THROUGH OUR EYES. PHOTOGRAPHY EDUCATION GIVES TEENS A VOICE
by Sheung Yiu



Set up of the exhibition Photo Matters: Book and Print Festival. Students of Through Our Eyes Photography Education Programme at Hong Kong Baptist University


Part of the works of students

On the cover of Lo Sze-Yan's photo book is a four metal photo mounting corners. Yet, there are no photos inside. «It is about emptiness» the secondary four participants told me. The corners also resemble a Chinese quotation mark, yet there are no words inside. «And other feelings that can’t be explained in words». 

 
© Lo Sze Yan Book

This, along with the dozens handmade photo books are the works of the student of the Through Our Eyes (TOE) Photography Education programme, one of the few photography-centric visual arts education programme in Hong Kong. Inside Lo’s book are photos of daily scenes at her apartment, where she spent most of her waking time outside of schools. These are photographs taken under the theme of ‘my favourite place’. Top shot of homemade food, casual snap of a corner of her home, cable wires hidden in the gaps between furniture, and the back of her father cooking — the only human appearance in the whole photo book. In fact, it is the only portrait in the entire class.


Law Pui Ying paste her work in untoiceable corners in the gallery


Close-up of the photos by Law Pui Ying


Law Pui Ying created her favourite place

Her classmate’s, Law Pui Ying, put her work on unnoticeable corners, her photographs are hidden in unnoticeable corners and the accompanying quote cut-out is subtly put on the stair wall connecting the two exhibition halls. «She wants it to be a hide-and-seek for the audience» Doreen Chan, her workshop instructor said while pointing at the quote on the handrail. When she asked her students to photograph their favourite place for the final assignment, Law said that she had not one. She told Law to create her own. The result is a series of eerie multiple exposures of walls and open spaces. Some are blurred night landscapes. Walls and windows are major motifs of student’s work. Most photographs are taken at night or at home. Their photographs are unanimously claustrophobia-inducing, one can never tell whether the tightness of the composition is a cognizant artistic expression or just an honest depiction of their living space.

During the waves of student suicide in Hong Kong, Doreen posted one of Law’s work online. Above the double exposure of street lamps and empty night garden, she wrote: One of my student almost cried during my class. I asked student to photograph under the theme of ‘my favourite place’. Not one student has taken a single photo of human interaction. What happened to them?


A facebook post of Doreen Chan surprised at the absence of human in student's photo

The question was omnipresent in the mind of Hong Kong adults earlier this year. Since the new school year began in September 2015, dozens of school kids have committed suicide. The suicidal trend had grasped the public attention when a medical student from Chinese University of Hong Kong, 20, jumped to her death — the fifth case since the start of the academic year. The trend reached a peak in early March when 4 students committed suicide within 5 days.

Government officials were quick to set up an anti-suicide council. The secretary of Education Bureau proposed a HKD$5000 (around Euro550) subsidy to each school for relief programmes and soon PSA commercials were playing all over TV. The TV spot features an amputee artist and a divorcee speaking into the camera "You can make it through if I can". These efforts were criticised for throwing money at the problem and belittling students’ suicidal thoughts. There were discussions about academic pressure on social media, many have pointed out the competitiveness of the local education system and the prevalence of overtime learning. Yet, one voice seems to be missing in the discussion about teenage suicide — Nobody asked what the teens wants.

 
Ko Wai Yi Book

«When Doreen gave us the assignment ‘my favourite place', I realised that everyday I split my time between school and home» Doreen’s student Ko Wai-Yi told me. «I didn’t have time to go outside. There is a lot of homework to do». Her photo book is about a lack of space and a desire to escape. The last page has a black and white photo of her holding a ring in front of the bedroom’s window. She said she wanted to finish the story with her finally leaving her bedroom. Home is a popular motif among students for a more practical reason – it is a easy shooting location for a teen at 11pm. Doreen is used to receiving text messages from her student after 11pm for comments on their art projects, a time when they finished all their schoolwork and finally have free time to think about art. In 2013, Hong Kong is the third largest art market by auction sales. Yet, despite the insatiable demand for art, visual art is very much marginalised in the education system. Most students under the TOE programme chose visual art as their elective subject in their high school, but when there are time clashes between art and major subjects, TOE class has to make ways. Often times, students have to leave the workshop early to attend tests or English lessons. «One class teacher tore the application form in half after seeing that a student chose to major in visual art» the programme director Wong Suk-ki said. «She made the student refill the form». It is hard to imagine what aspiring visual art students has to go through in a pragmatist education system.


