Photography for Study Abroad: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This summer in Cadiz, Spain, I had the opportunity to teach photography to a group of 21 William & Mary student researchers, and, while it was challenging for everyone, I think we all learned a lot from the experience. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of our adventures.

Monument to the War of 1812 -- a very photographable landmark in Cadiz, Spain.

Monument to the War of 1812 — a very photographable landmark in Cadiz, Spain. Creative Commons-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user stkie.

Francie Cate-Arries, W&M professor of Hispanic studies, and I worked with a group of students doing undergraduate research projects abroad this summer, and as part of their research, their task was to add multimedia components to their projects. Most of the students decided to focus on photography as their multimedia component, although some students were working on projects that were better suited to other technologies, such as audio recording or mapping. I dealt with those non-photography projects on an individual basis, and I won’t discuss them here.

For the photography-enhanced projects, the idea was to get the students to start thinking about their research in more dynamic, visual ways that would enable them to include images that would cause their research to make a greater impact on the reader, especially if their research was posted on the Web. To accomplish this goal, we planned three components:

  1. A pre-production lesson and assignment before we left the US, in which students were asked to visualize three to five images that would ideally accompany their research papers;
  2. A field assignment in Spain, in which I would join them to actually help them conceptualize and take photos; and
  3. A post-production assignment, in which I would guide them through the image editing process.

While everything kind of worked according to plan, there were a number of challenges and unforeseen events that needed to be overcome. Below are some of my findings on what worked, what didn’t, and what I’d do differently next time.

Pre-Production: Visualizing Potential Photographs

The pre-production assignment entailed visualizing the types of photos that would accompany each student project — it was a very useful exercise. Students either sketched, described, or found other people’s actual photos that they felt would make interesting visual accompaniments to their research papers, along with a brief explanation of why each image would be an important component to their projects.

My goal here was to just get the students thinking visually and get them excited about the project. Once they were actually in the field, I knew that their actual photos would vary greatly from their pre-production visualizations, and I hoped that in most cases their visions and their options would also expand. We did this assignment as part of a one-credit prep course while still in the US, and while I think it was a good exercise, if I had it to do again, I would have spent some time with each student brainstorming some other possibilities for photos: different angles, lighting options, talking about the equipment each student would be bringing, etc. As it was, I think most of the students found this to be a useful exercise.

Production: Taking the Photographs

The production assignment was to actually take the photos. Since I couldn’t really provide DSLR cameras for 21 students to use, nor did I think it would have been possible to teach photography novices how to use high-end cameras, I decided to make a virtue of necessity and our goal would be to make each student the best photographer they could be with the equipment each of them had. In some cases, that meant an iPhone, in other cases, it meant a very fancy DSLR. No matter what equipment the students brought, none of them knew how to make the best use of their equipment when we started, so I just made the goal of my instruction to get them to do the best that they could do in their individual circumstances, and their goal would be to produce images that enhanced their research.

An image of the cathedral in Granada, Spain, from Flickr user trioptikmal.

An image of the picturesque cathedral in Granada, Spain — Creative Commons-licensed image from Flickr user trioptikmal.

The first thing I did was to accompany the students on a sightseeing trip to Granada so that I could talk to them generally about photography in a very picturesque setting and then give each of them individual help while in the field (and in a neutral environment, since the images we took in Granada were, for the most part, tourism photos, not research photos).

I kept the general advice really simple, just basic concepts about paying attention to lighting and composition, but then I spent time with each student for individual assistance. I found that this initial sightseeing trip was a really great opportunity to bond with the students in a more relaxed atmosphere while still giving them some important guidance on their photography skills and their projects, and it also set the stage for our return to Cadiz, where the real work would begin.

In Cadiz, I started meeting with the students one-on-one to talk about their individual projects and give them guidance on their upcoming work and feedback on photos they had already taken. The constant challenge in Cadiz was always unreliable or non-existent Internet. The university had wireless Internet but it was incredibly spotty, and it made our work much more challenging. There was fairly reliable wifi on one of the main plazas in Cadiz, Plaza Mina, and while it wasn’t the most convenient thing to haul all of my equipment across town and work outside at the mercy of the elements, there weren’t really any other options, especially since I had no Internet in the apartment I was renting. Next time, I will make sure to rent an apartment with reliable Internet. Not renting an apartment with wifi was probably the biggest mistake I made on the trip.

Besides the one-on-one meetings, I also offered several walking photo workshops in Cadiz, where I would just walk with the students and help them get the shots they needed for their projects. This would have worked better if any of the students took me up on the offer of these walking tours, but given the choice between an evening photography tour and hanging out at a local tapas bar with friends, I can’t really blame them for not turning out for the extra photography help.

Post-Production

Post-production just involved the students using Picasa (my favorite free photo organizing and editing software) to edit and prepare their photos for use in their projects and embed those images in a Word document. I also gave the students the opportunity to use any of the photos that I took while I was with them in Spain, provided that they take the raw images I took and edit the photos for publication themselves. Most of this editing took place after I had returned to the US, but I created a video tutorial for the students to help them conceptualize the editing process:

Conclusion

Helping students produce technology-enhanced research projects is a challenge even at home. Doing it while in a foreign country makes things twice as challenging, but it can also be twice as rewarding. For me, the key to a successful technology-enhanced research project (from the technology perspective) is to prepare like crazy before you travel but to keep it simple while abroad. Meet the students at their level of comfort with the technology and understand that small improvements in their skills are still important. And above all, have fun.

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College

Comments

  1. George Greenia says:

    Great work, Mike! I teach in Spain too and so often we walk past something once in a long trip and you struggle to remember exactly what you saw … and argue about with others later on what it was … or wearily tell students “How could you miss that astonishing statue of…”. It also solves a lot of permissions issues, especially in libraries and archives where it’s easiest to grab a shot of a catalog page or medieval manuscript and do the time-consuming work of transcribing later on. Thanks in particular for helpful video on editing photos in Picasa! George Greenia, MLL