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Photography: An Expressive Language for Learning

First published in Australian Art Education Vol. 33, No.2, 2 0 10


This article is about the use of photography as an expressive language for learning in an early childhood setting. It commences with some general comments which provide the rationale for the use of photography; and then goes on to outline and illustrate how photography was used as a component in two projects: The ‘Line Dance’ Project (2005) and ‘You Can See It In Their Eyes’ (2010). Both of the projects were undertaken with four-year-old children as part of the Fintona ELC curriculum which is inspired by the Reggio Emilia Philosophy and is also part of the IBO delivering the ‘Primary Years Program’ (PYP).

Children learn and express themselves using

‘A Hundred Languages’

In his poem: ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’, Loris Malaguzzi, the leading proponent of the Reggio Emilia Philosophy, encapsulates his visionary thesis that children communicate their ideas and information in many more ways than is traditionally imagined or believed. In observing children over time, he postulated that they were capable, curious and fully equipped to learn; engaging with the world around them in a proactive and autonomous manner. He saw their every interaction with persons, materials and concepts as a meaning- making endeavour. Dance, music, manipulating light and colour, drawing, painting, sculpting, arranging objects and hundreds more actions gained a new significance; as he and the teachers at Reggio Emilia researched children by taking notice of them and documenting their behaviour, explorations and continuous hypothesising about events. (Eds, Edwards, Gandini, Forman, 1998).

Malaguzzi’s ideas resonate with other current theories about how children learn and express themselves; including the multiple intelligences of Howard Gardner (1993); and latterly the view that we are not only fluent in one ‘literacy’, but rather in multiliteracies (New London Group, 1996; Pahl and Rowsell, 2005). These theories recognise, and elaborate, the complexity of the world we live in; and the many ways that all students are being exposed to information. They emphasise how important it is to understand developing technologies as young people respond to and generate new ways of communicating, learning and being.

At Fintona, the Early Learning Centre curriculum is inspired by the Reggio Emilia philosophy and we have explored Loris Malaguzzi’s concept of the ‘hundred languages’ in our work with children for the last fifteen years. In Reggio Emilia schools the expert knowledge about and provision of media is the province of a trained art educator or ‘atelierista’. We do not have an ‘atelierista’ in the centre, and so each teacher has to take on the role of an art educator as we plan and implement projects for our students. Malaguzzi introduced ‘atelieristas’ into the preschools and infant toddler centres as a conscious development to the pedagogy; and their role was to reveal the world in different ways. Harnessing their technical skills and creativity; he wanted art educators to approach children’s learning via new and untravelled roads. Indeed, in quite a radical departure for education, he wanted them to be ‘sand in the machinery’, effectively disrupting what was routine. The art education children received was not an add-on, but was integral to their knowledge-building and imagination.

Engaging the mind

The joy of the novel, the unexpected or the unexplored; is that it causes us to focus our attention. It arrests us.

Tony and Barry Buzan (2003: 34) present a list based on research that has an influence on learning and memory:

· Items from the beginning of the learning period (‘the primacy effect’)

· Items from the end of the learning period (‘recency effect’)

· Any items associated with things or patterns already stored, or linked to together

aspects of what is being learned

· Any items which are emphasised as being in some way outstanding or unique

· Any items which appeal particularly strongly to any one of the five senses

· Those items that are of particular interest to the person

When any of the above is present, singly or in combination, the mind is engaged; and the ability to engage the mind, is one of the greatest keys to creating a positive environment for learning. In Reggio Emilia the teachers talk of introducing a new area for investigation as a ‘provocation’. This is a dynamic word describing something of value, and something that evokes interest and even emotion. Added to what Tony and Barry Buzan have demonstrated about what makes learning successful, it is important to note that Malaguzzi emphasised the importance of learning in association with others – learning is not an individual pursuit, but occurs in a context of relationships. It is collaborative. He valued the input of experts and often had them in residence to help unfold knowledge.

The emphasis on relationships; and the importance of appealing to all the senses in education; both fundamental reasons are why offering children a wide variety of media to investigate a concept is important. Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences point to how each person’s brain functioning is profoundly influenced by their sensory modalities. Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners all use their brain in different ways. But it is not only how we are equipped to learn that matters; it is also the environment offered and the attitudes of the persons within it that determine the quality of learning. A key point to take into account when we consider the Reggio Emilia pedagogy is that the positioning in learning of the teacher, child and family is complex and changeable. It cannot be said that the entire philosophy is based on and led by the interests of the child; and similarly, the learning, whilst it is prefigured by the teachers, is not their sole responsibility. It is the dynamic combination of input from everyone in the learning community that makes the projects so interesting, unique and memorable.

