thE powEr of thE mEthod
photographer & teacher
Today I sent my partner a text with a witty remark that I should change my name into something like bol.com: ordered before ten p.m., delivered to your house in the morning. During the past few months it happened almost every night. Just when I thought I had finished my ‘things to do today’ list, my mailbox filled up slowly with all kinds of questions and requests. And if it wasn’t the mail, then there were texts which still demanded my attention at eleven o’clock at night. The alarming thing is that I am as much the perpetrator as the victim of this 24/7 online mentality. Not only do clients or partners send me questions at the last moment, I myself also send out the occasional email around ten o’clock in the evening or I respond to a discussion of the day with a text.
The limits of the appliance
This may be a somewhat remarkable opening for a deliberation about the photography project ‘In Another Light’. And yet, this was what I was thinking when I sat down to work on my notes.
It is a (post)modern phenomenon, this ‘last minute economy’, the implications of which have recently been discussed extensively in the publication Open 21 (Im) Mobility. Research into the limitations of hypermobility, which asks the question whether we are able to escape the demands of the worldwide explosion of mobility of goods and raw materials: the law of mobility of capitalism. This ‘last minute economy’ (who after all still keeps products in stock?) has become possible through the computer and the internet. Everyone and everything is continually connected. This provides unknown opportunities, but as the writer says in the Open cahier, it also means an invisible lack of freedom in which the laws of movement (read: programmes) are controlling our actions and our thinking. And now there’s photography as well.
In his work ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ the Czech writer Vilém Flusser says that the invention of photography, the ‘technological’ image made by appliances, was a key moment in the history of mankind in the same way the invention of linear script was. But both of course have fundamentally different consequences. Flusser’s essay is not so much about photography as a document or as art, but he treats it as an example to shed light on the power of (modern) appliances on our human way of thinking and acting. A camera, as Flusser shows, is characterised by a (hidden) programme.
Flusser makes a reasonable case for the invention of photography as the foundation of the era of information technology, and so implicitly of the bol.com economy. Taking a picture or ‘order today, receive tomorrow’ can both be realised by pressing one button. Flusser appeals to our power of imagination and builds an argument for experimental photography or a kind of anti-photography, which tries to escape the power of the appliance. Or, in his own words: ‘Can you despise a appliance and its product and turn away from your interest in the thing in general in order to focus on the information?”. My supposition is that the PAPA method Lino Hellings developed, meets Flusser’s summons. But before I elaborate on this, I would like to highlight another aspect, so I can later connect these two aspects.
Research as a teaching method
In her extensive contribution Anke Coumans described the most significant elements of the project, as far as I’m concerned. A report of my observations and experiences would largely overlap with hers, but would be not as rich in description.
1: Can the PAPA-method be used in an institution such as ‘t Blauwbörgje?
2: Does the PAPA-method provide new insights?
These are the main questions Coumans posed. On the side she aks a few more questions and answers them adequately, in my opinion. For example: is the method transferable? Yes, otherwise it would not be a method, it seems to me. What becomes interesting then is, considering the educational context: is the method a good teaching method? And if the answer is yes, then why is it? This is the second aspect of the method I would like to explore.
In education differentiation, the way a teacher knows how to deal with the differences between students, is a key issue. Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which you can differentiate: convergence and divergence.
Convergent differentiation sets an objective which the whole group has to meet, but which takes into account the excellent students and the students who are at risk. So there is a differentiation according to level. There is an average group and a group below this and above this. Divergent differentiation tries to tie in with the specific needs and level of each student individually. Both forms have their limitations. In convergent differentiation the learning materials and the teacher are the one-sided focus and in divergent differentiation it is especially the excellent students who benefit from each other, while the students at risk mainly see their shortcomings confirmed. In other words: the smart students learn more effectively while the students at risk are thinking, there you go, I really am stupid.
Real and meaningful differentiation, which takes into account the complicated workings of the separate elements such as the starting situation, the teaching materials, the learning aims, the methods and the specific characteristics of each individual student, to me as a teacher is a puzzle every single time.
In this light the method of Lino Hellings is more than interesting, because it is making divergent differentiation possible in a very informal way. The research subject, the method and the participants relate to each other in a kind of learning symbiosis.
The method is subdivided into three phases: the photo-walk, the uploading and the joint reflection. The most striking are of course the photographs, but what has remained underexposed in Coumans’ text as far as I’m concerned, is the importance of language. Or rather, the ‘translation’ of the image by the maker of that same image.
The first phase, the photo-walk with an open gaze and an external focus, in the traditional role as photographer, is transformed in the second phase into a more intrinsic way of looking and to the role of the visual editor. What can be seen in the photograph, what was the reason for me to take this picture? In selecting and describing the photographs the participants are forced to ask themselves questions. Why are things the way they are, and could they perhaps be different? In the phase of the uploading something else happens. During the first upload there is no context of other people’s images. The collection of photographs slowly grows, and the selection process is influenced by making connections with the work of others. Suddenly there is a complex ‘conversation’ in which everyone has the time and the space to express themselves.
