Jennifer Huxta

Posted by on Nov 30, 2009 in Inspired by Dan

A Meaningful Life:
Three French Students and Their Teacher Explore
How to Make a Difference Via Photograph
by Jennifer Huxta

I “met” Dan Eldon at the Photographer’s Gallery in London. I wandered into the bookstore and found The Journey Is the Destination immediately, as if by radar. Rooted to the spot, I was transformed as I stood leafing through the colourful, dynamic pages depicting Eldon’s brilliant life in Africa and his travelling adventures. Although I had never visited many of the places he loved, the book felt familiar. I recognized his need to document his life in photographs and journals, pasting it together, making it up as he went along.

As an English teacher in Parisian high schools, I now use extracts from Dan’s journal to inspire various projects which involve the topics he explored: art, photography, war, humanitarian aid, and travel. This year at Lycée Massillon, I taught 12th graders in the special section: English As A Native Language. I had three students, Maral Kerovpyan, Jean Kohler, and Léa Nelson, each of whom have an Anglophone parent. We began the course with the reading of Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, a novel about the Holocaust that explores the psychology of the survivors. We asked the following questions: What can one do in one’s life that’s important? How can small daily actions change something in the world?

Michaels gives the following example: people who looked the other way during the Holocaust when they saw an escaping refugee remained humane. “And those who gave water or bread?” she writes, ” They were raised up to the realm of angels!” To save a life simply by looking away. Not to report the escaping person. It seems so small. But the book provides other examples of how significant a small subversive act can be-sometimes a matter of life and death. The students applied this idea to their own lives and quickly realized that what they do in their daily lives IS important, and may have the power to change history.

Expanding this idea, I presented Dan Eldon’s work in The Journey Is the Destination, and we began our study of photography. I set up a darkroom and showed them how to develop film and print photographs, encouraging them to explore the world around them. We wandered in the city with our cameras, practicing with the focus, f-stop and shutter speed controls, then developing the results in the dark room. Jean and Léa showed an immediate interest in surrealism, using crazy angles and wild shapes, or manipulating the images by scratching the negative.

The students applied this idea to their own lives and quickly realized that what they do in their daily lives IS important, and may have the power to change history.

To familiarize students with the printing chemicals, one basic dark room exercise I’ve found to be effective is the photogram. Often used by Man Ray, the photogram is essentially a shadow-collage. Students choose wild or ordinary objects and arrange them on photographic paper in the enlarger. The paper is exposed to light and processed, revealing the outlines of the objects that block the light. This exercise is also perfect to explain the basic idea of printing: paper darkens when exposed to light, and areas which haven’t been exposed remain white.

Meanwhile, we studied the work of international war photojournalists featured in the documentary, Dying to Tell the Story. As an introduction to the film, I presented supplementary materials such as essays and articles written by or about the journalists. We read Christiane Amanpour’s Murrow Award acceptance speech. It was a fascinating introduction to the ongoing dialogue surrounding photojournalism because she brought up such issues as subjectivity vs. objectivity, sensationalism, a journalist’s responsibility, and simply, what makes good journalism. I asked the students to respond to a series of questions that highlighted these issues and stressed the power and responsibility of both networks and journalists.

For example, reflecting on her experience in Somalia, Amanpour mentioned that one image was replayed hypnotically and diffused all over the world, that of a US soldier being killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. She explains that the mass diffusion of this image had a tremendous impact on US foreign policy and caused the US to pull out of Somalia. Afterwards, the US government was even more hesitant to get involved in Bosnia despite the alarming news reports of genocide. Examining this speech, the students understood how the power of the press “can undermine leadership”.

I found that when we were studying the destruction caused by war, we became overwhelmed by questions of how and why it happens. Therefore, it was important that we were making a tangible thing-a photograph. The idea was to present tough subject matter to the students, but at the same time give them a skill, a way to respond to the subject matter and to do something about it.

