Using Photography with Special needs Teenagers as a Therapeutic and Educational Activity

A Fragile Heart in the Photographic Darkroom

Embedded in the word ‘refugee’ is an essential pre-requisite, the profound importance of, and desire for, a meaningful, supportive, refuge. There are all kinds of refugees in our schools and colleges – some are in flight from oppressive regimes overseas, some the victims of abuse at home, some sabotaged by their own bodies genetically, through birth trauma or accident in later life. For all of these students it is possible to create a kind of temporary shelter, a safe haven, through immersion in creative activity.

Crises can occur at any time in the life of a student and, as professional educators, we listen out for them, and because students are often unable to articulate the details of the circumstances that have created their distress, we listen out instead for the shockwaves that emanate from the epicentre of the catastrophe, the negative behaviour, the anger, the withdrawn silence.

Nola was sixteen years old, an elfin faced, slender girl who looked as if breeze would blow her away, but with a sharp-tongued quick wit that her classmates soon came to recognise, and dread, if they were on the receiving end. She dressed habitually in black, with dramatic black rimmed eye-liner and body piercings. Her look was of the moment – heavily influenced by Gothic chic. The blue lips however, were not artifice. Nola was waiting for a heart and lung transplant.

Nola’s refuge, her personal safe haven, was the photography studio and photographic darkroom. Our digital world has led to the dismantling of many darkrooms in our schools and colleges, and so, sadly, they are often perceived by people in charge of resources as an anachronistic luxury. In Nola’s case, the dim, red safe-lit interior of the darkroom created a kind of confessional space, where she visibly relaxed.

The group of sixteen and seventeen year olds, to which Nola belonged, was part of a bridging to tertiary education cohort, with a variety of special needs. In the broad light of day they were an unruly bunch, developmentally young. A plethora of challenging behaviours made it difficult to engage them as a group in traditional activities designed to support their literacy and numeracy skills. It was like, one colleague remarked, trying to herd cats. In the darkroom however, it was essential to follow a sequence. There was a rhythm, a pattern, embedded in to the process of exposing photographic paper to the light, then watching the miraculous appearance of an image as it slowly emerged in the tray of developer. This process needed to be timed carefully or there would be no pay-off, no end result. The physical movements of the group had to be moderated in the confined space. They had to be mindful of each other. It was like a subtle kind of choreography, and the numerical skills, as they calculated development times from test-strips and diluted chemicals, were acquired by default.

This group did not, initially, have to have access to expensive hardware. The most useful introduction to darkroom protocol is to produce a series of rayograms, as exemplified by the work of Man Ray in the first half of the last century. This technique by-passes the need for a camera and the more complicated process of producing photographic negatives, which is something that has to be done in total darkness by touch alone. To make a rayogram, in the red-lit darkroom, a variety of small objects are placed in direct contact with light-sensitive paper, and, after exposure to white light, they appear as black silhouettes on a white background. Beautiful, and subtle, results can be obtained easily and rapidly by thinking carefully about the composition of these objects and by using material that is translucent as well as opaque. Light behaves in very interesting ways when it passes through the kind of cheap, faceted glassware, often used as vases or sundae dishes that can be picked up for next to nothing in charity and second-hand stores.

Nola spent hours in the darkroom, and it was here that the richest conversations occurred, where she was able to give voice to her fear about her future, and describe how her illness had put a strain on her parent’s marriage, and how it was difficult not to feel guilty about the fact that they had divorced. She brought in various little trinkets from her treasure box at home, arranged these objects on the light-sensitive paper and then placed her hands around them and exposed the composition to the light. When the image emerged, there were the things she held dear, made permanent inside the fragile heart-shape that had been created in the space between her fingers and thumbs.