Sinking Sensation Stirs Students to Swim

For their third assignment, my University of Miami Fall 2010 Introduction to Photojournalism students covered the 2010 Sunshine State Dancesport Competition at the Fontainebleu Hotel in Miami Beach on October 8-9. They immersed themselves in the assignment, took some calculated risks and knocked it right out of the park. Bravo!

I am passionate about visual journalism, and a passionate advocate for young visual journalists. So I spend a fair amount of time thinking about strategies I can use as an instructor that will allow my students to become better visual storytellers.

At the University of Miami, students in my CVJ-221T class, Introduction to PhotoJournalism, have confirmed that like their peers, they are voracious consumers of visual information. But the jejune visual idioms of the prevailing popular culture are ineffectual as tools of journalism. Our goal as journalists, in the words of legendary photojournalism educator Cliff Edom, is to “show truth with a camera.

My thoughts on this topic continue to evolve, but I’m pretty sure that the challenge of training young people as visual journalists breaks down something like this:

Whether one focuses on still photography or motion, journalism or advertising, the essential elements do not change – ethics, technical precision, creative use of light, thoughtful composition, the power of decisive moments and a critical awareness of ambient sound. These are the fundamentals upon which an aspiring visual journalist’s body of work is built.

Some of this is relatively easy. After all, in 1978 a gorilla made a picture of herself that was technically good enough for the cover of National Geographic.

The greater challenge involves coaxing students to commit to the fact that they are learning a new visual language and that as visual creators they are no longer privileged to experience the world as they did when they were merely visual consumers. This “metaknowledge” enables students who may be accustomed to the immediate gratification of today’s grade-inflated academy to persevere through initial critiques that can evoke reactions of “shock and awe.”

As a teacher I challenge my students to use their newfound visual language to tell increasingly complex stories. I send them off campus to report on the community around them. In doing so they learn how to purposefully and ethically observe, interpret, record and disseminate visual information – skills that are fundamental to the craft of journalism, no matter how new the media landscape.

I believe in this immersive method because after having worked 25 years as a visual journalist telling stories in the most evocative and truthful way possible, every assignment still presents new challenges and each trip into the field is a learning experience. This is true whether I am making photographs, shooting video, or gathering audio.

In the classroom I can introduce students to the basic linguistics of visual storytelling and provide guidance, but if they are to become successful visual communicators they must live the process outside the classroom, through the solitary procedure of trial and error that is at the heart of any successful creative effort. I find that as they do this, students gradually acquire a new creative language and find their own voices within it. (For more on this trial and error process, see Abraham Maslow‘s 1963 essay “The Creative Attitude.”)

The learning curve associated with this method can be steep – it requires that students be tenacious enough to step outside of their comfort zone and that as an instructor I am attentive enough to anticipate and address their frustrations – but its potential benefits over the long term are well worth the cost of delayed gratification in the short term.

Because this hands-on, immersive methodology is primarily cognitive, rather than merely technical, it empowers students to innovate and employ multiple platforms to tell stories. This, in turn, makes them better journalists.

Which takes us back to the top of this page, where my CVJ-221 students’ work is displayed. I think they’ve already come a long way since MiChiMu’s Birthday Party. If you agree give ‘em a shout out. And stay tuned for their next assignment, the 2010 Miami Carnival…

One Response to “Sinking Sensation Stirs Students to Swim”

  1. c a bird October 8, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Even given that this venue was vastly richer visually than the opening assignment, the results are astounding. I would go so far as to say that every shot in this portfilio is better than the best shot in the first one.

    This is best shown by the consistently outstanding composition, using everything in the frame to enhance the main focal point. Seeing the surroundings as well as your central object of interest is a mandatory trait for great photography.

    Another strength is the number of shots that look for the usually overlooked elements of the story (i.e. the close up of the leaping feet, the studied concentration of the make-up session.
    Well done!

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