Nine Kentucky educators recently participated in the 39th annual WKU Mountain Workshops, an intense week-long experience that helps attendees tell richer stories through images and words. Each of the teachers worked extremely hard to create a story focused on the craft culture in Berea, KY. In the process, they experienced a greater understanding of what they could do to help students think deeply about a subject and more fully communicate ideas.
Tuesday morning the teachers from Breathitt, Clay, Hancock, Muhlenberg, and Morgan Counties, with various skill levels, started the process by capturing photographs with a wide range of photographic devices. By the end of the day, they were making pictures with purpose using light, composition, and varied angles.
Professional photographer, Jed Conklin, and LA Times multimedia photographer, Liz Baylen, added to the teacher’s knowledge-base and encouraged them to stretch their thinking. They helped the teachers move beyond the obvious answer.
By the next morning, the teachers were well on their way to collecting information about the people and places across this small community of artists and artisans: actually hearing the story of the people, their art and traditions. They were coming to an understanding of what made this community in the foothills of Appalachia a special place. The teachers had discovered something much different than the simple story they set out to tell. A deeper understanding of the ingredients and spirit of Berea’s unique was emerging from both the images and the people.
Writer and editor, Lynne Warren challenged the group to engage people in conversations so that they would reveal not only the facts, but their thoughts and emotions. The true stories’ powerful images and words were coming to life.
The teachers worked as a team to get the real story on video. Only two days before this many of the participants were hoping to learn how to operate their cameras “a little better”. Now they were trying to capture the secret and emotion of generations as they talked on film with people deeply entrenched in the magic that crafted Berea.
The team discussed sound, mood, message, and the subtleties of town that everyone thought they knew so well. As the deadline approached the teachers, now documentarians, were tempted to fall back in to their normal comfort zones. “Just tell me what you want me to do.” “What is the answer?” They came to understand that it was their story. They knew that there was not one “right” answer. The project would only come to life through hard research, thinking, and more work.
The teachers started to get distracted by the technology. We talked about the STORY being the focus, and using the latest digital equipment to convey the story. It is still about what you say, and yes, it matters how you say it.
Friday’s deadline brought pressure to not only finish their project, but also a deep desire to get the story right. Deadlines help crystalize our thoughts and cause resolutions. Deadlines force us to choose what stays in our project and what must be dropped.
These teachers put in 12 and 14-hour days to complete this project. They modified every aspect of what they were doing and how they approached it. Work and thinking are essentials for learning. This year’s teachers at the WKU Mountain Workshops in Berea learned a lot.
Look out students. They are back in class and have something to say.
It is always great to see students use their phone and their talents in a positive way to tell us good things about someone. We wanted to give some feedback on what we saw in these projects. There are some “teaching moments” that we wanted to share with you.
Keep in mind that these suggestions are to a broad audience (K-12). We all must have the attitude to improve what we do everyday. Every project is a chance to get better, to grow, to learn. With that attitude in mind we offer these top ten observations and suggestions to make your story better.
- When telling a story about someone else, don’t relate it to yourself (my friend, my papaw, my dad). Unless the relationship is the story. Your person has his or her own story. Everything should be about them, not you.
- Find the focus of the story. Many of the essays were a list about the person. Find something interesting about their personality, activities, affect that they have and give us some understanding. It is a story, not a list.
- Leave them wanting more. Why should I care about this person? What is interesting? If you can tell your reader enough that they want to know more you have done it.
- Tell me more. Since the story was limited to 100 words, the caption was a good place to give more details on your subject. Add to the layers of information.
- Add to the photo. We don’t need to know that this is “Amy on the phone”. We can see that in the photo. Give some details that make the photo even more enjoyable for the viewer. “Amy talks her parents into letting her go to the movies again.”
- Well written. Text slang, abbreviations, emoticons and all caps may be useful in emails, phone messages or posters, but not in photo captions. Sentence mechanics, punctuation and spaces really do help. Write it out in beautiful language to go with your photo images.
- Worth 1,000 words. If a picture is worth 1,000 words then seven good images should be worth at least 7,000 words of information to your story. Each image should give more depth to your central character. The background, people, actions and reactions in your photo can give us countless details in the story.
- Copy Cat. Too many photos were kids making funny faces taken from the same distance. They are really the same photo. And they are copies of cliché Facebook and bad family photos. Give your viewer a unique angle, setting or content. Use wide views, medium views, closeups, detail shots, etc.. Give your reader a variety of interesting and unique views about your subject.
- Clean your eyes. Phone cameras get handled a lot. Sweaty little fingers and what ever is kept in those pockets get all over the lens. Clean it off. Makes a huge difference when you don’t see the subject through dirt covered glass.
- Keep shooting. Keep thinking. Keep writing. Keep editing. Keep getting better. Don’t be satisfied with your first effort. What is the next story that you want to tell?