Photography and Social Consciousness:

A Pedagogical Practice

By Sheila Pinkel, Professor of Art
Pomona College
February 2009

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For the last twenty years I have been teaching documentary photography course at Pomona College in an attempt to connect students with the realities and dilemmas confronting people in the Southern California area. Each time I teach this course, I try stay responsive to the temperament of the class to determine whether students want to work on very separate projects or a coherent and integrated group project. The class determines the trajectory of the course. They also determine whether they will finally make a group book, individual books, wall works or installations. If the class elects to make a group book then I am able to better demonstrate the idea that the sum is greater than the parts.

However, regardless of their decision, I usually integrate one or more field trips so that they can learn how to negotiate fieldwork, have experience photographing and interviewing people outside the college community. My overarching mantra is “Life is not a rehearsal.” My expectation is that students will make work that is exhibitable or publishable and which changes their consciousness in the process. These classes are very challenging for me since I must respond and adjust to new information and attitudes as they emerge. I often feel like I have a tiger by the tail and am hanging on for dear life but it’s the most honest way I can conduct the class and also the best way I can afford students an opportunity for their own discovery.

One of the challenges of teaching a documentary course is the problem with the concept of ‘documentary.’ The class reads “Surveyors and Surveyed,” an article by Derrick Price in the anthology PHOTOGRAPHY: A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION edited by Liz Wells, which allows us to discuss the changing understanding of the term ‘documentary’ over the last 150 years. We discuss the difference between two different shots of Allie Mae Burroughs by Walter Evans reproduced in Martha Rosler’s seminal article “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)” to better understand how photography is a subjective rather than an objective reflection.  

We also discuss some of the problems associated with doing this kind of photographic work, including the difficulties of photographing people inside and outside of our own social group and how we should proceed responsibly. Students are taught to make eye contact with workers before they photograph to make sure that the workers give their consent. They were also taught never to photograph someone who doesn’t want to be photographed. And they are taught to try not to include the faces of the workers whose identities might be compromised by our project, even though, in fact, we never intend it to be exhibited or publicly distributed. They also learn to conduct interviews and to responsibly transcribe those interviews so that a multiplicity of voices can be included in their work. We also discuss how to approach a project by researching the history of a subject and interviewing people who are knowledgeable.


Often the direction of the class changes from what I had originally imagined and I must be able to keep every person in the class on track as those changes occur. Students understand from the outset that the syllabus may and probably will change and I hand out updated versions as necessary. The following are readings which I have found most helpful and am using this semester. In addition to the article by Derrick Price, “Surveyors and Surveyed,” they read “Images, Power and Politics,” by Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright in PRACTICES OF LOOKING: An Introduction To Visual Culture, READING NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC by Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L Collins, “The Making of Professional “Savages,” by Roslyn Poignant from PHOTOGRAPHY’S OTHER HISTORIES, edited by Christopher Pinney and Nicholas Peterson, an article by Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis from the book NO ONE IS ILLEGAL, and “The Body and The Archive,” by Allan Sekula, from CONTEST OF MEANING. I am always revising this list of articles as the direction of the class changes. During the semester I also ask students to each choose an image/text book by a documentary photographer which they think is especially effective about which to make a 15 minute power point presentation. 

Before talking about the specifics of a class I want to briefly take you through some of the books classes have produced. The earlier books were pre personal computers and so were produced by cutting and pasting together images and text and then the final books produced via Xerox so that every student could get a copy. The first book produced, “Who” in 1988, (1) included photographs of faculty, students and staff who were also asked to write about their hopes and dreams and greatest fears. We found that by organizing the book alphabetically, all social strata were leveled which afforded a clearer comparison between people, a good example of how ordering or archiving determines meaning.

In 1990, when the U.S. was deeply involved in the civil war in El Salvador, we studied El Salvador for a whole semester. (2) The first assignment was to photograph and ask people in Claremont three questions: 1. Who is the President of El Salvador? 2. What is the major political party in El Salvador? 3. What do you know about the situation in El Salvador? Students found that most people knew nothing about the country or U.S. involvement there.

