Chris Smith and his Enthusing Young Minds project
Chris Smith’s MA journey is interesting because he has incorporated his work with children into his degree
By Christopher Osborne.
A cover of “Enthusing Young Minds” zine.
A few weeks ago we published an article on photographer Chris Smith and the work that he is doing with youth and photography in Hull, England. (see https://silvergrainclassics.com/en/2023/02/chris-smith-and-photography-in-the-community/)
Chris spent much of the interview talking about his experience studying for an MA in Photography, and I am sure that his experience will be of interest to anyone who is contemplating studying photography in an academic setting. Chris’ experience is also interesting because he has incorporated his work with children into his degree.
You may recall that Chris had shot some weddings, portraiture and charity events when he was asked about his qualifications. He sat down and talked this through with his fiancée and two days later he was enrolled on the online course at the Falmouth University’s Institute of Photography.
“The course has been both a shock and an eye opener”, explains Chris, who is just about to start the final major project for the course. “I was expecting to be immersed with good quality images and to be taught the technical mastery behind beautiful sunsets, for example. By week three or four of the course, I was feeling very uncomfortable. I found myself surrounded by blurry imperfect images and was wondering where are all of the good images”?
I explained my discomfort to my tutor Paul Clements. He asked me to look at sunsets on Instagram. “Would I remember a specific image from the millions? And what makes mine stand out?”, says Chris. “Then he asked me what my sunset was about. I found myself talking about my images in terms of camera settings. Paul pushed me to talk about story and meaning behind the image, but I realised there wasn’t one. Why had I taken it, what had I wanted to convey? This was the point that everything started to change for me”.
The Ferris Wheel at Hull Fair by Chris Smith
“We had a lecture on interdisciplinary practices. I was becoming concerned that I did not have a practice”, Chris explains. “My tutor, Gem asked about the work that I have been doing with children. I came to realise that the “Enthusing young minds” project was a collaboration that brought together a social project, chemistry and literacy elements.
“The group of children that I had been working with ranged from 5 to 17 years old. I lent each one a box brownie camera and showed them how to use them. They were sent off to make 8 images. I was warned that letting children make the images for my assignment with no objective for them to fulfil, might be a dangerous road to go down, as I had no control over the outcome. I did not need to worry. The results were outstanding. One girl took a photograph of Converse shoes on a local road. I asked if this signified walking home. ‘Nothing of the sort’ came the reply. ‘Converse is a global icon, and this road is a local icon’. Other children made surprisingly deep work. One young man photographed the local war memorial because he wants to become a soldier and he spoke of his deep respect for what soldiers do for us. I was stunned, not only by the quality of the imagery, but also the messages behind them ”, says Chris. “I helped the children to create a zine. There was a photograph on one page and handwritten text on the facing page. I wanted them to know that their work was publishable”.
Hull fair by Chris Smith
The children’s next task was to shoot eight images in response to eight questions. Things like “How do you describe yourself?” and “What is your favourite place”? “Because the children were shooting film on Box Brownie cameras, I had told them not to try taking pictures inside, Chris explains. One girl wanted to show that her bedroom was her favourite place and so she thought outside the box, taking a photograph of her bedroom window from outside the house. Another question was ‘what is your favourite day out’? Another girl made a double exposure showing a train heading to York and the train sign board that announced the train”. Chris explains that these images lead to conversations with the children about what the image meant as well as discussions around how their image-making could be stronger.
The next task that the group was set was to make images for another zine. Everyone had to shoot eight images that told a story along the lines of “do you remember when”? “Each child interpreted the task differently. Some shot one story with eight frames, while others shot eight stories”, Chris explains, this task really encouraged them to think about storytelling and visual literacy.
9 year old Jack’s response to Chris’ photographs of Hull Fair.
The photographs have been exhibited several times. “I was not expecting a great turnout”, says Chris. “I had explained to the children that exhibitions are usually slow with only a few people at a time and that is normal and not to be disheartened. However one exhibition had people waiting outside at 10 am and the doors finally shut two hours after the planned time at 6 pm. By the end of the day, approximately over 200 visitors had passed through”.
“I started thinking about ways to make my practice eco-friendly, and so I started researching anthotypes. I had the children experiment with making emulsions using beetroot, spinach, red cabbage and paprika dissolved in alcohol. Seeing the images appear after an exposure time of a few hours to several days is quite a magical experience”. Chris pauses. “The photography part of this project was a success and the children were making images at home. However, I was criticised for doing too much research for them. I was excited that some of our work was included in Malin Fabbri’s book “Anthotype Emulsions Volume 1”. (reviewed in SilvergrainClassics magazine issue 17).
Chris switched his approach to the project so that the children were doing the research and he was taking the photographs. Each child had to research a photographer/artist/genre, and Chris had to make images based on a brief that they had written. The first brief was from a nine-year-old boy, who wanted Chris to photograph his best memory of the Hull Fair. Chris made a series of images with the help of his sister. Nine year old Jack then shot his own series at night.
Another image made by 9 year old Jack in response to Chris Smith’s Hull Fair images
Other challenges were less structured. For example, one student asked Chris to take something ugly and make it beautiful in the style of Marcela Jardón.
At about this time, a local art teacher asked Chris to start working with her GCSE students. Chris found himself handling a full class with strict deadlines to meet the school curriculum. Chris has made a video to introduce himself to the students. There were 24 briefs in all and Chris had just a week to shoot them. Chris approached Meg, the oldest student in the group he’d been working with from the start of the project, and is now studying photography A-Levels. Meg agreed to help Chris in this undertaking and together they shot the images to fulfil the briefs. The students then had the opportunity to respond with images of their own shot on disposable cameras, forming a photographic conversation. Despite the limited time, every student received a response.
At the same time, Chris organised a three-week exhibition in the Hull City Centre. This included a demonstration of making anthotypes. “Many of the participants brought their prints in a few days after the demonstration and the results were stunning”, says Chris. “Seeing people become engaged and enthused is the big reward for me”.
You can read more about Chris Smith’s community work at https://www.cgsphotos.com/about-2 on the internet at Instagram at @enthusing.young.minds
Chris’ personal photography can be seen at @cgs.photos.vintage (analogue) and at @cgs.photos.digital (digital)
Images © Chris Smith 2023.
You might also be interested in this previous SilvergrainClassics article on Lukas Birk’s Kickstarter Campaign to make Instant Box Cameras more accessible https://silvergrainclassics.com/en/2023/02/instant-box-camera/
You can find an index to the entire collection of SilvergrainClassics magazines here https://silvergrainclassics.com/en/magazine/index-of-articles/