Soweto, Day Two: Using Light

Tuesday, 08 July 2014 02:18 PM Written by  Jody DiPerna


Jody DiPerna is one of three Pittsburghers leading a teen documentary photography workshop in Kliptown, a South African township. Read more about the Kliptown Photography Project, here.

July 01, 2014  

We didn't know what we could reasonably expect. We really didn't. How could we? We were traveling to an informal settlement to teach students ages 14-17 who we didn't know at all. We were working with one very seasoned photographer who had no experience teaching. And three other photographers who we only knew through their work and email. All four photographers are wonderful. We loved their work. And I had worked with Heather, so I'd seen her connect with people. I think it's really a strength -- just set her loose in a place and let her talk and connect and use her camera.

But honestly, when I think about it, what were we thinking?

Fortunately for us, our instructors are incredible, intuitive teachers -- I think because they really love photography. It is evident how much joy they get from using a camera, problem solving, figuring out different ways to connect with a subject or shoot an object, how to use the light and any other material they have at hand. That passion is infectious and it turns out they are all natural born teachers.

We let our students take their cameras home last night. The instructors gave them an assignment:  simply take photographs of some people close to you and then show us your three favorite photos. This afternoon the instructors got to look at our students work. As we were working in the KYP computer lab, we broke into groups -- three students and one instructor. I floated around, checking in on some of the work. The kids did great. Each one had at least one really good photo. Many of them had more than that.

And to think, I was worried that we wouldn't have enough good stuff for an exhibition.


Our kids are also amazing at taking in all kinds of technical information. I think I might have been inclined to dumb things down, or, at the very least, keep it very, very simple. Fortunately, I don't get to make those kinds of decisions. The instructors decided to throw a master class at the kids this morning, as a way to illustrate how a camera works the way that your eye works, which is to say, the interpretive engine of light.

Heather explained how a camera shutter works like your eye, opening in dark settings to let in more light, and closing in brighter settings to limit the light. And how a camera is just like that. She taught them how to make a make-shift reflector with cardboard and foil, so that they can reflect natural light onto a subject (could be human or inanimate) in a dim setting.

Patrick taught the kids how to use light on a subject -- front light, side light, and back light. I should add here, that while each instructor make take the lead for a short moment, the class is very interactive. All the instructors explain things, feeding off of each other, expanding on one thought or another.

They even taught the kids about the principles of photography -- ISO, aperture, shutter speed, film speed, etc. It was a master class and I have to admit, the kids were really keeping up with the ideas. In fact, during the classroom work, we thought we should give them a five minute break, just to stretch their legs and blow off some steam, but most of them stayed in the classroom, talking to Tila, Patrick, Jerry and Heather.

Admittedly, it's just fun to shoot pictures, but they're taking to all of it -- the theory behind it, understanding light and how they can use it, thinking about depth of field and framing (but we'll get to more of that tomorrow), and how photographers tell stories.

As Patrick told the students, "The writer uses pen and paper; but as photographers, we write with light."


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