We gave every 5th grader a disposable camera and encouraged them to take pictures of places that mattered to them. Students returned cameras over the course of a month or more and we had the film developed in three different batches and then returned to the school with the prints and (if they had returned parent consent forms) asked students to talk about the photographs.
Students were initially very excited about the cameras, but (like the consent forms) they came back slowly. Some rolls of film had very few visible photos, so for some students getting the developed pictures back was possibly more disappointing than exciting. Some took all their pictures at dusk when they remembered that their cameras were “due” the next day, while others recorded a single outing, or favorite objects around their home, or a range of places that they went over a weekend or week. Some had forgotten what they had taken pictures of and why. Some told interesting and funny stories about their photos.
We believe that the cameras did offer young people a chance to have more autonomy in the research process (as many scholars argue), although we are not sure that all of them experienced that as meaningful. While some of the 5th grade students have cell phones with cameras, most had not used a camera with film before, and not all found the disposable cameras to be intuitive. They also made choices that suggest that they are kids. One student took 17 photos of images on his mom’s cell phone (“They are all restaurants” he said of the repeated images of a reflected flash. “I was hungry.”) The time between getting the camera and having the pictures in hand perhaps was frustrating to some students. Dr. Patterson thought that we would be able to develop the film quickly and cheaply at a big discount store, but that store has stopped developing film. The process turned out to be slower and more expensive than expected. The long waits and the degree to which some rolls of film did not turn out well, made some students less interested in talking about them.
While these problems affected the photos produced (and our ability to understand the experiences of the students who took them), the photos and interviews (sometimes) revealed the texture of the city and the settings of their lives. We have chosen to present them without commentary, aside from snippets of students’ description or explanation of the photos. We have tagged photos to reflect other meanings gleaned from interviews and to highlight patterns that we saw in interviews and photos.
Students took pictures from cars or school buses, either because they were excited to have a camera or because those trips were important or included passing places that were important to the young photographer. (We haven’t included the many pictures of headrests, but there was more than one.) Together these photos capture iconic images of city landmarks, the often individualized routes through different city neighborhoods, and remarkably placeless photos that could be of any strip mall anywhere in the country. Students took pictures of nature, including many trees, gardens, flowers, fields, clouds. Some of these were on trips, some were in students’ neighborhoods, and others were on trips to visit friends and family outside of the city. Students described these photos in terms of aesthetics and in terms of how this specific bit of nature made them feel. Multiple students felt the need to take photos of food in their homes, which provides interesting insight into their sense of place at home. Students also took pictures of homes and their neighborhoods, capturing the diversity of neighborhoods in the city and the school population and the similar and idiosyncratic places that interest them as young people with cameras.