What the Reggio Emilia philosophy brought into the arena of Early Childhood Education was seriousness about presenting children with purposeful, engaging experiences and giving them the necessary time to gain true benefit from them.

Using the above comments as a context, I will describe the use of photography as a language for learning.

Loris Malaguzzi gave importance to the language of ‘technology’ in its many forms. At Fintona we use technology to document and record the children’s ideas, theories, plans and accomplishments. But we also feel it is valuable for them to be exposed to technology themselves. We have computers in each room and we have up to date audio and visual equipment.

One of the technologies, which is eminently suitable to employ with young children, is photography; and I will elaborate on two projects we have undertaken in which photography was a central component.

The Language of Photography

There are many reasons why we use photography in our program for children. Paramount is that it immediately provides a new way of looking at the world. The ‘lens’ retrains the eye. It makes one look at something anew and often with more purpose than usual. The world is captured in greater detail and everything that is viewed holds more significance. As alluded to above, when the senses and interest are engaged, then attention is held. With attention, the memory is stimulated and learning comes naturally.

Project 1

Photography and the ‘Line Dance’ Project

In 2005 the Fintona ELC celebrated its 10th Anniversary with a retrospective exhibition entitled: ‘Mosaic of the Creative Self’. Because of the exhibition, the preschool teachers initiated a project with the four-year old children around the concept of ‘line’. The rationale for this was that ‘line’ is elemental in the creation of any artwork. Indeed, the concept of ‘line’ is integral to mathematics, science, symbolic languages like writing, and music notation, stories, puppetry, sculpture, dance, and any number of other curricular areas. The use of ‘line’ has been instrumental in our ability to pass on information from one generation to the next; and so is part of what we are and what we will become. The project was called ‘Line Dance’ because it was composed of a free flow of ideas, like the intricate steps that led from one place to another in a dance.

The project employed many media, both two and three dimensional. As explained above, when children explore a concept using different modalities, their understanding is enhanced and their thinking becomes more informed and complex. Different media stimulate different areas of the brain, but the whole brain is integrated and each idea and all new learning has an influence on what is known.

Working with an expert in the field of photography:

Mr. Bill Bachman

As one of the teachers who generated the ‘Line Dance Project’, I was always on the lookout for new ways to explore the concept of ‘line’. When I first encountered the photographs of Mr. Bill Bachman, a renowned Melbourne photographer, on the walls of a friend as we chatted over coffee; I was extremely moved by his perception and interpretation of ‘line’ in both urban and natural landscapes.

I loved the way he juxtaposed the macrocosmic patterns of the world with exquisite, elemental close-up images that exposed the complex multiplicity of the universe we inhabit. Immediately I thought that our students would be enriched; their knowledge extended, if they navigated the world through his eyes. He could be cast in a role as an ‘atelierista’ for a short period of time and bring his expertise to bear on what the children were already exploring.

I approached him and was delighted that he agreed to create a sequence of two workshops specifically for the ‘Line Dance Project’ with our four-year–old groups. It important to note that we wrote to the parents prior to commencing the project, to ensure that they would be willing to support their children to accomplish the project we had in mind. The parents were intrigued by the venture and it sparked a lot of comment and interest.

They had already been with us to visit ‘Federation Square’, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Ian Potter gallery to investigate ‘lines’ and had got used to the project.

The objectives of the photography workshops were:

· To explain the work of a photographer

· To give some technical knowledge about how the camera works

· To explore, in an accessible way, the interaction between the human eye and the ‘eye’

of the camera

· To demonstrate how the camera and photographer can capture the picture from various ‘distances’ depending on the intention behind the image

· To explore the patterns in the macrocosmic and microcosmic landscapes

· To compare and contrast four specific sets of images to underline all the above

· To provide a variety of objects from the ‘Animal, Vegetable and Mineral world so that children could identify and capture patterns for themselves

· To enable children to transfer their knowledge of the lines and their interpretation of them into a drawing

· To have the children go away and take a series of ten of their own photographs which highlighted lines in urban and natural settings

After a six week interval the children and photographer were to gather again to analyse and discuss the children’s photographs.

Behind the specific objectives of the workshops, there was also an intuitive belief that the early exposure of children to multiple explorations like the one we proposed would enhance their visual literacy in their day to day lives. There was also a hope that they would grow up to create an environment that was harmonious, balanced, enlivening and inspiring.

