When the challenges of teaching photojournalism in this age of accelerating change leave me unsettled, I seek inspiration in the story of an enigmatic teacher who has charmed me since childhood. Although I know this teacher only as an ephemeral figure in family reminiscences about my Italian grandfather, I am in equal measure curious about and deeply grateful to him.

As a boy, my grandfather Donato De Cesare never was able to attend formal school. He worked shining shoes on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Papa had natural artistic talent. He amused himself between customers by drawing on the surface of the street with chalk. One morning an art teacher who had been admiring papa’s handiwork for weeks approached with an offer of classes in his studio. Papa was thrilled but my great-grandfather wouldn’t hear of it. The teacher pleaded, offering his instruction without charge but to no avail. “Art is for people who don’t have to work” was my great-grandfather’s final retort.

Today some might say that photojournalism is for people who don’t have to work. The crisis in our industry has resulted in layoffs and in a “voluntary” exodus among freelancers as many find that they can no longer sustain a living from reporting news. It is challenging to face a classroom of worried students confronting a job market that is shrinking even as it becomes more technologically demanding.

I’ve never viewed teaching as being constricted by notions of vocational or professional training, but that is also a part of what we who teach photography in journalism programs do. The unpredictability of the present and the fast pace of change makes learning the history of photojournalism seem less relevant as a road map to many of my students. More commonly, many students now think that what they need most is more Photoshop or Final Cut Pro tech classes instead. And they face tremendous self-doubt. Contemplating a career as a photojournalist may take an even greater leap of faith than when I was their age.

And this is precisely where my grandfather’s art teacher comes in. Although papa never formally studied art or made money as an artist, he continued to draw all his life. He cherished forever the gift of that teacher’s interest and belief in his talent. Although good teaching is a vastly more complicated business than validating student self-confidence, that art teacher broadened my grandfather’s intellectual horizons and the way he saw both his role and the role of art in the world.

Understanding Why

“Failing to Harness the Web’s Visual Promise”
– Fred Ritchin
The stakes in the changes that photojournalists are confronting are about much more than learning software or choosing equipment, which is where so much of the conversation among photographers takes place. As Fred Ritchin so compellingly points out in his book “After Photography,” a paradigm shift has brought significant new ethical challenges as well as new relational possibilities among narrative elements and between photographer and protagonist or photographer and audience.

While how we finance and sustain our work is not a trivial question, I’d argue that this challenge is in many ways a healthy continuation of the dilemma photographers have always faced.

Perhaps this is why on the first day of each class, I show students a documentary film about one-time Life magazine photographer Hansel Mieth. Many have never heard of Mieth, despite the fact that for many years along with Margaret Bourke-White, she was one of only two female staff photographers. Mieth’s humor, her passionate commitment, and her authenticity and courage come through in filmmaker Nancy Schiesari’s portrayal and interviews. Many of my students are unfamiliar with the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings but after watching “Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer” they leave with a deepened context for understanding the ethical challenges and consequences that some journalists have faced in protecting their sources.

Choosing exemplary work from the canon of photojournalism to illustrate concepts, as well as modeling through my own creative work and engagement, forms one pillar of my teaching. The other is giving students opportunities for practice that open the way to their own discovery process.

If all we do is teach them to adapt new tools and modified TV formulas to computers, we miss the point. I want my students to be engaged not just about making a product—the three-minute video or audio slideshow they’ll submit to the College Photographer of the Year contest—but in thinking critically about the process and aesthetic choices. Even more urgent is the need to convey to them an understanding about why they are setting out to do this work and what else they can do with the skills they acquire.

Four Stories

I use the evolution of my documentary work on gangs to model some of these points to my students. Nearly 20 years ago—when I began exploring the aftermath of war in the barrios of Los Angeles—I realized that gangs were filling a vacuum in the lives of immigrant youths from war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala. Over time and with the support of several different grants, I documented the spread of U.S. gangs to post-war Central America. These photographs garnered awards and I wrote about this project in the Fall 2006 issue of Nieman Reports in the story, “Documenting Migration’s Revolving Door.

“‘Destiny’s Children’: A Legacy of War and Gangs”
– Donna De Cesare
Over time, I became convinced that the core of the story’s power resided in the unfolding life circumstances and choices of several of those gang members. I settled on four stories told through the experiences of individuals whose life circumstances and decisions highlight the critical issues of poverty, trauma, human rights, and criminal justice. And I created an online bilingual project, “Destiny’s Children,” to be the vehicle for my visual storytelling. This project has been a long time in gestation, and that’s had advantages for me. It’s allowed my thinking to evolve and enabled me to consider my role not only as a photographer but also as a historian and teacher whose aim is to remain relevant to and sensitive toward audiences in different cultural contexts. As I’ve worked on this project over time, it’s filled me with excitement about new possibilities for connection and activism on the Web and in the barrios alike.

There is a pressing need to figure out new economic sustainability models for documentary photojournalism. But my students should feel encouraged. The paradigm shift we’re experiencing means that all of us, simultaneously and together, are teachers and learners. And there is no finer classroom than the Web, which presents photojournalists with a multitude of ways to pursue purposeful collaborative work. Sometimes paths offered can seem daunting to head down. But as I discovered in my project, while the journey might be long, much is learned along the way and the destination can be both personally rewarding and broadly worthwhile.

Donna De Cesare teaches photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Her photo essay “Forming Connection, Finding Comfort” appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Nieman Reports.

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