Then students interviewed Salvadoran refugees in Claremont, including a 16-year old Salvadoran boy who spoke in our class. It was very important for the students to hear the testimony of this young man who was younger than they were and who described what it was like to live through and participate in a war. They also interviewed a priest who participated in numerous demonstrations against U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and a woman who worked with a church, which provided sanctuary for Salvadoran refugees in Claremont. This was the first time I was able to accomplish this kind of experience and subsequently have tried to make sure that in all of the projects students have immediate personal contact with people who tell their story.

Next we looked at the way the media reported the story of the killing of the six Jesuit priests and a maid in San Salvador which occurred in November 1989, comparing reports from national and international press with the article in The Nation Magazine when the massacre first occurred. That comparison revealed that while the national and international media suggested that F.M.L.M. left wing guerrillas were responsible for the killings, the Nation Magazine deconstructed this allegation to afford a more comprehensive discussion of this incident. In the May 7, 1990 issue of Newsweek, right before we were going to press, an article buried on the right column of the left page with no picture reported that government Salvadoran troops were responsible for the murders who had been trained in counterinsurgency warfare in the U.S. by American military instructors, contradicting the original statements by the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and the President of El Salvador. The media component became very important in subsequent classes in order to show students how news is constructed/manufactured.

For the next assignment, students spent the morning at a Central American Refugee Center and the afternoon photographing and interviewing people in the Salvadoran community in Los Angeles. For the final assignment, students photographed civil disobedience training at Las Placitas Church in Los Angeles and then photographed a protest of U.S. involvement in El Salvador at the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles. The whole class determined what to include in the final book and the sequencing of chapters. Through group discussion of the images and text they began to better understand how to more effectively visually and verbally communicate.

In subsequent classes we produced books entitled “Framing Immigration,” 1993, (3), “Bread Stories,” 1994 (4). For this project each student selected either an ethnic bakery or restaurant to study and photograph for the semester. When we collected all of the chapters we were surprised to discover that regardless of the restaurant, the people doing the cooking were from Mexico. This is the next book, “Who Makes Our Clothes? An Investigation of the Garment Industry,” 1997 (5), “Immigrant Workers: The Faces Behind the Factories,” 2003 (6), “Uncuffed: Women and Incarceration,” 2006 (7) in which we collaborated with a sociology/women’s studies class for the semester, and most recently “Crossing Over: Borders and Barriers.” 2007 (8). Often students did independent projects. For instance one student studied farm workers in Southern California for the entire semester producing an 82-page book on the subject, which led to her dissertation three years later (9). Another student decided to study use of drugs on campus for the semester (10). Because of the inflammatory nature of this subject, we agreed that the identities of participating students would be omitted if they agreed to be verbally and visually truthful about their use of drugs. I also agreed that only our class would ever see this book so there would be no fear of reprisals from the administration. Near the end of the project this student received threatening calls and notes from students worried about their participation in her project. The Dean of Students also called wanting to see a copy of the book. However, I reminded the student that she did not have to show this book to anyone but our class. Because people’s identities were protected, she was able to do an incredible image/text work reflecting this aspect of campus life.

For years I had been taking students to downtown Los Angeles to photograph in the heart of the garment district. In 2003, I devoted an entire class to studying garment workers which resulted in the book “Immigrant Workers: The Faces Behind the factories.” (11) The first half of the class included photographing demonstrations for workers rights that were happening both in Claremont and Los Angeles, photographing garment factories, interviewing garment workers and touring American Apparel manufacturing facility. This is the inside front cover showing a labor demonstration in downtown Los Angeles (12), the opening pages (13) and Table of Contents (14). The introduction included information about the Los Angeles garment industry, including the fact that in 1999 workers had been under paid $80 million.

The first chapter reflected our research on American Apparel (15) where we went as a class to photograph and subsequently several students returned to interview the head of the company and workers. (16) (17) (18) (19). The second chapter (20) included some of the photos the class took in the garment district in downtown Los Angeles (21) (22) (23) (24). Notice the Mexican flag in this photo by contrast to the U.S. flag at American Apparel. Students were concerned about the lack of unions in this industry and one student returned to American Apparel to interview workers on this subject. We found that most of the workers at American Apparel were anti-union because they thought that their employer treated them well. We were surprised by this response because we had witnessed people working as hard as they could in pods of 8-11 workers producing one t-shirt every 7 seconds for near minimum wage. The owner of American Apparel was against unionization. Another student interviewed people from a pro union/anti-sweatshop group and so we placed these interviews side by side to compare their responses.(25)

