The teenage photographic challenge

We live in a world where more photographs are made than ever before.  The teenagers that I teach are part of a generation who are barely able to live without their ever-present phone and photographic device in their hand. They are totally comfortable it would to record all around them and themselves for digital sharing on one of the many social media platforms.  It is all so easy and immediate.

As an art teacher it is fantastic to have the possibility to make use of the photographic medium so easily.  Yet experience shows that successfully getting worthwhile pupil work is surprisingly difficult to achieve.  Indeed, one of the problems I feel I face is the very casualness of the way many teenagers approach photographic documentation.  It is all so easy, point and shoot, endless quantities of images can be taken at no cost at all and the device of choice (the phone camera) always being with us in a pocket or bag. This same casualness brings also a sort of complacency or at less a much-weakened critical judgement.  Few teenagers ever look at their photographs on a screen bigger than that of their phone, fewer still bother to stop and evaluate the successes or failures of a composition.

Over the years I’ve experimented with a number of photographic assignments. Some have produced the results I hoped for such as a photographic exchange project and photographic art work reconstructions, others haven’t though and have resulted in mediocre or simply disappointing results.


By David Hockney

This year’s photographic variation is a project based on the collages made by the British artist David Hockney during the 1970s and 80s. Hockney’s work used extensive sets of photographs that he had taken of various subjects, people, interiors and landscapes. These were reassembled in an overlapping fashion to document the view and made active use of distortions, disruptions and twisted perspectives that the process produced.

The resulting works are fascinating to see.  I showed my two classes of fifteen year olds a selection of Hockney’s work. I explained. They looked. Were they actually seeing and understanding what they were looking at and grasping the process? To be honest, in education I have that feeling more often. For most of them is was a completely unfamiliar way of working with a camera, but to be honest, I didn’t think that it was so complex or difficult!


A week later the pupils arrive with their own set of photographs at school. In most cases, still on their phones. There is a misconception that teenagers are technological able and literate.  In some areas maybe, but occasionally a surprise comes along… this case it seemed like more than half of the class had little idea how to get photographs off their phones and onto a desktop computer.  It seems a little symptomatic of a development I’ve noticed over last couple of years.  At the school where I teach all pupils have an iPad.  I’ve written before about how we in the art department make use of it.  There are new tools and new possibilities, but with it has undoubtedly also come a diminishing capability and familiarity with using a laptop or desktop computer.

I am digressing a little……. eventually the photographs the pupils have made are onto the computer and the creative process begins.  The room quietens, and the pupils gain that fixed gaze that comes when a computer-based activity engages them.

It is a puzzle, but a fascinating one to do.  In the end, the work is relatively quickly done.  The results in some cases are quite complex.  As always, you learn during the process, what are the extra directions that you need to give to guarantee a suitable set of photographs or maybe spend just a few more minutes looking at and analyzing Hockney’s collages in order to make sure the pupils have some insight in choosing appropriate subjects.  But overall the results are good, certainly interesting enough to have another go at it next year.


8 thoughts on “The teenage photographic challenge

  1. A few years ago, I did an activity with my art students that was very similar to your photographic art work reconstructions activity. My art students were elementary grades students. Thus we used one of Matisse’s paintings as inspiration. We painted the background on construction paper and made prompts out of various materials. then the students entered the painting and we took pictures. It was an amazing experience.
    Right now, because of my Praxis II Art Exam, I am experimenting with collage technique. Thus, thank you so much for sharing the art made by the British artist David Hockney and your own experience.
    BTW this activity is wonderful and I will definitely use it in one of my future lesson plans.

    • Glad you like it! The pupils in the documented work were mostly 15 years old, but a few years earlier a colleague did a very similar project with 12 year olds. The final results may have been a little less polished, but arguably they had more fun with the project (particularly the boys). There seemed to be a greater willingness to play and embark on the make-believe. I could well imagine that with even younger participants it could be even better!
      Good luck with your exam….the Praxis II Art Exam….that’s in the US isn’t it??

  2. I live in the U.S. but I am originally from Italy. 🙂
    I sent your post to one of my friends…she is an art teacher. She is in love with the post and she said she will try this art project soon. She is also sharing the post with the photography teacher!

    • Nice to hear……it was such an interesting little project to do. It was particularly interesting to see how the fun of doing it didn’t really strike the pupils until they were actually sitting in front of the computer piecing it together. It was like they didn’t see the creative process in Hockney’s work…..or at least, not until they tried to do it themselves,

      • A few years ago I did try doing something similar printing out the photos first and then making the arrangement. But that is a lot of printing, and a lot of wastage in the end. This time we simply imported all the photographs into Microsoft Publisher (although a single PowerPoint slide would work just as well). It is then really easy to move things about.
        When the arrangement was finished we saved it as a .pdf file and printed (the best ones!!) on A3 sheets.

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