Documenting Dreams

November 30, 2006
Lens on life: grouped around such themes as dreams, Durham children used photography to share personal experiences

Lens on life: grouped around such themes as dreams, Durham children used photography to share personal experiences. India Hayes 1999

Photographer Wendy Ewald first came to Duke in 1989 to lead a two-week photography workshop for local schoolchildren, sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies. A year later, with encouragement from Durham Public School administrators and support from CDS, Ewald started the center's Literacy Through Photography (LTP) program in the Durham schools. The program, which is based on her own unusual approach to storytelling, uses photographs as the basis of learning across the curriculum.

Following Ewald's LTP method, students begin with self-portraits and then move to photographs of their families, communities, and dreams or fantasies, starting with the self and moving out to wider and wider circles of experience. As she worked with Durham schoolchildren, Ewald began to observe how photography and writing complement and stimulate one another. She noted that while many of the students had trouble writing, when they worked from a photograph that had ties to their own lives, especially a picture they had taken themselves, they were able to write more and with greater ease as they articulated their own experiences.

This fall, an exhibition titled "Who Am I? A Decade of Literacy Through Photography in Durham 1990-2000," featuring works by students from more than twenty schools, opened at Meredith College in Raleigh.

The "Family" section of the exhibit included photographs of a mother watching her daughter practice piano, a woman holding a string of fresh-caught fish, and a gravesite marked with a floral arrangement that reads "Mom." In the exhibit's "Community" section, images include a desolate street; two children on a bicycle riding out of the woods; and the inside of a church, packed with people with their arms raised high.

"Dreams" take the shape of a boy stretched out on his bed reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, a framed school picture next to a Hillside High School diploma, and a snake wrapped around the arm of a young girl.

"Literacy Through Photography students in Durham have explored important questions through their photography and writing during the past decade," says Lisa Lord, a teacher at Club Boulevard Elementary School and one of the exhibit's seven teacher-curators. "The exhibit beckons the community to consider, ‘Who am I?' Come, look with the children who photographed and wrote, with the teachers who selected and arranged the show, with your heart."