The structure of the workshops

The series of two workshops were called:

‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral – Worlds within Worlds’

In the first segment: ‘Who Am I?’, Bill described his work as a photographer and showed some photographs and copy of ‘Australian Geographic’ in which he was featured. I wanted him to emphasise that ‘photographers see the world in a unique way and in a way that other people do not see’. It was important that he conveyed the way we can see the world as a big landscape and how you can change the focus. The photographer has the ability decide what the camera should record. There are worlds within worlds and there are patterns in the big world and also patterns when you get very close up. We selected aspects of the art of photography that we knew our children would comprehend and utilise.

To do this, Bill handed out cylinders of varying circumferences and lengths to demonstrate how the eye of the camera can be controlled. The he showed the children a series of photographs from a distance, at mid-range and close-up. Three of the sequences of related photographs were:

· Bushland – individual trees – bark

· Fish – skin – eye

· Boulder field – single rock – lichen

Within this part of the program, Bill revealed how the different icons on the camera, the ‘flower’ and the ‘mountains’ gave the children the ability to focus the camera in the way they wanted to.

Bill also showed the children a sequence of photographs allowing them to guess what they were. They were purposely graded from more recognizable and accessible subjects to the less well-known. My colleage, Marageret Campbell and I documented the children’s comments. Bill also added several photographs the children had taken prior to his workshop during an excursion to ‘Federation Square’ in Melbourne which has architecturally the most eclectic collection of lines imaginable. The children loved seeing what they had produced previously side by side with Bill’s own exceptional photographs.

During the discussions, it was clear to us that children were able to articulate the differences between urban and natural lines. They described how most often, the ‘urban’ lines were straight, linear and geometric: and the ‘natural’ lines were more flowing, branching and integrated. (The children had worked with an artist, Adam Cusack, earlier in the project and had drawn gum leaves in great detail, so they knew the distinction between ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ very well.)

Bill showed the children similar patterns from macro and micro worlds. For example, he juxtaposed a river delta and a slim tree branch that had a similar shape and structure.

Bill Bachman's contrast of a river delta and slender branch in a rock face

Below, Bill and the children ‘look at the world through a different lens. He provided cylinders of various diameters to give the idea of focusing on ‘small’ or ‘large’ subjects or landscapes.

Bill and the children ‘look at the world through a different lens. He provided cylinders of various diameters to give the idea of focusing on ‘small’ or ‘large’ subjects or landscapes

Photographs used in workshop 1 in which patterns different Animal, Vegetable and Mineral contexts were compared:

Curve in river and crack in rock

Sea star and star-shaped cracks in rock face

After the introduction, the children were again offered the cylinders through which to view objects. We had spread out an array of objects as mentioned above and the children selected something to draw. The objects were chosen for their patterns, textures and colours. They offered possibilities for comparing and contrasting on the basis of many attributes. The children were encouraged to use their powers of observation, to identify any lines or patterns; and then to duplicate them using pencil on card.

The reason for drawing was to give the children practice at close observation, so that when they went out to take their own photographs, they would be visually attuned to what they were looking for. This step fits in with what Tony and Barry Buzan identified as learning by adding to thought networks that have already been laid down in the brain: learning by association.

The children’s drawings were detailed, intricate and very beautiful. We later placed them in their portfolios. We also printed positive and negative images from scans; and these were displayed at the exhibition.

Children act as camera lenses and capture what they see in nature

Six weeks after Bill’s presentation, he and the children gathered again to view their photographs. He and I had met up to prepare the second workshop and we reviewed all forty-eight children’s photographs and included some from each child’s collection in his montage. We placed them in a sequence similar to how we had shown Bill’s original photographs with some comparisons and some contrasts. The quality, range of subjects and emotional resonance of the collection was amazing and far superior to what we were expecting. Each child could describe the place where the photos were taken; and the reason for recording their images. They could also relate their photographs and the experience with Bill to other art media and experiences related to the broader ‘Line Dance’ project.

A small sample of the photographs collected by 48 children capturing lines

Digital version of positive and negative image of shell, by Charoltte, 4

All in all, it was a wonderfully successful visual journey. Collaborationo with an expert, the children's observation and keen eye in collecting photographs ensure they had a deeper understanding of patterns in t he animal, vegetable and mineral world.

Project 2

Five Years On: the ‘You Can See It In Their Eyes’ Project

If we fast-forward to 2010, we are now celebrating our 15th Anniversary. Once again, we are marking the occasion with an exhibition entitled: ‘Mosaic of the Learning Community’. Photography has remained an integral part of our program.

