As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.
Our latest classroom exercise for our core Teaching and Learning unit was to devise an object based learning exercise to be carried out by our peer groups. Amongst my interests are the politics of specific technologies, and also the ways in which information informs the way people read objects (particularly photographic images). Initially I was tempted to give my group a photographic print and ask them to respond to it, before revealing new information about the image and seeing how that information might alter their readings.
Instead I decided instead to try something a little more complex and perhaps risky, particularly given the 10 minutes we had for the exercise. Instead of a print I presented the group with one of my cameras, a FED-2 35mm rangefinder and then asked them to discuss and respond to it in several rapid fire discussions. I timed each discussion to make sure we kept to time and also kept notes on the discussion. After a few minutes I revealed a new piece of information about the camera and the discussion continued, reflecting on how this change the group’s understanding of the object. Full exercise plan follows:
Preamble: The aim of this exercise is to stimulate thinking about how new information changes ones relationship to an object and also to think about how photography is politicised by the ways it is used.
You have 3 minutes, I want to describe and discuss this object based on observation alone.
After three minutes, are some facts about this camera:
This is an updated version of the FED camera. A Russian copy of the iconic Lecia 35mm rangefinder, the FED was the first mass-produced Soviet camera, made from 1934. It’s development was the brainchild of Anton Semyonovich Makarenko, a Ukrainian educator revered in the Soviet Union but virtually unknown outside of it. The cameras were to be made by children under a innovative work-education scheme and through it Makarenko hoped to help make the Soviet Union self-sufficient in cameras. Camera production was zero in 1928, but by 1939 100,000 FEDs had been produced alone.
For the next three minutes, I want you to look again at this object and discuss it again based on this new information. How has your view of it changed, what new insight does this information give into this object, how do you feel about it?
After three minutes, here are a few more facts about this camera:
The initials FED stand for stand for Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, also known as Iron Felix, he was the head of the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB secret police. The cameras were made at the Dzerzhinsky Commune in Khrakiv, Ukraine. This was a colony for ‘the rehabilitation of youth’ who were mostly children left orphaned by the civil war and by a massive state engineered famine known as the Holodomor, which occurred between 1932 and 1933 and killed as many as seven million Ukrainians. The camp was administered by the Soviet secret police and overseen by Makarenko. It had 600 inmates by 1934. It was destroyed during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
For the last three minutes, I want you to look again at this object and discuss it again based on this new information. How has your view of it changed, what new insight does this information give into this object, how do you feel about it?
After three minutes, end of exercise.
(Source for all information: The Dzerzhinsky Commune: Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera Industry, by Oscar Fricke, published in History Of Photography, Volume 3, Number 2, April 1979)
It was very interesting to see how the group (all non-photographers) responded to each new bit of information about the camera, and how it went from a simple piece of photographic equipment, to something that was perhaps politically quite benign and even rather significant in terms pedagogy and photographic history, to finally an object that was the product of a system of state repression, indeed an object made by the children of that state’s victims. The fast pace of the exercise was useful in getting people moving and responding to the object quickly. If I had more time for the exercise I might have added some other stages, perhaps showing an image from the camera or from it’s production (like the photograph above) or asking the group to reflect on how photography was used as part of the repressive apparatus of a state like the Soviet Union. I would also have liked to allow more time for discussion and reflection because three minutes per discussion was very, very fast. More time might also make it possible to produce a visual response like a list of bullet points or a mind map as part of the exercise.