Experts On Their Own Lives
Students use digital cameras to document their world
"When I heard that, I realized that was the key. Though the big question was 'What is America in the 21st century?' these amateur photographers were connecting with a more personal experience. Whether it was their religion, their cultural beliefs or their day-to-day lives, these people were exploring the 'big' question at a very personal level. I knew that was what the kids needed."
Pletka explains that much of today's education doesn't typically provide opportunities for students to connect their own lives with what they're learning. There's often a disconnect between the world of the classroom and the reality of life off campus.
By giving students the chance to document their lives with both pictures and words, the project offered them a rare opportunity to use photography as a learning experience in an intimate way. Each group of students was guided by a professional photographer who instructed them on the use of digital cameras and provided feedback both in person and online.
"The kids really responded to the professional photographers," says Pletka. "In some ways, this is what made the project. The photographers would use their own images to teach some aspect of photography, like the rule of thirds. Then they'd direct the kids to try it and e-mail those pictures back to them.
"The power of the project was that the kids were validated by these professionals," he continues. "Their work was not just recognized by their teachers, but also acknowledged by people outside of the community. The kids were able to see that what they were seeing and saying was important."
Sponsored by several companies, such as Apple, Epson and Nikon, the project produced photographs that reflected many aspects of the kids' lives, including friendships, studying, sports and music. It also offered insight into the obstacles that many face in receiving an education.
"One of the things that kids wrote about, though it wasn't captured as much through their photographs as it was in their essays, was violence," says Pletka. "As an adult, you take it for granted that the world is full of violence. Yet some of the kids talked about living in fear. It becomes a hurdle in education and learning because it distracts students' focus and concern, making school not as important or relevant."