One of the Best Teaching Tools Ever

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For the past three years social documentary photographer, author, and adjunct professor Ken Light has used Blurb as a teaching tool in his UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism classes. Ken was good enough to talk with us about how he uses Blurb and what his photojournalism students (and he) get of out the creative collaboration that goes into making their yearly Blurb book.

What’s the initial scope of the book assignment?
I select a theme, and then pitch it to my photojournalism class. Sometimes, such as with this new project, the students talk about my idea and then come up with their own variations. For instance, we started talking about homelessness. Students felt it was overdone and too narrow a topic, so we came up with the idea of “dwelling” instead.
Each student in class pitches a few ideas to explore within the theme we settle on. We talk about the problems they may face in exploring the theme, and we edit work continually during the semester. The students struggle with stories, often failing and looking for new direction, knowing that we have a limited timeframe and deadline in which to publish the book.

Tell us a little about the logistics. For instance, how do you get a class to collaborate on a book?
Students are expected to shoot each week and as a class we look at their work every week. The first few weeks we talk about and look at the work of a variety of image makers who have done in-depth storytelling. It’s a good way to learn to see in book language rather than in newspaper or magazine editorial style.

What’s the editing process like? How do you choose the subject matter and focus?
During the semester, we make edits of digital files and I save those edits on my computer. Then I actually have the students take the selects the class chose of their work (up to 20-30 images each) and make small photo prints at a local lab or pharmacy.
We then create a paper dummy with them and hang the paper dummy on our classroom walls. The dummy is based on the Blurb book size we chose. We number the pages and start to go through each student’s work and talk about it, select the very best images, figure out the sequencing. This part of the process is very organic and ideas fly or sink as we work though each page. As we get closer to our drop-dead date, we give ourselves enough time to do a final layout. Then I have students use Blurb’s free design tools to get the finished book uploaded before the semester is out.

And what does a book enable you to do that a term paper or video can’t?

A book has a more collaborative feel. You can start in the middle, end or beginning and it should still feel alive from any direction. You can carry a book around, it feels permanent, not fleeting…after all it’s a real book!!!

What have your themes been in years past?

The first year we did a book called “The Great Recession,” capturing America on the financial brink in 2008, and the second year we created “American Identity,” exploring immigrant populations and mixed-race identity in the U.S.

What have students’ reactions to the project and the finished product been?
The students love it, and are exhilarated when we get the final book. We do so much web journalism now that to see something printed on the page has a wonderful feel of the real, of history, and of good old-fashioned story telling. We do always have a little book party at the beginning of the new semester for our Blurb book launch. We invite other students and faculty to take a look and have some wine and cheese with us.

Any lessons learned over the years that you’d like to pass on to teachers who’d like to do a book project with their classes?
Be patient and realize that it is a learning process. Expect the unexpected. Let students struggle, fail, and then rise to the occasion of making and editing images. Enjoy the give-and-take and challenge them.

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