Coming to the eleventh year of the programme, Wong decided to move away from the conventional photo-in-the-frame exhibition and instead ask student to produce photobook. While it is an obvious response to the digitisation of images, it allows student to widen their experience with photography. Wong emphasized that students are ‘image-maker’ making ‘image-based’ artwork. With that philosophy, TOE engages multi-disciplinary artists from different backgrounds as instructors. Sculptor Brandon Chan incorporates photography into his wood sculptures. The artists carved the year of tree being cut down onto each piece. Audience can follow instructions, go online and look at a photo of each tree before its grim fate. There are many examples in the exhibition that showed students soaked in the influence from their instructors. Many incorporates coloured papers, mirror and even lights into their work. The whole show is a reminder that photography has evolved from its image-centric definition.


Tang Cheuk Han incorporates lights into her photo book

Many TOE students study visual arts in their schools. Schools in Hong Kong are often ill-equipped for visual education. Most does not have darkrooms or standard photo facilities. On top of that, students have different levels of visual literacy. Organising a photography reachout programme is challenging to say the least. TOE focuses less on the technical side of photography, instead workshops teach a way of seeing and how to translate it into a piece of graphic art. This opens up other possibilities such as lensless photography, found images, and many concepts of contemporary photography. Wong said the programme emphasizes on experiential education that inspires curiosity. «It gives students initiative to continue exploring the medium long after they finish the workshops» Wong said. The philosophy is well communicated among artist-instructors during the intensive training session in the summer, during which the artists developed their own lesson plans.

Doreen Chan, a local visual artist working predominantly in photography, is one of the ten artists-instructors of the programme. She is also a second-timer instructor of TOE. Visualisation of five senses is the key underlying theme of her syllabus. She is not too concerned about teaching students the how-tos of photography, but the ability to observe. «With only few months time, what can I teach that will be useful to their career?» she thought to herself when planning her lessons. She decided to increase their ‘sensitivity’ to their surroundings, a creative process that is not only crucial to being an artist but an invaluable life skill. «Art began with living» she added.


On one field trip to supermarket, student were asked pick ingredients, meticulously deconstruct them into components and later arrange food into art pieces.

Her class composed of two parts. Much of the lesson’s time is dedicated to working on perception and self-discovery. Through a series of exercise and field trips, Doreen cultivated an awareness to external stimuli and later methodologies to translate their experience into image-making. On one field trip to supermarket, student were asked pick ingredients, meticulously deconstruct them into components and later arrange food into art pieces. Before students go out and practice photography, Doreen asked students to talk about their favourite things, from irresistible food to instagram account they adored, and studies their visual significance. She believed this is crucial especially for teenagers to express their love and hate, to understand they have the freedom to choose what to look at give them a sense of agency. The theme ‘my favourite place’ spun out of this exercises. Doreen was surprised to see the variety of work student produced. The unanimous absence of adult in their favourite place prompts questions about the adult’s relationship with the city’s teens. Little did they know, the photos have lent the youngsters a voice, subtle as it may be, a much needed channel to vent their inner melancholy nonetheless.

TOE also granted students a rare opportunity to show their work to an international panels of publishers and professionals practitioners, including Chief Editor of Voice of Photography Lee Wei-I and renowned Chinese photo journal Jiazazhi founder Yan You. Wong Suk-ki said students felt, for the first time, that their art are being taken seriously, and that art can be a plausible career. «Seeing professionals that are making it in the real world is reassuring to students. Many of them are discouraged by teachers and parents from pursuing a creative career». One more thing that set TOE apart from other similar programmes in Hong Kong is their advance course. The class, organised by KAITAK, Centre for Research and Development in Visual Arts allows TOE alum to continue their art education, as many times as they want to. One particular student enrolled for eight consecutive years, studying visual art extracurricularly even after graduating from secondary school. This allows TOE to do follow-ups and continue cultivating photography talents.

Work of Advance class student_李展翹

Flipping through Kwok Sin Ting’s photo book, I sensed a change in tone, the melancholic black-and-white claustrophobic household scenes are surrounded by bright-coloured scribbles. I asked if this was an intentional and thought-out narrative. She denied and said «I just felt things weren’t that bad at the end of making this photo book». 

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