What would you do if a group of BAME and LGBT students in your class shared their dissatisfaction with the white, straight male-centric curriculum?
Dave Lewis, lecturer in Photography in the School of Arts and Creative Industry, faced just this challenge from his students. Let’s see how responded.
Students on Dave’s BA (Hons) Photography class noted that their course made little reference to people of colour and to women. In a cohort of 114 students with only 17 BME (15%), the students on the photography course also pointed to the lack of diversity within classes both in terms of student numbers and in terms of the mostly white teaching staff.
Dave knew that it was not enough to merely add a few more artists to the reading list. His interventions were designed to engage the students in questioning artists’ perspectives and to normalise the work of BME and other marginalised artists.
What changes were made (and why)
The interventions Dave made took the form of changing the pedagogical approach to classes as well as the development of a human rights component to a documentary module. This new component challenged dominant perspectives and asked the students to reflect upon their own world view, politics, values and artistic practices.
All interventions were designed to introduce difference into the class in order to de-colonise the curriculum.
New module: Human Rights and the Image
In designing this new component for the level 4 documentary module, Dave knew that it was important to model an understanding of perspective and the differences there may be to the mainstream.
Students were not given classes on ‘issues’ or asked to create projects based on major themes covered by the press and saturated by the media. Instead, they were asked to find a localised artistic project that had resonance for them personally and to consider not only their own perspective but also that of their photographic subjects.
Part of their brief was to defend their project to the other students in the class. The following questions were used as a framework:
- What is the area around rights that you are interested in photographing?
- Why is it important to you?
- Why do you think this issue is important to anyone else?
- Are you trying to illuminate the issue or make change through your photography?
- Who are the individuals/groups affected by the issue?
- What key role will the participants play in the making of your project (apart from being photographed)?
- What has been done in the past to address these issues?
- How do you think your approach will bring the issue to light?
- Can you see your project working online delivering to a wider audience?
- Will the project be solely photographic? Or with sound, moving image, a book?
Working from the project out, students explored their chosen human rights issue. They were required to provide a reflective analysis of their artistic project that included primary and secondary sources relating to the broader issue as well as other projects that set their work in context. Oher individuals’ perspectives about the issue could also be incorporated and used in the project itself.
Normalising BAME Art
Dave and other black tutors on the Photography course critique dominant perspectives by examining examples of their own works and publications/practices as well as those of other BAME artists. This not only critically engages the students but provides BME role models for students who feel a lack of diversity.
Dave prefers to use the word ‘normalise’ than ‘role model’ as he would rather all students think that a BAME artist is not something out of the ordinary.
Autograph: ABP is an international charity that promotes and archives work by photographers and film makers who focus on race identity and human rights. The Photography team have included visits to the organisation as well as guest lectures delivered at LSBU in their teaching.
These events not only allow students to see the breadth and depth of work that challenges a mainstream point of view, but also allows them to encounter ways to deal with topics they might find fraught with tension. Again, the visits normalise the work of artists studied and encourage students to analyse different perspectives.
LSBU is situated in a diverse area of South East London. Staff on the Photography BA (Hons) course are concerned to help our students recognise the place and power of art within the community. This year’s level 5 group show will be held in Peckham – an area of multiple deprivation where approximately half the population is BAME.
A community arts project involving level 4 and 5 students is also planned for Peckham in 17/18.
The outcomes of challenging dominant perspectives and normalising BAME artists within the Photography BA (Hons) course is evident in the attitude and awareness the students bring to their work.
Workbooks of both BAME and white students include more investigation of black artists previously seen as outside the mainstream. The students are also more questioning, seeking out tacit rules and transgressing them through their artwork.
The idea that art is more than the product of elite white men and that acknowledging difference brings legitimacy to artists previously ignored encourages our BAME students to see themselves as becoming successful artists and helps create strong voices unafraid to present their view.
With thanks to…Dave Lewis, School of Arts and Creative IndustriesPhotography from: Unsplash