Big Pictures, Big Voices is the Focus on Justice pilot, run with Sherri Kushner's Advanced Media Arts students in Spring 2018.

Working with an Advanced Media Art class put us ahead of the curve in terms of technical skills and composition, as well as interest in the topics in the first place. Sherri's students had dabbled in social justice with some of their projects from previous years, so this program with the social justice focus seemed a natural next step for them. 

The first assignment was to three photos; one self-portrait, one photo depicting a unique expression and one using natural lighting. 

Even though it was the first assignment, it was already obvious that the students knew what they were doing artistically; the first critique went well, and the students were extremely articulate in pointing out techniques and skills in both their own and others' work. 

This made it a lot easier to move into thinking about emotion as well. In our next assignment, we asked the students to take photos of the beginning, middle and end of a story. 

We intended this to be just another step in the road on the way to the final social justice themed photo, the "story" photos turned out really well. One student even used her photo from that assignment for the final show. 


As the project went on, we had some trouble deciding exactly how we wanted to photograph social justice issues. Some of the students knew exactly what they wanted to demonstrate, and others were at a loss for a social justice issue they cared about enough to focus on. 

In hindsight, it may have been too much for them. Not because they didn't think about social justice, but because today's media is oversaturated with social justice news and imagery. Some of the students seemed burnt out. Some couldn't focus on one thing they felt they cared about more than others. 

One roadblock a couple students faced was, to them, a simple ethical problem: is it right to stage photos when it comes to issues as serious as the ones we face today?

In response to some what we heard from the students, we opened up the project to include capturing strong emotions as well, hoping the increased leeway would encourage the kids to be more creative and produce their best work.

Once we expanded the arena, we wished we'd done it earlier; it became clear that a focus on personal struggles and issue advocacy, rather than social justice as a whole, would better serve the age group with which we worked.

We took this knowledge forward as we planned for the Y.O.U. PhotoVoice program over the summer.

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Two weeks out from the final show, most of the students had photos but no captions to go along with them. We also had no name for the project. 

When we ran Exceptional Voices, we wanted the participants to choose the name, because we thought it would make it more authentic. We had five students for that project, and 30 for this one.  So in a full classroom, we called everyone's attention and tried to brainstorm names. We didn't get very far before someone said, "Maybe something about big picture?"

Most of the students liked the play on words, but it felt like the name was missing something. Sherri Kushner was the one to suggest "Big Pictures, Big Voices" and it stuck. 

We spent the last two weeks in a frenzy of Photoshop, caption writing, caption editing and printing. And re-printing. And printing yet one more time. Despite the crunch time, the photos were all edited and ready to mount in time for the final show, which took place at the Evanston Public Library outside the teen loft.

We plan to go back to Chute in early 2019 to run another, similar program.