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Opening the shutters on a new world

Colin Mackay tells how photographers from Japan and Scotland brought together children from two cultures. Dean Park primary school in Edinburgh was one of the recipients of a Japan Festival Award at a presentation in London last month. The award marked the school's contribution towards making Japan more accessible in a project that featured a unique exchange between two elementary schools.

The exchange brought together a hundred 10-year-olds from Scotland with a hundred children of the same age in Nagaokakyo elementary school in Kyoto through the medium of two professional photographers.

The link, based around aspects of self-identity, used photographs mounted on display boards in the children's classrooms, initially 15 for each of the four stages of the project. These boards travelled with the photographers between Scotland and Japan. By the end of the project there were 100 boards in each country, which gave a splendid overview of the project itself and of the life children lead in Scotland and in Japan.

The first set of Scottish and Japanese boards were exhibited in the Netherbow Gallery in Edinburgh from December 1995 to February this year. The visual elements of the project involve working closely with the children, teaching them both the creative and technical aspects of taking good photographs. Framing, lighting, action and content were covered and they went off with their own cameras to record their daily lives.

In the first phase of the project photographs from Edinburgh were taken to Japan, to initiate a personal contact for the first stage of the exchange. In Kyoto the same exercise was carried out.

Children from both schools have explored their lives and cultures working with Kenny Bean and Yuki Sekiguchi, the two photographers. Bean, an Edinburgh-based freelance, has worked with a number of schools and community groups and runs workshops for primary schools.

Yuki Sekiguchi has specialised in working with mentally disabled adults. After studying economics in Doshisha University, she worked as a staff member in the print studio in Kyoto College of Art. The photo link has allowed her to work closely with children from Scotland and she has worked with children and teachers in Nagaokakyo elementary school in Kyoto since her return to Japan in April.

The project helped the children introduce themselves personally to their new friends abroad and brought out their personalities through a series of photo-portraits taken by their classmates. There were also photographs of them with their favourite object.

Other images depicted which of the senses they found to be most important and wide-angle lenses allowed distortion of images for fun. An animal mask was painted or projected to show what sort of animal each pupil would most like to be. Children chose the lighting, camera angle and pose.

One of the major challenges encountered was to fit the project into the strictly timetabled Japanese curriculum. In the end it was possible to complete four of the self-identity images with 105 children and mount most of the photographs within the restricted time available. Some of the work was done on Saturday mornings.

The children were each given a disposable camera to record everyday family life. When the photographs came back from processing, the children mounted them on a display board with their captions which were translated for their new friends abroad. Copies of the photographs were given to the children to keep as a photo-diary.

The children were first trained in using the disposable cameras, and then took up to 10 partitioned photographs of their room, to make up a montage. Another family member took a photograph of the child sleeping. The children mounted the photographs and then wrote short explanations, thus presenting some ideas of their inner world.

Photographs of breakfast, lunch and dinner tables, of families and favourite dishes form the centre-piece of another display board.

Since the first stage of the project postcards have been exchanged by the children, gifts have been exchanged between the schools and the Dean Park's Christmas tape has found its way to the Japanese school. Future exchanges of work and project materials and the prospect of video conferencing and using the Internet are currently being explored.

That so much could be achieved with a few disposable cameras was hard to foresee. An effective and hopefully lasting link has been forged between the children of Dean Park and Nagaokakyo elementary. This exchange will go on, perhaps with a school in the Third World or in Eastern Europe.

Colin Mackay is headteacher of Dean Park primary, Balerno.

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