(NOTE: This assignment is written for teachers, not students. Adapt accordingly if you use this.)

As Unit 4 approached, I wracked my brain for an assignment that my students would find both exciting and thought-provoking. I wanted something that pushed their critical thinking skills. During one of my graduate classes, a teacher urged us to visit Margaret Mead Art Museum’s photography exhibit, “The Pain of War,” which I did. The exhibit was incredibly powerful, stuck with me for weeks, and I realized that I had to do something with it.

I sent a proposal to the Writing Program, requesting disposable cameras for my students and money to develop film. The Writing Program granted my request, and the following assignment took shape:

Unit IV: Photo Essays

Images, I think we all agree, communicate meaning. Often, images achieve effects that written text might not necessarily produce. (The same goes for written text as opposed to image.)

In light of this, I’d like you to construct a photo essay: part writing/part visual image. Over the Thanksgiving break, it is your task to exhaust a 24-exposure disposable camera, which the Writing Program has provided each one of you. Take photographs of whatever you like: objects, people, landscapes; candid shots, composed shots; juxtapositions of the familiar and unfamiliar; series of events. Whatever you like. Think, as you photograph, of “________” (a particular reading assigned for the unit), and how you might connect the author’s ideas concerning _____ (again, this obviously depends on the particular reading) to your photos.

Your cameras, all pictures shot, are due the Monday following the break, November 29—call this your rough rough draft--at which point I’ll collect them, and the Writing Program will provide for their development. Depending on the developer, the photos will be returned either Wednesday or Friday. The first shot on the roll of film should be of your face. This is merely a way of “writing” your name on the camera, but who knows? You may choose to use this image in your final composition.

Your final composition will entail a series of photographs (at least five) combined with at least three pages of writing on that series. Your writing might include explanations of what effects you are trying to achieve with the photos, an analysis of the elements in the photos and how those elements function. It might attempt to discuss the ways the photos communicate certain things that writing cannot adequately do. It might work in concert with the photos to provide a narrative—possibly a conflicting or complementing set of narratives—for the reader/viewer. It might look at the numerous ways the photos can be interpreted. You might place photos throughout the text. You might gather them all at the beginning, or at the end. One fundamental requirement exists: the photos must do something that you think the writing cannot or does not do. You must explore an image’s ability to move beyond a mere representation of what the words already provide.

You will have to make many decisions along the way—carefully considering your purpose in the photo essay and your intended audience (and, of course, how best to achieve that purpose in relation to that audience.) In making all these decisions, I hope much will be revealed to me and revealed to you.

Before I distributed this assignment to students, I brought several photo essays (James Nachtwey, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, as well as this great series from the Republican National Convention by Peter Turnley--it appeared in Harper’s, as does another striking photo essay by Turnley, entitled “The Dispossessed: Photographs from New Orleans,” in the Nov 2005 issue) to class. We spent two classes examining these: How did they function? How did they achieve certain effects? How did the print text differ (or not) from visual images in terms of function and effect? And how did the two work together to achieve something unique?

We also considered the audience for such photographs—taking into account factors like exhibition and publication—and explored the ways audience might play into interpretation.

After the cameras and the task were in the hands of the students, they were required to visit “The Pain of War.” This exhibit is no longer easily accessible (it’s gone from the Mead), but a short viewing from the film Born into Brothels might provide another way of entering this unit. After viewing the exhibit, students met me in conferences. We talked about the exhibit and discussed plans for their own photo essays. Most of the students were overwhelmed, moved, and shaken by the exhibit—that alone made me glad I’d required it.

After break, I collected the cameras, and students spent a couple of days writing plans for the essay, discussing photos they thought would be most memorable or useful and why, and brainstorming possible captioning in their essays. For the caption exercise, I brought in examples of captioned photographs from a variety of media (from The Onion to The New York Times), and the class devised a list of functions captions might serve. Then, I handed out photographs with captions removed, and the students supplied their own, trying out a variety of techniques (humorous, informative, re-contextualizing, etc.). You might also send students searching (books, magazines, the internet) for examples of visuals that tell a story beyond the representational, where images “say” things that the text does not or where images perhaps even contradict the text. The students could then provide the raw material for a day’s class, sharing their findings, their interpretations, and soliciting student response in relation to the interaction between image, text, context, audience, and purpose.

When the students’ photos arrived, I distributed them in class, and they reflected on revisions to their writing necessitated by the photos, on different ways they might structure their essays to include the photos (now, having read the essays, I’d spend more time on this, discussing ways to incorporate the photos into the essays so that they seem truly necessary and produce maximum effect), and on how the developed photos differed from the photos they thought they took (this was funny). We moved to the final unit, in class, while the students revised and completed their essays as homework over the next few days.