After spring break we had an opportunity to visit Maclovio Rojas (27), the 10, 000 person border collective in Mexico which is adjacent to the maquiladoras in the suburbs of Tijuana (28) (29) (30) (31). We spent the day there interviewing leaders of this collective and touring the site. Students also interviewed people who were out of work (32) about living and working conditions. We learned that women past the age of 35 are not hired by the factories because they are considered too old to have the necessary dexterity to do factory work. We also learned that while there had been numerous garment factories in the past, at the time that we were there, those factories had moved to other Latin American countries where workers were paid as little as $.17/hour.

We then drove to the factory area adjacent to Maclovio Rojas, passed a new suburb of homes for factory management (33). The factory area was impenetrable and the best we could do is spend some time photographing the outside of the buildings. (34) In a perfect world we would have stayed for the rest of the semester and continued to photograph and interview here. We finished this book with a shot of the border (35). As we were going to press we learned of a labor demonstration in Claremont which became the inside back cover of the book (35).

This trip to Mexico galvanized the students and they worked feverishly on the final book. I usually chose 1-2 students who are particularly adept at computer graphics to coordinate the book. The whole class structured the book and then these students assembled it in QuarkExpress. In this class, students were initiating coming in to review the text and make sure the final version was correct. Their investment in the final book was heartening to me because I was sure that this time the book wasn’t going to happen. They even pulled some all nighters near the end to make sure we could go to press. This was the first book we generated entirely on the computer. The duplicating facility on campus had just added a machine that could produce books from electronic files.

The people at Maclovio Rojas were very happy that we were there with our cameras. In fact, our guide there requested that the students send her copies of their photographs, especially those of the schools and toilet facilities so that they could send them to the government as proof of both their programs and their need. They hoped that our photos would result in their getting badly needed monies to improve these facilities. The students were delighted that their photographs would be useful to them.

The next book, “Cross Over: Borders and Barriers,” 2007,  (37) was the finest book a class has published in terms of refinement of output. This time we were able to publish on-line, using as our publisher. We simply up-linked a pdf version of the book plus a cover and soon our book was delivered. However, it is a mistake to think that this was simple. We had to change the book many times in order to make it conform to the requirements of Lulu, which took several extra weeks.

In this class students researched immigrant issues for a semester and did some warm-up image/text projects to have the skills to do the final project. I tried to prepare the class by assigning chapters from NO ONE IS ILLEGAL by Mike Davis and have them do web and library research about immigrant issues. I also showed them two videos: “Residents of Deer Park” about migrant workers living in the vacant land adjacent to million dollar subdivisions in the San Diego area and “Maquilopolis” about worker experiences in border factories of Tijuana.

I set up a two-day field trip for the class. When looking for a guide to the U.S. side of the border I wanted a person who was well known to workers and could help us understand their situation. I contacted a leader from an immigrant farm labor center in the San Diego area who became our guide for the first day. He had been a migrant worker for many years before he became a citizen. While he now works as a night manager for a drug store, he remains committed to educating the public about immigrant worker issues. And on the weekends he stands with day laborers to protect them from assault by locals and The Minute Men. Because he was known by the workers in the area, he was able to assure them that our photographs would not compromise them in any way.

We started the trip by photographing a strawberry field in the Del Mar area. (38) (39) (Here I will show pictures and tell a funny story). Then we walked up the road to a dirt lot where the Minute Men had just destroyed the cardboard box and plastic homes of the workers. We then went to a corner where day laborers hang out hoping to get jobs. And finally, we went an undeveloped area east of Del Mar adjacent to million dollar tract homes where the migrant workers eat and sleep, arriving there in time to see them coming in trucks from the strawberry fields to have dinner in a dirt vacant lot before their 2 mile walk home (40). These were the workers we had photographed in the strawberry field earlier in the day. Most of them were Mixtec and did not speak Spanish or English. My Spanish-speaking students tried to locate workers with whom they could talk and taped and later transcribed these conversations. Because our guide was known and trusted by them he could explain our project to them. In behalf of trying to give back, the students had brought blankets and work pants which they placed in a pile by the food truck.

