by Photography Instructor Katie Humphries
Preparing for the photography curriculum in Sri Lanka, I spent a rigorous 6 months reading about the culture, the history, the geography, and the art. I watched films. I stood in front of my classes here in NYC and pretended that none of them could speak English. I started using my hands in conversation more than I normally do. I even followed cricket– well, for about a week.
But, predictably, none of these things adequately prepared me for our first day at Mallavi Central College and my first encounter with our students there. After an indescribably bumpy and slow-going drive, we arrived over an hour late to our first day. Stepping off of the bus, I saw twenty or so students in formal school uniforms staring at us, giggling wildly, and alternating turns hiding behind one and other and the large Banyan tree in the middle of the school yard. Michael, our guide looked at me, looked at them, and then turned back to me and said, “are you ready to meet them?”.
We walked over. I let out an awkward “Vanakkam!” (hello), and then held up my hand to one mortified little boy to give him a high five (insert Michael demonstrating and explaining the concept of high fives to the children). I then gave twenty or so high fives, after quite a bit of effort to get the children to reciprocate.
I learned a great deal those first few hours. The students were mostly shy, to a degree with which I was completely unfamiliar. Their education was formal and of a variety where there is a great deal of lecturing and recitation. They were impeccably behaved, eager to please, and tended to take instruction very literally. I had difficultly getting across a certain philosophy of individuality, difficulty finding a way to encourage them to feel confident.
We took a lunch break, and I sat quietly tallying my successes and failures so far for the day: the students understand how to properly use the cameras (+); they comprehend the elements of composition (+); they tend to follow one and other and imitate each other’s photographs (-); they are mostly interested in photographing Cartwheel team members (-); they seem to be having fun (+).
After lunch, I lined up the students in a long row and asked for several volunteers to put down their cameras. I placed three of the volunteers on one end of the row and one student at the other end. I then told the class that we would be having a race and that all of the students in the row would be photographing only the section of the race that was in front of them. I told the photographers that they could sit or stand, photograph close up or at a distance, but that they could only move from front to back in the spot that they were assigned. I stood at the starting point, dropped my hands, and off the runners went in flip-flops and crisp, white shirts and pants, blazing through the school yard. I turned to see a dozen students, flashes firing and not, lenses zoomed and not, cameras over their heads and at their feet, all shrieking and cheering for their classmates. The race concluded, and I collected the cameras, sharing with the class the unique perspective of each student’s photographs. We discussed why they took a photograph when they did, how they felt when they were taking the photograph, who they rooted for, the effect of the red dust, of a slower shutter speed and movement, of the direction of the sun. And then we piled into a big group to give high fives to one and other.
I boarded the bus that evening, excited by the day, happy to have opened up the class, and having learned a new flexibility in my approach to reaching students: this is about having fun and sharing. The next afternoon, we took a field trip down a long dirt road beside the school. The students climbed into the brush and photographed leaves and plants, walked with their cameras pointing up at palms waving over the road, and gathered their friends for portraits. They took pictures, hundreds of them. And we laughed. A lot.
Heading to the second and third schools, I carried with me a new philosophy: the photography classes would no longer be just about the images or about what these images would mean later on. They would be about spirit building, camaraderie, and celebration by way of a new skill.
So that is what we did. At Pandiyankulam we cheered “photography” at the beginning and end of each class. If it wasn’t loud enough to make the rest of the campus look up, we did it again. The students created their own environmental group portrait (displayed above), each student proudly creating their own pose. Apparently, the older students in my class had even taught the small children at the school, who Cartwheel did not have the opportunity to work with, how to give high fives. When we arrived on the second day, there were thirty or so tiny children– six, seven, maybe eight years old– standing at the edge of the playground fence screaming, “High five. High five! Highhhhhh fiiiiive!!!”. It was one of the most outstanding moments that I experienced on the entire trip.
At Pooneryn School, where I worked with a group of 12 girls, we sat in a tight circle of chairs in an open-air classroom and talked, for the first three hours. What is your favorite color, and how does this color make you feel? Yellow, it makes me warm and very happy. Red, it is vibrant, and I feel excited. Green, it is the color of the fields after the rains. It makes me happy. Blue, it makes me calm because it is the color of the sea, which separates the earth from the sky. How long is your walk/ bike ride to school? Do you have brothers and sisters? What is your favorite time of day? In the afternoon, the prefects brought rolls around and the girls all offered me some of theirs. I laughed and said that I really loved the fish curry that we had been eating, and they all winced, two of them jumping out of their chairs to catch up with the prefect and get another piece of bread. After our snack, we climbed through the rubble of their old school, collapsed and peppered with bullet holes, and photographed some of remnants of their lives before the war had escalated. They made pictures of each other, the walls, the chalkboards, stray pieces of the old, thatched, palm roof. I didn’t have to take them there; they went on their own. And when they were done, they walked me over to a new building, fresh with white paint, and showed me where their technology lab was being completed.
The Cartwheel Initiative’s first project concluded with an exhibition in the capital of Colombo in December of 2011, and sixty students were chosen to travel to the south and view their own artwork on the walls of a gallery. There was a live musical performance. There were important guests, refreshments, candles, and all of the things that you would expect of an event here in NYC, except for, maybe, the high fives.
all works were created by students in the 2011 Cartwheel Photography Workshops in Sri Lanka