Every picture tells a story

14th October 2005 at 01:00
A 125-year-old ship in London's Docklands has been converted into a floating classroom and photography exhibition which, as Sebastian Lander reports, is having multiple benefits

Most couples aim for a new sofa and two weeks in Barbados, but not photographers Nishani and David Kampfner. This husband and wife team decided to renovate a 125-year-old steamship and turn it into a documentary photography exhibition space and floating classroom - a project which has taken three years to complete.

The ship is run under The SS Robin Trust, a youth development charity founded in 2002. The trust works with schools in London and the South-east, running photography workshops to encourage students to use photography as a visual language.

The SS Robin, based in London Docklands' West India Quay, is the world's oldest complete steamship, which the couple converted to house the Robin Gallery. Here they exhibit documentary, reportage and photojournalism, running alongside a committed educational programme.

This programme caters in particular for key stages 2-5 and addresses photography, media, citizenship, art and design, ICT and English. The trust offers workshops mentored by industry professionals and supported by business partners.

One such workshop is the SS Robin Documentary Photography Workshop, a three-day course for English as an Additional Language students in the Tower Hamlets area of east London. The series was funded by ocean New Deal for Communities, a key scheme in the Government's strategy to tackle the most deprived areas, focused here on the Ocean Estate in central Stepney.

Attending the course on three consecutive Tuesdays were students from Sir John Cass's Foundation and Redcoat Church of England Secondary School. The group consisted of pupils from Years 7-11, predominately Bengali-speakers and children from Ghana, Somalia, Nigeria, the Ukraine, Russia and Lithuania.

Education officer Joelle Cleveland works one day a week at SS Robin and teaches for the rest of the time. "The workshop is pitched at KS34 despite the differing age groups," she says. "This is to reflect the varied background of the children and differing levels of English. The photographic workshops extend the curriculum at KS3 by developing visual literacy, while covering art and design, ICT, citizenship and English."

The first workshop consisted of a basic introduction to the gallery using interactive approaches to explore images.

The following week, The Sunday Times photographer Peter Tarry showed the pupils some of his famous sports images, which struck a chord almost immediately. "There was a picture of Wayne Rooney pulling a funny face after a goal and they laughed before I had even said anything," he says.

"That proves the ability for images to go beyond the language barrier and that if a picture is strong, it can stand up by itself."

Peter looked at ways of creating professional photographs and took the pupils out with digital cameras to take pictures around Canary Wharf. The children looked at how to use the camera, composition and choice of subject. This allows pupils to explore the nature of digital media and build confidence in handling the technology.

Before leaving, they were given disposable cameras to document their own experiences from family and school life to hobbies and crafts to be used for the next workshop. The emphasis was on seeing the students' own experiences as something interesting to other people.

On day three, The Sunday Times picture editor Ray Wells and deputy managing editor Kathleen Herron worked with the pupils on selection and presentation of their photographs, discussing cropping, captions and headlines.

Picture editor Ray Wells says his role was to help the children get the best out of their work. "In a couple of cases, there are really excellent results. Pictures that may have seemed like snaps at the time, with a bit of editing there's more than meets the eye, like the children," he says.

This feeds in directly to the way in which ICT can encourage children to take more risks and review and modify their work to improve the quality. In the process, it improves their confidence.

Pupils learned to use a scanner and photo-editing software and at the end of the day received prints of their work and an enlargement of their chosen edited image for display at their school.

Such activities also deliver in terms of national curriculum targets. It helps children to access, select and interpret information, evaluate their work, communicate with others and present information while learning independence.

And Joelle Cleveland believes the workshops feed into ICT on two levels, while also helping the students with their English language needs. "There are two main educational strands: the first is to teach visual literacy so the students are able to understand images and create them on their own while developing their communication skills," she says. "It also gives them vocational skills in that they learn how to edit, edit on the computer, how to use a normal and a digital camera, and so on. The workshop also covers the English curriculum with speaking and listening and looks at citizenship with an awareness of other cultures and ways of life."

Marielle Dow is the head of the Ethnic Minority Achievement department at the school and accompanied the children to the workshops. Marielle says the experience has been useful on many levels. "This is helping with their social skills and their confidence about their ability to speak English.

Some of the Year 10 groups did a media studies topic, which involved using some of the vocabulary used here today, which is great as they are looking at it in context. The main thing is they are looking at things they wouldn't usually look at."

* www.ssrobin.org

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