Lessons In Photography

Lessons In Photography

With my laptop plugged into a borrowed digital projector I quickly scrolled through a series of photographs taken over the last 36 months of my career. Preparing a workshop for the Lussier Community Education Center in Madison, Wisconsin I made sure to pick out images that were both engaging and inspiring to meet the interests of a very critical and discerning audience. A bit heavy on animals and action shots I had sprinkled in as well more than a few ionic vistas of the National Parks from Yosemite to the Grand Canyon all the way to Denali.

The dry run of my presentation was interrupted as the darkness of the room was parted by the opening door. Entering quietly 15 minutes before the start of class the elementary program manager Brian Squire came in followed by a shy little girl.
“Sorry to bother you but Jasmine says she wants to meet the guy who’s teaching the photography class,” Brian said. “She’s still trying to decide if this something she wants to do.”

Smiling like the salesman I used to be I crouched down to the height of her eyes and extended my hand.
“It’s very nice to meet you Jasmine,” I said with sincerity. “I hope you’ll come join us today.”

With her fingers curled at the corner of her mouth she mumbled something unintelligible that dripped with skepticism. But something over my shoulder seemed to catch her attention as she stood on tip-toe for a better view. Looking behind me I could see the slide show had settled on a compelling frame. On the screen a female lion lay resting in the shade of a rocky outcropping somewhere in Africa.

Lessons in Photography from James Mills on Vimeo.
“Did you take that picture?” she asked clearly.

Nodding in the affirmative I smiled again and said, “Yes I did.”

Looking at the screen, her fingers back to her mouth, Jasmine grinned and turned with a ‘humph’ of approval and skipped out of the room. Still crouched down I looked up to meet Brian’s gaze. Our eyes shared a common thought as we said almost in unison.
“She’ll be back.”

When Brian asked me to be “Artist In Residence” at Lussier in the summer of 2015 I didn’t let the lofty title go to my head. But charged with the opportunity to share my experience as a photographer with a class of 8 and 9-year-olds I took seriously the obligation to be a role model. Even though I would likely be little more to them than a form of entertainment I think it’s important to be recognized by young people in my community as someone worth emulating.

As a non-parent, it’s not often that I spend time in the company of children. And while I advocate for the importance of getting kids into the outdoors for recreation I am seldom called upon to actually make it happen. But by showing them in the most practical sense what I do for a living it’s my hope that they might get a glimpse into a different way of life. So with 5 point-and-shot digital cameras I spent a few days demonstrating how to be photojournalist.

There wasn’t much of curriculum. Most of my efforts were focused on channeling their natural curiosity and energy toward skills they might one day put to good use. We struggled a bit with how to share the equipment without being selfish. We learned about asking permission when shooting human subjects and I showed them how to compose the image they want to see in the fame. With the cameras set to automatic I taught them the very basics of how to shoot portraits, landscapes and still-lifes.

Out in the school yard we searched out exotic plants and animals. On an urban safari we tracked squirrels as if they were elephants and nesting sparrows like soaring eagles. I coaxed them to use their imaginations and look at the world around them for its natural beauty. Through lens of each camera I encouraged them to capture what they saw in the hopes of creating a lasting memory or a vision to share with others in the future. And for a few hours in this little workshop each of these children became a photographer.

These lessons will likely amount to nothing more than a fun summertime activity. But I sincerely hope that one day Jasmine or one or two of her classmates might come back to the idea of taking pictures outdoors. Through this small exposure to photography she could perhaps realize the possibility of a lifestyle or a career worth pursuing. It’s my hope that Jasmine and other young people like her, boys and girls from my neighborhood, will grow up to love and appreciate the natural environment as much as I do, enough to fight for its protection. She might even imagine herself traveling as I did to photograph a lioness in the shade of a rocky outcropping somewhere in Africa.

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