For another project, we looked at examples of David Guttenfelder’s current work in Israel, published in the International Herald Tribune and other papers. I asked them to bring in some other photographs from current conflicts. We looked at them together and I asked them each to choose one and to write a short paragraph reacting to it and answering the following questions: What story does the photo tell? Why is it effective? Can you tell how close the photographer was to the action? How would you react if you were the photographer in this situation? Then I asked them to bring in their favorite art supplies, found objects, scraps they had collected, and I brought in additional supplies. I asked them to re-tell the story in their photograph, to guess what could’ve happened before and after the decisive moment when it was taken, and to depict it all in a collage. We spent the rest of the session and the next absorbed in collages, which the students then shared and discussed.

Finally, I asked them what they think it takes to be a good war photographer. This activity places them in the moment of the photograph, and, by asking the student to imagine him/herself as the photographer, it seeks to get beyond our desensitization regarding devastating images. Also, the fact that these events are happening presently, not in a distant past, gives the activity more impact.

We looked at some groups of photographs in The Journey Is the Destination, such as those for Deziree Safaris and the ones from Dan’s trip to South Africa. I asked the students to create a photo essay, a series of photographs with a message or purpose. We brainstormed ideas. I told them they could “play the journalist” and investigate something or simply show us something about their lives. They set about shooting, developing, printing the photographs and displaying them. They all chose to represent something important and close to them about which they wrote a few words explaining the photographs.

Although we did specific projects together, I also made sure to allow a lot of time for the students to experiment in the darkroom and explore with their cameras, following their whims and ideas. I always came prepared with something to do, and equally prepared to set it aside in order to persue one of their ideas. In this way, I tried to let their interests determine the path the class would take, a path which was often exciting and unpredictable! I saw myself more as a guide than a teacher, a sounding-board for their ideas, someone to help them refine and refocus their projects. Overall, I tried to impress upon them the importance of their daily actions.

Student Photographs
from Jennifer Huxta’s photography class,
Paris, France

“I wanted to make a portrait of my sister, Shushan, that shows three different aspects of her personality. She is often serious, but can be silly and flirtatious. I had asked her to make different faces for each emotion and this is how it turned out.” –Maral Kerovpyan

“I wanted to experiment with a ruined negative, scratching it to give it a certain substance.” –L³a Nelson

“I chose to photograph my neighbor, Daniel Santos from Senegal. I have known him since I was little. He is a very close friend. His culture influences me. There are so many different cultures in my neighborhood. He told me about his life in Senegal while I took his photograph. I just wanted to represent the rich cultures I have around me.” –Jean Kohler

Excerpts from Jennifer Huxta’s Journal

While planning and teaching my class, I kept a journal. Here are some excerpts from it:

“Safari as a way of Life”-Dan Eldon. A research journal. (Scraps, convergences, whims, conversations, quotes, coherent prose and many, many digressions relating to Dan Eldon’s world.) “Find ways to make beauty necessary and necessity beautiful.” “The Time Is Always Now.”

20 August 2001 JFK Airport Gate 6
I am once again waiting for an international flight in an unwashed shirt. I’m on my way back to Paris via London after three whole weeks in the US, in the familiar, in the arms of friends and family. Margot and Christa showed me Dying to Tell the Story, a documentary about war photojournalists. Amy Eldon goes to speak with renowned journalists to talk with them about their work and also to find some peace about Dan’s violent death. -I feel as if I have been blown apart and remade in a new, stronger way. I want my life to be poised with the same combat breath, and ever-readiness. The same do or die mode. There is so much to do. Life is so full and rich, varied and multifaceted. Incomprehensible. Why do I feel so drawn to these stories?

22 August
In Dying to Tell the Story, Martin Bell spoke about “journalism of attachment”. Being emotionally, humanely (and otherwise) attached to your story. Essentially, giving a damn. Opposite of the “cowboy photographer”. What Gerda Shutte called “engaged journalism”. Christiane Amanpour said that the term “journalism of attachment” didn’t work for her because that idea doesn’t explain “what we should be doing”. She asked us to examine what objectivity means, and claimed, “Objectivity means seeking all sides of the story. But it doesn’t mean treating all sides the same.”

Dying included clips of CA’s kick-ass conversation with Clinton in 1994, live from Bosnia. She asked him why the US didn’t have a clear position on this issue. She mentioned the “flip-flops” of his side-taking, that his indecisiveness makes it hard for the world to take Clinton/USA seriously. She said it seemed the only group with a clear position in the conflict were the Bosnian Serbs, enactors of the genocide.

