Photographic education for all

Jonathan Worth teaching Image copyright Jonathan Worth

"I don't think a classroom is an appropriate place to teach any more."

This is not the sort of thing you'd expect a National Teaching Fellow and award winning university lecturer to say, but Jonathan Worth has backed his words up with actions and his latest photography class has removed itself from educational institutions completely.

Instead he is using the techniques learned from running open classes to raise awareness of the muscle wasting disease Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) which is the biggest genetic killer of young boys in the world.

Image copyright David Davies / PA
Image caption Seven-year-old Jack Johnson who suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy led out the England rugby team at Twickenham against Australia during the World Cup

"When I first started to teach photography classes back in 2007 I recognised that I didn't have all of the answers and I was going to need to ask for help from the photo community," Worth said.

"At the time I was asking what a 21st century photographer was, when every smartphone user is a potential witness, photographer and publisher?"

Worth is an editorial photographer and like everyone else trying to figure out a sustainable model now the old ways of working have broken down.

"I hadn't solved those problems myself and so it became my opening gambit on university open days where I'd tell excited students and anxious parents that my job as an editorial photographer did not exist any more. Yet with an internet that is visually led, I couldn't (and still can't) think of more transferable skills than those of visual literacy and digital fluency."

Lately he has shifted from teaching people how to be photographers telling other people's stories to enabling people to tell their own stories, or as he puts it, to better participate in their own representation.

Worth remembers an image by John Stanmeyer called Signal.

He said: "It still upsets me and really embodies a lot of what I see my work being about now. You have a beautiful picture of migrants in a perilous limbo, holding mobile phones up desperately trying to get a signal in order to connect with loved ones they've left behind or who they're journeying to.

"But it takes a professional photojournalist from New York to go to Djibouti to make that image to get us to talk about it.

"The tragedy is that they're holding smart devices and some are connecting to the network - why aren't they telling their own stories? I mean how many desperate stories don't fall in front of the lens of a professional photojournalist? Well if they can't get to my class then my class has to get out to them."

Worth has followed that path, from his initial #phonar (photography and narrative) courses that I wrote about in 2012, through work with the World Press Photo Award in 2013, to the University of California's Digital Media Lab where he delivered classes in seven US cities to more than 250,000 at-risk youths.

Image copyright Jonathan Worth
Image caption During the project in the US a number of boxes of photobooks and hand-made journals were sent to cities around the country. The book project was run in partnership with the International Center of Photography.

This latest project on DMD takes this further.

"The hardest thing about the open classes was building the networked momentum which made me wonder if we could take an existing network and deploy learning assets through it. I want to make every node in that network a teacher, a learner and an activist.

"It takes the network of families currently living with DMD and invites them to drive a conversation about the representation of their young people by taking a socially inclusive photographic act, the selfie, and pointing out how it is socially exclusive for this community," he said.

"It is hard to take a selfie if you can't lift a smartphone, let alone a camera."

His desire to push photography forward shows how the two-dimensional still image can be more than a simple mute representation, and his latest project should do some good as well.

You can find out more about his latest project here.

Jonathan Worth is a Senior Research Associate at Open Lab, Newcastle University

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