Shifting Perspectives through Photography

Phillips Educator Kimberly Willison reflects on the Phillips’s 2023 Summer Teacher Institute, which focused on how photography can empower us to see differently.

Photo of Frank Stewart by Cheriss May, Ndemay Media Group

With the school year underway, it’s a wonderful time to reflect on the powerful impact professional learning can have on the lives of teachers and ultimately their students. A collaboration with the University of Maryland, The Phillips Collection’s 2023 Summer Teacher Institute had the theme of Focal Point: Shifting Perspectives through Photography. The five-day institute inspired by Frank Stewart’s Nexus, attracted over 35 educators from public and private institutions near and far, including many teachers from schools in Washington, DC, northern Virginia, and Maryland, and even some from as far away as Navajo Nation, Chinle, Arizona and Ecuador.

Photography is all about perspective—we see a person, place, or object through the lens of the photographer and also through the lens of our own perceptions. Teachers brought their rich perspectives to the week-long institute motivated by a desire to join a community of arts integration educators, a belief that arts integration can improve student learning, and an interest in exploring photography as an artistic medium for themselves and their students. The participants learned strategies to support social and emotional learning while learning about the Phillips Collection’s artworks, artists, and resources.

During the week, the educators learned from three local artists. Phillips Education Assistant and artist Davinna Barkers-Woode led a workshop about elements of photography including composition, viewpoint, and perspective.

Photo by participating teacher Jon Berg exploring viewpoint and perspective

Phillips Educator, artist, and former special needs art teacher Monica Cohen Lenoff led participants through a workshop to create masks expressing hidden and revealed parts of their identities.

Photo of Reveal/Conceal Mask by participating educator Elizabeth Clarke

DC-based portrait and editorial photographer Cheriss May led an interactive photography workshop about storytelling and shifting perspectives. She provided professional guidance on techniques for capturing powerful moments through photography and inspired educators to make meaningful connections with those they photograph.

Photo by participating educator Amanda Dempsey working with reflective surfaces

Working with some of the themes explored in Frank Stewart’s photographs, the educators considered how photography might be used to explore, refine, and communicate our understanding of our ancestors, our culture, and the world around us. They thought about how a shift in perspective might open up possibilities for seeing our everyday surroundings, ourselves, and others in a new light. They considered how photography might be used to open up lines of communication in their classrooms to allow for deeper interpersonal connections and awareness and acceptance of varying perspectives.

Photo by participating teacher Angela Cirillo capturing elements of culture

As a culminating project, the participants constructed a visual autobiography through photographs to consider how their personal identity, culture, and life experiences impact how they see the world. They examined how varying perspectives, composition, and other elements of photography can empower us to see differently. Through this process, they explored how factors like power, empathy, self-awareness, and respect play into the art of photography.

Reflecting on the Summer Institute, one participant commented, “This was a very enriching experience and one I am so happy to have participated in. I look forward to sharing techniques with colleagues and students.” Likewise, the Phillips Education team looks forward to welcoming students and teachers to the museum this school year.