31 August
How much of helping others do I really do everyday? What is my life for? I want to be a writer and photographer but I don’t want to make art that eats itself, that doesn’t get beyond itself. Similarly, I don’t want to be a writer hidden in a room somewhere. I want to share what I know and teach. I want to kick it up a notch.

Don McCullin said often in a certain conflict the fighting would be getting really intense and he’d think to himself-“Is this it? What have I done with my life?” He also wrote in his book, Unreasonable Behaviour, “What’s the point of getting killed if you haven’t got the right exposure?”

Arts of the Possible, title of a book of essays by Adrienne Rich

13 January 2002
Possible activities for my class:
*Photographing What Is There-The World Around Us
Photo Essay. Here’s how it will go: We brainstorm our heads off thinking up wild ideas for a photo essay, a series of photographs that tells a story. We can do it as a group or individually. The students choose something to study, for example, the goings-on at a fish hatchery or hair-dresser’s, what happens at the carwash, a series of portraits of a friend, a day in the life of someone, the kids at a certain playground (playground as microcosm of the society in a certain neighborhood, compare the differences from playground to playground, neighborhood to neighborhood. Barb²s being as different from Trocad³ro as Harlem is from Central Park West). Whatever they think up. They just have to be fascinated with the subject. Then they play the documentarian, photograph the scene, and share their findings with the class.

*Photographing What Isn’t There-Figment, Imagination, Dream
Dreams are a rich source of images and ideas. For two weeks, I’ll ask the students to write down in their journals what they remember of their dreams. Then they will choose q dream and reconstruct the scene using masques, papier mach³, paint, etc, and photograph it. This will allow them to play the art director and CHOOSE what is included in the frame of the photograph. They can put things in the frame and work from their imaginations. This is also a great way to introduce the students to lighting. How the light hits a certain object can drastically change its appearance. Classic example: hold a flashlight under your chin and see how sinister you will look.

Sunprints. It’s another shadow-collage!
Pinhole cameras.

Objectivity, objectivity. This is also an issue in general photography. The camera is not just “an objective instrument that records reality” as it was described in the Beginning. In fact, everything depends on the photographer, how he frames the subject, the lighting, the angle. Project: I ask the students to take photographs of someone or something they find beautiful and calm and to represent that beauty and calm in the photograph. Then to reshoot the same subject, trying to make it look ugly and/or terrifying. How one can manipulate an image and change the look. In the same way that an ordinary rock can look like a bear in the woods, so one’s perception of a photographic subject can change drastically.

1 February 2002
Today in my Terminale class at Lyc³e Evariste Galois, I showed Dan’s page depicting a US marine holding a gun to a Somali’s head. I presented the journal page in order to start a basic discussion in English, but they quickly took up the slack and began talking about oppression and revolution. First, I asked them to describe what they saw on the page. They are very shy and it usually takes a few simple questions to get them going. They called out the names of the animals Dan had drawn: Gazelle! Buffalo! Elephant! Ostrich!

“Madame! How do you say ‘serpente’ in English?” “Snake.” “Yes! I see a snake. The snake is the devil!”

They soon began interpreting the images:
“The old man is the devil. The devil’s head represents the war-makers. The devil is laughing; this makes him more cruel because he is happy about all the war he made.”

“No! The old man in the drawing is God. His beard makes him seem very wise.”

Then someone read the Lenin quote: “It is true libery is precious, so precious it must be rationed.”

I asked, “How do you ration liberty? What does Lenin mean?”

Responses varied:
You ration liberty by establishing laws.
by revolution.
by controlling the flow of money.

“When do people want revolution?”
When the value of money goes down.
When there’s no work.
When people are fed up with the rules.

February 2002
Is the war photographer somehow disengaged from the subject? Can the lens allow the photographer to be detached from the horror? I don’t think so. “The real photographer looks through the lens long enough, she knows that when the eye blinks it sucks part of someone else inside it, as well as part of herself the moment she shoots.” –Cris Mazza, Exposed