I have always been interested in how knowledgeable children are about non-verbal communication. From infants, they are able to respond to the minute changes in facial expression and body language. They usually have an intuitive emotional intelligence. The importance of emotional intelligence has become more understood, and thanks to the work of writers like Daniel Goleman, we realise that it is imperative for us to explore the language of emotion with young children. Goleman (1995:130) professed that knowledge about emotion could be taught through both modelling displays of behaviour and by direct teaching. In our practice we are constantly aware of both of these avenues to emotional education.

Not to complicate matters too much, at Fintona we combine our knowledge of the Reggio Emilia Philosophy with the IBO framework: the ‘Primary Years Program’ (PYP). As part of our exploration of ‘How We Express Ourselves’; one of the overarching themes of the framework, we decided to investigate stories and story-telling. Within this unit, which culminated in a wonderful performance with sixty-four children, we investigated non-verbal communication with our four year old groups.

The children were exposed to the unit in several areas including drama, music and within the kinder program itself. Again photography seemed to be an excellent vehicle for the investigation.

The educators, Debbie Nicholas and Cara Mearns' objectives for this photography project were:

· To present the children with photographs portraying different emotions and to record their verbal interpretation

· To ask the children to reproduce the expressions and emotions they had identified in the photographs they analysed and to be photographed by the teachers

· To examine the photographs of themselves and to expand and fine-tune their vocabulary around their emotional experiences

· To learn about the camera

· To take photographs of one another during a process of whereby one child would orchestrate the sitting and determine the expression to be captured and one child would be the model

· Children would have experiences on both sides of the camera and help each other with the process

· The children would be shown a photo montage of their photographs to critically assess what made a ‘good’ photograph and how the process of taking a photograph could be improved

· To expand the children’s knowledge about human emotions and extend their ability to express themselves and their emotions with finer and more complex distinctions

The knowledge they gained was to be used in other areas. In particular it was designed to enable them to portray a variety of emotions during their performance of a show created collaboratively called: ‘Bringing Back the Water – A Map of Australia’. The performance, about the importance of water to Australian animals, gave them the opportunity to use their bodies in a conscious and professional way to tell a story. The performance has periods of positive, high emotion and low points. The children’s posture, facial expression and comprehension of the emotional tone were remarkable accurate. The performance was filmed and it is evident that the children were completely in tune with the mood, emotion and level of energy required at any moment in the drama.

A pivotal moment

At a certain point in discussions, the children were asked how we knew what people were feeling? Spencer, five-years old, answered: ‘We can see it in their eyes.’

So the title of the project was born!

Lauren about to take a photograph of a friend whom she has directed to pose to reflect a particular emotion. The children worked in pairs.

Sienna portrays someone who is sad.

The conversation below was recorded by Mrs. Debbie Nicholas who interviewed Sienna and her working partner, Ethan, after the photograph was taken:

Ethan and Sienna: Ethan: I said to Sienna to be sad, really sad. But scary sad. Sienna: I thought to cover my arms and make my face look scared. In my mind I was thinking I would almost cry.

As before, when set a complex and fascinating challenge, the children surprised and delighted us with their dedication to the task, the gains in their knowledge, their interpretation about emotion and non-verbal communication and especially the quality of their photographs.

As one of the languages available in the expressive arts, photography is accessible, flexible, fascinating, and rich in possibilities for learning. It has technical, creative and interpretive aspects and encourages high order thinking in many ways. We have thoroughly enjoyed working with the children as they engage their eyes, through the ‘eye’ of the camera.

‘Like other expressive languages, the visual language is a gift that belongs to every man and woman right from birth, and it evolves and is nurtured by favourable cultural contexts. The works of artists offer food for thought and for eth imagination, but in working with children the primary focus is and must always remain, the children themselves, with their won strategies of thought ,m their knowledge-building processes, and their relationships.’

(Reggio Children, 2005)


Reggio Children (2005). Children, Art and Artists: The expressive languages of children, the artistic language of Alberto Burri. Italy: Reggio Emilia.

Buzan, T. And Buzan, B.(2003). The Mind Map Book. London: BBC Worldwide Limited.

Gardner, H.(1993). Frames of Mind. London: Fontana Press.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. U.S.A.: Bantam.

Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Foreman, G. (Eds) (1998). The Hundred Languages of Children. U.S.A. Ablex Publishing.

Pahl, K. &Rowsell, J. (2005). Literacy and Education: Understanding the New Literacy Studies in the Classroom. London: Sage Publications.

New London Group. (1996).A pedagogy of multiliteracies: designing social futures, Harvard Education Review, 66(1), 60-92.

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