here in Ms. Nuñez's classroom at Andrews, is of happily involved kids.

"They love it," says Nuñez. "They take the photos, they're in the photos, they learn how to use the cameras. And it's not just photography. It's using photography to tell stories and to explore their lives. So often we have this idea of how kids' lives are, we think we know what it's like. But here they're taking the photos -- the families get involved, they're all using cameras, we go off-campus to different sites to illustrate their stories or dreams with photographs -- and we get a better idea of the kids' perspectives. Of what their lives are like to them."

And the kids themselves, is that why they're excited by the technology? I put this question to the small group of children gathered around the teacher. The kids grin and look at each other, shrugging shoulders, giggling, looking away.

"They're kind of shy, sometimes," says Nuñez. "You can tell him in Spanish, if you want," she encourages them. "I'll translate for you." We wait, expectant. More giggles, more shrugging. Whispers in Spanish, in English.

"Well," I ask, trying to put it drastically enough to provoke a response, "What would be more fun for you guys? To take photographs and work with the cameras or to do math homework?"

A flurry of giggles erupts.

"But there's math in the photography, too," one little girl says seriously.

"Yes, Daisy?" prompts the teacher.

"You have to use math for the pictures," says Daisy. "You have to get the numbers right on the camera."

"That's right," says Nuñez. "You have to figure out the proper apertures to use, how to set the lens."

"And how far away the people have to be," adds Daisy. "Or how close."

The CPC program -- using safe, develop-it-in-the-box film developers donated by Polaroid -- is helping bring these kids closer to organized self-expression, Nuñez tells me. The pictures are often used to add visual impact to the things they write about. Nascent paparazzo Francisco recently used the camera to illustrate his fantasy of a time "when humans were giants and little warriors would only eat chocolate." But in the future he wants to shift his focus. "I want to do pictures of everyday life," he says, grinning. "Like Diego Rivera."

Newbie shutterbug Adriana's got a series fleshing out her dream of being trapped inside a church. "I was trying and trying to get out, but the room kept stretching," she says. "It took months!" The photos imaging this dreamtime event are black and white and of that ethereal, slightly out-of-focus beauty you can often find in the fancier fashion magazines.

Christa Blackwood, who currently implements the Children's Photographic Collective through the Dougherty Arts Center's Music, Art & Performance (MAP) program, started the project in 1993 for schools in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York, a neighborhood not likely to be featured, except ironically, in even the lower-toned fashion zines. In '96, Blackwood brought the idea of the CPC with her to her new home in Austin -- which is how she winds up, now, in a classroom at Andrews Elementary, surrounded by a group of potential Avedons and Leibowitzes whose photographs are on exhibit in the Texas State Capitol Building (see below).

Daisy and Francisco and others sit by their teacher, discussing the photos on the table before them. Different images are passed from hand to hand, considered and compared. Xavier and another group of children explore the workings of the slide projector nearby. There's a hand-made book on one table, illustrating -- with drawings and photographs -- a song by local musician and versadora Lourdes Perez. There are slides and prints and posters and all manner of visual representation, there is a bright shimmer of creativity and enthusiasm in the room's chalky air, a student-generated stimulus for the eyes' rods and cones, a sort of bilingual cacophony for the ears.

They've got English and Spanish down already, these kids; they can shift from one to the other without skipping a beat and, if they choose, share the details of their lives in so many ways. And now, with the help of Blackwood and Nuñez, with equipment from corporate donors, they're learning yet another, newer language. (Does this sound too hokey to be spoken by someone other than a character from some movie about dead zombie scientists?) They're learning the language of light, these kids. end story


The work of the Children's Photographic Collective is showing at the Texas State Capitol in the North Exhibition Hall, through Sunday, May 21.

CPC's Artreach Photo Exhibition shows at the Austin Museum of Art through Sunday, August 13.

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