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Multimodal Mondays: Driving Around on Purpose
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Driving Around on Purpose: Learning to See through Photo Essays and Visual Storytelling
Kim Haimes-Korn is a Professor of English and Digital Writing at Kennesaw State University. She also trains graduate student writing teachers in composition theory and pedagogy. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning and critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy, and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at email@example.com or visit her website: Acts of Composition
Our family came up with the term, “Driving Around on Purpose,” when my daughter was a young child. I taught a night class once a week for many years and felt bad about not being around during that time. My daughter and husband, however, turned it into a daddy-daughter date night and happily did their own thing. After many years, I decided to rearrange my schedule, drop the night class and return home for Wednesday nights. I was expecting that my family would be relieved that I was back on deck for that day, but they were actually a bit disappointed as they were happy with their weekly hang-time. My daughter, in all of her young insight, asked me if I could just “drive around on purpose” during this time to keep their hang-time intact.
Although I found it funny at the time, I was not a stranger to driving around on purpose. On the contrary, I love a drive without a destination to create chances to start out in one place and see how one thing leads to the next. As a digital storyteller I seek out unstructured opportunities to connect visually with the world, the seasons, the sights, and the unexpected events that present themselves. Driving around on purpose is really about changing your state of mind, learning how to see and live the flow life and notice things that might go unnoticed. It is about finding the right light, right angle, new connections, and the right story to tell. For me and all the busy people I know, this is a way to step outside of our overscheduled lives and enjoy the openness of discovery, which is where stories emerge.
I bring this practice into my classes to push students to do the same thing – learn how to drive around on purpose. One of the skills of digital storytellers is learning how to see. Students, in their busy lives often walk quickly by and through their experiences, rather than slowing down and observing their surroundings. The concept of driving around on purpose is perfect for students generating microcontent and telling visual stories.
The idea of the photo essay is at the center of this kind of multimodal work. Photo essays tell stories and strengthen students’ abilities to see their world in new ways. As immersive storytellers, we often find ourselves in situations where we experience and interpret reality and then represent it for others in digital spaces.
The photo essay originally emerged as a genre through journalism and lived its origins in the early magazines. The term came about when W. Eugene Smith chronicled the back stories of a Rural Country Doctor (1948) and a Nurse Midwife (1951) through landmark photo essays in the iconic Life magazine. These essays defined the genre and were followed by others in different contexts and subjects. Photojournalists told stories that created behind-the- scenes portraits, slice-of-life experiences and life in the field. The photo essay surged during the Vietnam war and other cultural and historical moments as we were able to feel the emotional impact through images. Today, the photo essay has worked its way into popular mediums through online sharing and distribution in digital spaces where both everyday composers and professional storytellers share their lives, experiences, and ideas through visual storytelling.
The Format Magazine article, Advice for an Unforgettable Photo Essay (2018) offers a working definition and characteristics of photo essays:
Possibilities, discovery, and stories: these are some of the most effective elements of a photo essay. Collections of images can help produce a narrative, evoke emotion, and guide the viewer through one or more perspectives. A well-executed photo essay doesn’t rely on a title or any prior knowledge of its creator; it narrates on its own, moving viewers through sensations, lessons, and reactions.
When assigning photo essays or visual microcontent, I sometimes give students prompts to sharpen their focus and feed into my class assignments. For example, I have students investigate their sense of place, look for a series of related things (digital, visual series) or search for particular composing techniques. Other times, I leave it more unstructured and ask them to go on a walk-about or exploratory journey that encourages seeking out the unexpected. I also offer opportunities to choose their own paths and drive around on purpose according to their own terms. Prompts can encourage students to follow narrative paths that “focus on the story you’re telling the viewer” or thematic paths that “speak to a specific subject.” (2018). Photo essays are stories of discovery or ones that make a statement. They can entertain, persuade, or inform and present thoughtful connections between composed images to tell stories and communicate meaning. They are short, visual stories (microcontent) that can stand-alone or be integrated into larger projects.
Steps to the Assignment:
- Assign students a prompt (structured or unstructured) and ask them to venture out and take at least 10 images on their phone in which they visually represent a story or idea. I encourage them to engage in strong composing practices as they learn to compose strong images.
- Although I usually assign 10 images (for micro-stories), I encourage students to overtake and curate more than they need so they have more to choose from to create their stories. Sometimes, I intentionally assign more images, depending on the nature, purpose, and depth of the assignment. I emphasize the importance of context and varied visual perspectives (such as different distances (micro to macro), angles).
- Once students collect their images, they should edit, sort, and arrange them so they tell a story, communicate an idea, or explain a perspective.
- Students can prepare them for submission through an array of options: they can present them as an advancing slide show or a gallery of captioned images. They can add title slides, text, and music if they want or just let the images speak for themselves.
- I usually have them include an accompanying context statement through which they discuss their purposes and processes.
- Finally, students share their stories with others in either full class or small group formats to see the reactions of an active audience. Students can also add them to existing forms and platforms such as blogs, social media posts, written articles, or other spaces.
Here are some example prompts/ideas for short photo essays:
- Transformation or change
- Journeys or photo walks
- DIY – process of how to do something or how things work
- Personal space
- Profile/portraits of people
- Behind the scenes
- Persuasive statement towards an idea or cause
- Technique driven – Composing techniques, black and white, etc.
- Seasonal portraits
- City Life
- Moods or emotions
- Experiences or events
- Choose your own adventure
Reflections on the Activity:
I am glad I learned how to drive around on purpose and find meaning through photo essays. It nurtured my love of visual storytelling and shaped my ability to shift my state of mind and find stories to tell. I find students also embrace these opportunities as engaging assignments that help them learn to see, critically interpret their experiences, and hone their skills as visual storytellers.
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