“It was once I realized it isn’t what you see with your eyes, but that it is what your camera sees…that it went from a documenting tool to an art form.” – Matthew Hamer
Each year my new children are fascinated by my camera, unsurprisingly: it is bulky, heavy, and makes lots of interesting sounds and movements. I have historically explored basics of photography as a tool with preschoolers, and am in unchartered waters doing so now with toddlers. I wasn’t confident they could even hold the camera and click the shutter button – but I have quickly been proven wrong about their abilities.
At first, the camera usage was experimenting with the mechanics of the camera. They didn’t move the camera itself very much but rather focused on how to even just hold the camera, which buttons do what, and how to use the viewfinder. Most of the photos looked like above. I was put in my place when I directed O, “You have to point at what you want to take a photo of before you click the button.” only to see O put the camera down, point with his finger at his friend T, and then pick the camera back up and click the button.
Clearly, I needed help in figuring out how to scaffold camera usage with toddlers.
“(When I was younger) it was just the action of seeing through a viewfinder and thinking, that is going to turn into something.”
In the coming days I observed children using pretend cameras, and loose parts in place of cameras, to pretend to be taking photos. Some children were satisfied with this – others were missing the actual photo-taking aspect. Pretending wasn’t enough.
H asked to use my camera while I was using it to document. I said, “You can’t use it right now because I am using it. You can use it when I am finished.” H asked to use it again so I elaborated, “I take photos to remember what I see so I can document what I saw later. So I can’t give you the camera right now because I am taking photos of what A is doing.”
Later that day I was taking photos of C using a keyboard as a piano and H approached me and said, “Can I help you?” I handed him the camera and he worked on taking a photo of C, as I had been doing.
This made me wonder: what is a camera to these toddlers? Is it a tool? Is it an interesting thing to figure out? When does taking photos become an art form?
“There is no lens that looks as real as real life, even through the viewfinder.”
While photography has always been interesting to me, I am far from a professional. I sought outside help to assist me in reflecting on what the toddlers were thinking. Matthew Hamer is a local photographer and filmmaker who agreed to answer some questions and ponder how to scaffold this experience further.
Knowing that toddlers are experts at developing a relationship to materials I chose to focus the interview on Hamer’s own relationship development to cameras and photography. As he described his starting place with photography, it easily could have been a description of what I see children do when they first start: they focus more on places and things than people and they take as many photos as they can – not really thinking about how to alter the photos in various ways.
“At first it was about the experience and not the product.”
I asked Matthew if there was one moment that changed photography from a tool to an art form. He described the introduction of filters:
“I remember discovering the sketch filter and thinking, ‘What would look good in this filter?’ It was the first time I saw the camera as a way to create art as opposed to just documenting what I saw with my eyes.”
I used what I learned from Hamer to change how I spoke to the toddlers about taking photos. I started saying things such as, “What can your camera see when you hold it that way?” or “You can see that building but can the camera?” as a way to build upon the idea that they aren’t going to capture what they see, but rather what the camera can ‘see’.
Matthew also named the inability to take unlimited photos as a motivator: “It wasn’t digital, it took effort to see what images you got.”
Building on this, I explained that the camera can only hold so many photos – so before we take a photo, we should stop and think about what we want to capture first.
T (while holding the camera): “I am thinking.”
O: “What are you going to take a photo of, T?”
T: “I take a picture of O!”
I also chose to put more trust in what they could handle, in regards to the mechanics of the camera. The lens is 50mm, which means you can’t get very close to something before it can’t focus anymore and won’t take a photo. I described this in simpler terms to the children. I had them listen to the sound of the lens twisting and turning, trying to focus. I said, “Do you hear how much noise it is making? It is turning left and right and left and right – but it can’t focus because it is too close. It is saying, ‘Backup please!'”
Later as A was taking photos I heard him say, “Oh, I am too close.” before backing up and trying again.
A took the photo above after trying different ways to hold the camera to get a better grip. He walked closer, then further, then closer again – all while looking through the viewfinder. Eventually, he took the photo – just the one. He turned around smiling and said, “I took photo of that tall house.”
We plan on posting the children’s photos in a section of the room for them to see and build upon this week. I also am planning on taking Matthew Hamer’s suggestion of adding binoculars to the classroom to see how they use them in comparison to the cameras. I am curious to see how altering my language and intention during exchanged about taking photos will alter how the children use the tool. I hope to keep Hamer in our back pocket as an “expert” on this curricular thread.
This experience has shown me yet again the value in reaching out to those outside of our immediate community to think deeply about children. Shoutout to Matthew Hamer for his thoughtful answers, beautiful photography, and reflective thinking. Check out some more of his work at www.matthewhamer.net!