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Life's what you make it

Anne Krisman reports on a photographic project that has transformed the way her pupils look at themselves and each other

My special school pupils learn about religion and human experience from people around them. They know that Gurnam wears a turban but that his friend Kiran chose to cut his, even though many textbooks just show us Sikhs with uncut hair. Textbook images never seem to be right for us, and they rarely show children with special needs - unless you count the images in the chapters on Suffering and Pilgrimage to Lourdes - so we decided to make our own.

All pupils were given a single-use camera to take home and told to take photos of what was special to them. The results gave us a unique glimpse into aspects of their beliefs, culture, religion and identity. As each set of photographs was developed, we realised we had something very powerful. Our pupils were recording aspects of their lives, their family, hobbies, favourite possessions, special places and cherished pets. Whether it was a picture of their baby cousin, their West Ham football shirt, their computer or their place or worship, they had the power to choose what had meaning for them.

Many families chose to enter into the project in a very active way. One mother worked with her son to record images of achievement - she captured the moment he dived off the board into the swimming pool. A Muslim family chose to dress up for the photos in their best clothes and posed solemnly. The photographs communicated how our pupils observe the world. One autistic boy took several photographs of piles of neatly arranged videos in his bedroom. A child who had a tough school image, took a photograph of the sky, saying how beautiful it was. A pupil with behaviour difficulties took an image of his uncle reading a certificate sent from school to show improvement - the photo recorded that he did care about changing his behaviour. Before, he had never been able to communicate this to us.

Many photographs conveyed living religion. One boy wrapped himself with the flag of Pakistan. We saw walls in Sikh homes showing pictures of the gurus in a natural setting, instead of artefacts in the classroom. A photo of an Orthodox Muslim father smiling and proudly holding his baby nephew in the kitchen, was at odds with the austere images of Islam we are often shown. One boy took some pictures in his madrasa (mosque school) giving an insight into his religious commitments outside school.

A Christian girl took touching photos of a shrine made by her family at home, which showed images of her brother who had died at the age of three, as well as pictures of Princess Diana and Christian icons. A girl took her camera to India for a Hindu wedding and came back with a colourful collection of photographs of a happy bride and family. While the media often concentrates on the negative aspects of arranged marriages, here was a set of authentic wedding photos that showed optimism and the loving relationship between the bride and groom.

Our final photographic display proved to be a talking point for pupils, staff and visitors, and has provided us with hundreds of images of religion and human experience that are dynamic and communicate the reality of our pupils' lives. RE is not just about learning about different faiths, it is also about our life experiences and what has meaning for us - as we say in the London Borough of Redbridge, it is about "exploring and responding to religion and human experience."

The project has also transformed the way our pupils see RE - now if they are having a family celebration or a religious festival, they all ask for a camera to record it!

Anne Krisman is head of RE at Little Heath School in Redbridge and RE Consultant Teacher for Redbridge. Her bursary from the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies funded the photographic project


* Look out for cheap offers on single-use cameras in supermarkets and on the internet. Local shops and businesses may be prepared to sponsor you.

* Make sure the children understand the aims of the project - you don't want them taking lots of photos in the playground!

* Involve parents and carers by asking them to take part in the project.

* If you are doing a display, negotiate with pupils and families about the photos you will use. Make sure they are comfortable with the images you show - some may be happy with pictures of their family shown in the classroom, but uncomfortable about having them in a more public place.

* Extra sets of photos are usually only pound;2 - give pupils that option so they can immediately take home a set of photos.

* Ask each pupil to include a photo of themselves, to identify their collection.

* Having a competition for the best images of family, pets, religious celebrations and so on, where pupils vote for their favourite images, can be part of the culmination of the project, as well as a special assembly.

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