What struck me were the many similarities between the PAPA-method and, what I would paradoxically entitle, the ‘informal method’. What I mean with this is that one of the confusing characteristics of photography is that it is both an artistic medium and the promise of a democratisation of image production. Everyone can press the button on a camera. And a camera cannot make bad pictures. In a sense you might say that bad photographs cannot even exist. After all, the appliance can only do what it has been designed for.
Lino Hellings’ method seems to be a formalisation of what most people already do with their camera when they are on holiday. In the introduction of ‘The Power of the Image’ this was mentioned as the ‘vicious circle of image-forming’.
We take photo-walks in picturesque Paris, because we do not consider the banlieues to be authentically French. At home we select the ‘best’ pictures and add a title, usually the location and the date, and when we really feel like it we add something like an anecdote. “After taking the picture, daddy lost his hat”. And finally we discuss the pictures with family and friends: the vacation book of photos as we knew it before digitalisation set in. When it comes down to it, it is precisely this informal method that Lino Hellings has given a strictly procedural character, but it is familiar to everyone, because largely it is the hidden programme Flusser talks about.
It is the obligatory nature of the ‘open gaze’ and the alternative location that makes Hellings ‘reset’ the participants to such an extent that the ‘exotic’ is not a Tahitian beauty on a white beach somewhere far away from our daily reality, but something found in our own back garden, in our neighbour’s world. The exotic starts behind the fence, with our neighbour as a stranger.
The information that the ‘open gaze’ provides during the first phase, exchanges with the contemplation of the text, so that experiences are translated into knowledge and transformed into various insights during the joint discussions. What struck me during these joint discussions was that the participants discovered that mapping a location through a plural perspective also made the subjectivity of the participant visible. By opening themselves up to a ‘story’ about the appointed location, the students gained insight into their specific way of looking at things as well. The ‘open gaze turned out not to be all that neutral after all. One student of Illustration saw stories, a student of Spatial Design saw many opportunities, a student of Facility Management saw legal regulations and a student of Graphic Design saw a collection of handwritten communication.
It appears that this is the PAPA method’s answer to both Flussers appeal to disorganise the appliance and its programme in order to put contents first, and to the educational challenge to differentiate at a fundamental level.
With her ostensibly modern and positivistic method (truth-finding) Lino Hellings knows how to formulate a postmodern answer to the shortcomings of Modernity, remarkably enough. Where according to Vilém Flusser the photographic appliance was the herald to the ‘last minute economy’ (read information), Lino Hellings knows how to use this same appliance and its hidden programme (i.e. method) as an antidote. Playing modernity as a trump by using its own rules.
Openness and reflection, and discipline versus play, brought about a real substantive dialogue which resulted in, from an educational perspective, a magical moment: the student who makes a relevant connection between the research subject, the research result, those immediately involved and his/her way of looking. Where in a world of hyper-mobility communication is dominated by an instrumental rationality (effectiveness and efficiency), Hellings’ method defuses this paradoxically enough by using modern means such as appliances and procedures. This has resulted in fundamental communication between the people involved, which not only makes clear what they are communicating about, but also how and because of whom their topic is affected by the sender’s subjectivity. For the participants this experience meant that they were visibly impressed by the complexity of day-to-day reality and that this triggered them to re-evaluate their commitment.
In a culture of profuse image and information production and consumption, Lino Hellings has discovered a way to formulate an alternative by using the same means, and which allows everyone to learn. I would like to thank Anke Coumans for initiating the professional development class; the students for their learning attitude and in particular Lino Hellings for her generosity.
1. ‘Open 21, (im)Mobiliteit, Onderzoek naar de grenzen van hypermobiliteit.
2. ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ Vilém Flusser For the sake of textual clarity only one aspect of Flusser’s analysis was mentioned.
3. ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ Vilém Flusser.
4. ‘Macht van het beeld’ Anke Coumans, zie tekstbijdrage eerder in deze publicatie.
5. In his work ‘Cosmopolis, the Hidden Agenda of Modernity’ Stephen Toulmin describes how Western thinking, influenced by Newton and Descartes, has been based on notions such as rationality, universality, purity and procedure since the 17th century. Its hidden programme is to arrive at a society which would be universal and rational, just like science. Within the framework of this professional development class it is interesting to quote Toulmin’s analysis of René Descartes. Descartes claimed, Toulmin shows, that if we cannot agree about what is the right thing, that the procedure might be decisive. So if we take the logical steps in a rational way, the universal, or the right thing, would be the obvious result. Toulmin claims that this fixation on (the universal and rational nature of) the procedure has caused us to underappreciate certain forms of knowledge. Special knowledge, local knowledge and humane knowledge and insights have wrongly lost their value and, according to Toulmin, deserve to be re-appreciated. Remarkable is that Lino Hellings’ PAPA method (read procedure) makes this special and local knowledge the central focus.
Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ Vilém Flusser, Reaktion Books, 2000. (Dutch: ‘Een filosofie van de fotografie’ Vilem Flusser, Uitgeverij IJzer, Utrecht, 2007.)