I love the way different people see different things in different pictures, how their cultural and visual literacy affects what they see and how they see it. The most visually literate may be culturally illiterate, may make critical assumptions that are based on less than solid assumptions.
I've shown the above pictures to diverse groups of students. The top picture is from Raimond Wouda's excellent school series. One Dutch-Somali student (not a photography student) instantly identified the pictures as Dutch and then clicked off where different students came from, what their politics were, their interests, the degree of religious affiliation and where female Muslim students came from based on how they wore their hijab - something that would be beyond virtually every serious photography critic or commentator including myself.
I showed the John Davies picture of Mersey Square, Stockport (bottom picture) to a group of doc-phot students at Newport and one (hi Reggie!) started looking at the number plates and clicked off the year the cars were made and gave an educated guess to when the picture was made - 1986. I always look at the picture and look at the warehouse on the right - it was an indoor skatepark where I used to skateboard in the late 1970s.
Show the Rosa Parks picture to people who are not familiar with it and, as well as making the 'correct' interpretation (is there such a thing?) they guess that the two people in the picture are getting married, that he's putting a ring on Parks's finger or that she's hurt herself and he's putting a bandage on her finger (he has a kind face).
Anyway, all that talk of school gets me thinking of school selection in the UK. It's an incredibly divisive subject. My wife and I have just put down our choices for the school Isabel will go to next year. It wasn't too difficult 1) Because nearly all the schools in Bath are very good and we don't have the dilemmas that seriously urban parents have and 2) Because there is a great school called St Marks right on our doorstep with committed teachers, a dynamic head and an inclusive approach that means pupils get to engage and learn with a mix of students.
And then I wondered? Why would any school want to attract parents from an upper-middle-class background? Why would a school want to entice parents who are openly prejudiced against children who are economically less well-off? Where does this impulse to pander and suck up to divisive and discrimatory wealthy come from?
What do people think? That the 'rich' are going to make friends with you and spread their money around. That there is going to be some kind of informal trickle-down effect. I know some exceptionally generous wealthy people, but really, is that the way to govern your life - to let your ideals, values and opinions be swung by the sniff of mammon. And if that's what the parents think, well what about the kids? What kind of people are they? And would I want my daughter to be hanging around with the spawn of these lickspittle money-grubbing sychophants?
Bringing it back to photography, as well as wondering how much lickspittle sycophancy there is in photography, how can one portray the ideas in images? How can words and pictures convey the deep-rooted hypocrisy of free parental choice, the manner in which contempt and snobbery are passed on through family, education and association?
I think Raimond Wouda comes close in some ways, but in a Dutch context, which is very different. And he's not explicit in that respect. I'd love to see some British photographers really addressing class in their work and the way the kind of choices I've mentioned don't just affect a society but help make it destructive and negative. Perhaps I should give it a go.
University of Wales, Newport video of a Raimond Wouda talk.
Urbanautica interview with Raimond Wouda
The thing that fascinates me about the secondary school is the fact that is a closed world. I call it a micro-cosmos. The students are going there 5 to 6 days a week, they see the same people everyday, and the physical barrier is the fact that there is a fence that surrounds the schoolyard. In the development of a juvenile the secondary school plays a very important role because it’s the place were you will become aware of your identity. So in a way secondary school plays a major role on how people are formed, on how they develop as a person. In the environment of the secondary school the relationship with the other also plays an important role in the shaping of your identity. It’s always about who am I and how am I dealing with the others. In which group or subculture I belong? Who are my friends? How do they look like? What kind of music do they listen to? What books do they read? All this question that you are going to ask yourself for the first time are related to the context of the secondary school.