How can a photography class make better global citizens? Caleb Portfolio of Westover School helps students discover themselves and the world.
Caleb Portfolio teaches photography and video at Westover School. That means he teaches certain necessary skills — operating cameras, developing and printing in a dark room, using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.
But above all, he says, it means teaching students creative thinking.
“This is why art classes are so important, especially to young learners,” Portfolio said. “The creative part of your brain is like a muscle, and it needs exercise in order to perform at its peak. Art classes are the gym. Creative thinkers are not just artists. They are inventors, leaders and change makers.”
Portfolio’s students have displayed their creative thinking on our website ever since Westover began its partnership with News Decoder six years ago.
Two years ago, My Van leveraged photos to explore being transgender and non-binary. A year earlier, Emma Juvan looked at climate change through the lens of a camera, and Madeleine Steele examined over-fishing.
All of these students studied under Portfolio, who wins News Decoder’s Faculty in the Spotlight award this month for helping his students tap into their creativity and then share their work with the world on our website.
‘We see images before we see words.’ — Caleb Portfolio of Westover School
I asked Portfolio some questions about his background and approach to teaching.
ND: What do you teach at Westover? How long have you taught there? Did you teach elsewhere before Westover, and if so, where?
Portfolio: I have been teaching photography and video at Westover School for eight years now. I got my start at teaching through a summer apprenticeship program for teens called Neighborhood Studios. I was the master teaching artist for 10 years in the photography section of that program, and I got to work with teens from Hartford, Connecticut and surrounding areas. It was a great opportunity for me to teach a lot of students from very different backgrounds, many of whom had little to no experience with art or photography. It was there that I first saw how being exposed to the arts and creative ideas could open the minds of young people, and get them thinking differently about the world around them. My teaching philosophy was informed greatly by that experience.
ND: What is your educational background?
Portfolio: I got my BFA in photography from the Hartford Art School in 2005, and my MFA in photography from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2011.
ND: What skills do your students learn in class?
Portfolio: The surface-level answer to this question would be very technical. My students learn to develop film, print black and white photos in the darkroom, to confidently operate manual SLR and DSLR cameras, use studio lighting and backdrops, edit and manipulate photos in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, print large scale digital photographs and experiment with alternative and historic photographic processes. These skills are important if a student wants to make images that people want to look at. However, I don’t think they are the most important thing I teach. The most important skill I teach to my students is creative thinking. This is why art classes are so important, especially to young learners. The creative part of your brain is like a muscle, and it needs exercise in order to perform at its peak. Art classes are the gym. Creative thinkers are not just artists. They are inventors, leaders, and change makers. The majority of my students will not become professional photographers, and I’m OK with that. If however, in five years from now, a student of mine were to forget what an F-stop is but feels confident in bringing creative, or even “weird,” ideas to whatever they are working on, that would be a success story. The arts are a safe place for risky/brave/strange/weird ideas, and being confident in approaching a problem (whether it be in art, science, business, politics, etc) with creative solutions that other people wouldn’t normally consider is an invaluable skill.
ND: What connections do you see between the work that your students do in photography and News Decoder? To many, that would not be an obvious link, yet we have published photo reports/essays by a number of your students. Why is News Decoder a platform for students in photography?
Portfolio: I teach a class called Pixels with Purpose — a digital photography class where students make work in response to world events. The first thing students do in this class is make a giant list of all the things in the world that they think are wrong and which make them angry. When a student is really angry about something, it often means they are willing to take a step towards changing it, and this is a great place for the art to start happening.
In addition to teaching creative thinking and problem-solving skills, I believe it is important for students to keep an eye on things that are happening in the world and to expose them to the potential art has to be an agent for activism and raising awareness. Throughout history, art has been used to influence people, raise their awarenesses and to be a catalyst for change. Visual art can often be a place where young students find ways to communicate complex or challenging ideas about what they see and feel about global events, especially when the words to describe those ideas escape them. I’m a big believer in art that leaves room for the viewer to do some work of their own when interpreting what the artist has done, so I’ll often encourage my students to use visual metaphors or symbols in their work to convey meaning and to stay away from visual cliches. Sometimes art can say things that words can’t. I appreciate News Decoder’s approach at utilizing all forms of media to engage young people and talk about what is happening in the world.
ND: Does photography have a role to play in helping young people become better global citizens?
Portfolio: Part of being a global citizen is knowing what is happening in the world. If you want to communicate a story about a world event, photography is the best tool to do that. The most efficient way to grab someone’s attention is through an impactful and dynamic image. We see images before we see words. I am a fine artist, not a photojournalist, so the approach I take in my classes is to challenge my students with finding alternative ways of communicating their message, through using things like still-life setups, photo manipulations or symbolic colors or lighting. Just because my students are stuck in a little school in Middlebury, Connecticut doesn’t mean that they can’t make photographic work about things happening around the world. Figuring out how to do this builds their creative problem-solving and visual literacy skills, and requires them to think deeply about how to visually communicate their message to their audience.
ND: Anything else you’d like to say?
Portfolio: I always tell my students that the most important job a photographer has is to show the world to their viewer in a way they don’t normally see it. If you can make your viewer see something in a new way, you get their attention. When you have their attention, you can communicate your ideas. I’m proud of my students, not just the ones that submit to News Decoder, but all of them. They take risks, and pour so much of themselves into their work. I’m privileged to be able to work with them.
(Nelson Graves is the founder of News Decoder.)