Our guide talked to the students about the fact that the workers earn minimum wage, about $52/day. They spend $10-15/day on food from food trucks, their only source of food. After tax deductions they take home very little and they do not even receive Social Security or health care benefits their taxes are supposed to provide. We also learned that two weeks before the end of the harvest, some owners of the fields call the INS who arrest them and deport them before they can claim their last paycheck.

The next day we took a tour of the Mexican side of the border given by a worker from Casa del Migrante, a halfway house for people immigrating or emigrating to or from the U.S. This tour included a trip on the Mexico side all the way along the wall dividing the (41) U.S. and Mexico from Tijuana to the ocean. We also photographed the exterior of the maquilodores. However, when we got out of the bus in this area, armed guards appeared in the doorways of the manufacturing facilities. Our guide because very agitated and insisted on leaving the area immediately. We then visited a housing settlement adjacent to a river contaminated with lead and manufacturing refuse. And finally, we went to Casa del Migrante (42) where our guide on the Mexican side of the border talked about the situation for migrants going in both directions. Spanish speaking students then interviewed people who had been recently expelled from the U.S.

Our guide on the American side of the border indicated that our photographs would be very useful both to him and his organization that works to better living and working conditions for immigrant farm workers. He requested that we send him photos, especially of the workers in the strawberry fields because up until our trip, he had never been able to visually communicate this aspect of their lives. I also sent him a copy of the class book and made a cash donation to his organization.

Last year I took students to the Coachella Valley east of Los Angeles about 125 miles where migrant farm workers seasonally pick the crops. This time I arranged a talk and tour by members of a labor law office that specializes in representing farm workers. One person from this office gave us a tour of the Coachella Valley, showing us the drainage ditches where migrant workers are forced to bathe due to lack of water facilities, the overcrowded trailer parks housing thousands of workers and parking lots where they live in their cars in May and June during the peak harvest season. The next day again we took a tour of the Mexican side of the border, ending at the offices of a women’s collective helping workers with labor and health issues.

This might have been my most difficult and least successful trip. We had discussions because some students felt uncomfortable about photographing workers, even though we had permission from their employers and our guide was known and trusted by the workers. Some students felt uncomfortable about photographing in housing areas, even though again we had permission to do so. We will not do this again unless students are able to spend more time and really get to know the community they are photographing. I struggle with this because I also feel that it is important that students learn how to learn about the realities and dilemmas confronting diverse peoples by direct contact and so I do try during this class to create opportunities for this kind of experience.

Other students reflected that this project gave them the experience to photograph in the field affording them the tools to continue their work.  One of the most positive students made sure that an article about the class was printed in the local newspaper and talked about the class during commencement ceremonies. In the past, the class has slept with friends or relatives of mine to reduce the expense of these trips. Pomona College pays for transportation and food. In a perfect world, we would spend an entire semester on Coachella Valley so that students could really get to know people and interview them over time. This semester I am hoping to solve this kind of problem by having students focus on one subject for the semester so that they can have a deeper relationship with the people and issues they are studying.

Since 1990, I personally have been working on labor related projects both in Southern California and Southeast Asia. And in 2007, I gave a lecture on this work at a symposium in Dublin, Ireland on my labor related work. Thus, the issues that are included in this class engage me as well. I like the kind of integration that comes from my own involvement in this subject matter. A final funny aside, once when I was photographing in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles, I went into a building where I knew I wasn’t allowed. I walked up the internal stairway to the second floor, walked into a garment factory and asked for the manager. No one knew where she was so I started shooting. I managed to shoot a whole roll of film by the time she appeared. She started yelling at me and demanded that I leave. I went down the stairs and onto the street. As I walked away I heard a scuffle behind me and turned to see the manager of the factory and the building coming after me. The building manager shouted, “You have no business coming into my building. I want your camera, I want your film, who are you anyway?” I explained that I am an artist and a photographer simply shooting in downtown Los Angeles. At that he turned to the factory manager and said, “She’s only an artist.”

Do I think that our work in this class has an immediate impact on the situation for immigrant workers? Not in the short term. Do I think that our work changes the students and me? Absolutely, both in terms of better understanding the realities and dilemmas confronting workers and in giving students the experience to do future projects.


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