The Diary of Lenton Primary
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
The following text was written in 1989!
It describes a photography-in-education project I was involved with just after I completed my BA in Photography at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. I had joined the Focal Point photographers collective (founded by Alec Leggat and Lawrence McDowall), and we were invited to do a project in a local school. As you will read on, you realise this was before the internet existed, before digital photography, before smartphones and before selfies... Therefore, it reads somewhat quaint, from another age altogether. still, the ideas are mostly valid, if somewhat naive...
The Diary of Lenton Primary - Multi-Culture, Photography and Education in Nottingham
What Hopes for the Future?
Judging from the various events of the past few years, it looks almost certain that the 1990’s will be a decade of an unprecedented change. Whether humanity and the planet will benefit from these changes, only future will tell. One thing is certain: the changes will occur and bear serious consequences.
The ability to adjust to these changes will prove vital for the growth and health of any society and individual on the planet. The effectiveness of such adjustment will depend on the sincerity with which they will be carried out. For example, it is possible to view the “greening“ of Western European politics as an insincere adjustment to the crisis with the ecology of the planet has been plunged into after decades of irresponsible exploitation. Unfortunately, this “greening” is merely a lip service to the real need for radical reform in the way we live.
Living in a Multi-cultural Society
Another complex consequence of the changes which rapid over-development is responsible for can be seen in the way modern imperialism has affected the demographic homeostasis of many cultures in the so-called Third World.
The affluent countries of the West no longer openly claim that it us their legitimate privilege to physically enslave the people of the countries which they has occupied. Instead, a more insidious but as effective control is maintained. Using their economic power (gained by the exploitation of human labour and depletion of natural resources in the Third World), the affluent countries still control the growth and economic independence of Third World countries.
The gap between the affluent countries and the impoverished economies of the Third World remains to the former’s advantage. When the affluent countries do attempt to take responsibility for the way in which they brought upon the crisis in the Third World, it is often in the form of patronizing charity.
Another way in which the affluent countries exercise their patronising superiority over Third World countries is the treatment that immigrant groups receive in the West once they settle there. It is important to remember that in Britain, for example, some of those immigrant communities have been living here for many generations and are as indigenous as can be. Others, like the West-Indian community for instance, were invited to come and settle in Britain to provide much-needed cheap labour in the 50’s, but with the growth of unemployment since the 70’s, their role in British economy has been deliberately marginalized.
Multi-cultural Society and Racism
It is curious that when Black and Asian communities are viewed with hostility as they are compared with the “true Brits”, it is rarely acknowledged that those “true Brits” do not form a homogenous, cohesive social group. Even if we disregard the class differences for the moment, we cannot forget that white British society is itself made up of various immigrant groups that have arrived to the island over the centuries. Why this society with such an evident background if multi-cultural past, is so hostile towards the more recently arrived group, is a question which social psychologists and historians will have to answer.
What is clear beyond doubt is that we live in a multi-cultural society. Whether the society presents a wider contrast of cultures than previously experienced in Britain is difficult to assess. What is of more urgent importance is to find a way in which this society can develop and grow to allow each group to evolve in its own way and at the same time contribute to society at large. This dynamic is not unlike in which the individual has to engage with finding a balance between their own voice and the requirement of the social unit within which they live.
It is my belief that the process of developing within a multi-cultural society, where we are exposed to a variety of different influences and practices, can be fulfilled without the spectre of racism getting too much in the way. But for that to happen, the nature of multi-cultural society must be perceived accurately. Merely allowing the situation to remain as it is now, with the obvious under representation of the Black, Indian and Pakistani communities in institutions of power for example, will not do. What is needed is active encouragement for the communities who have been marginalized to take a more significant part in social and public life. Such an encouragement can begin with education, while at the same time effort has to be made to ensure that all aspects of society become more accessible through legislative restructuring. It is also important to remember that considerable educational effort must be made to deal with the various manifestations of racist discrimination and harassment which are rife In all areas of British society.
The urgency and seriousness of the situation can be demonstrated by a recent bigoted remark by the Conservative Minister Norman Tebbit. He was questioning the loyalty of Black and Asian people in Britain in reference to the fact that some Asian and Black spectators chose to support the West Indian cricket national team against the British team. Such a remark from a senior member of the Conservative Party many not surprise many people but is deeply worrying nevertheless. Tebbit’s view that once in England all Asian and Black people must embrace everything English (whatever that may be), is unfortunately shared by others, amongst them groups of parents who oppose the idea of multi-cultural education and who support segregation and single-faith schools.
What is at stake here is the distinction between integration and assimilation in a multi-cultural society. When an immigrant community comes into contact with the values of the indigenous cultures (which are, it is important to be reminded, diverse and often contradictory), it is not easy to maintain the values which sustain the community and at the same time become actively involved in life in the new country. The process of maintaining the community’s integrity and at the same time being flexible enough to adapt if necessary, is a painful, prolonged and contentious issue. It is not made any easier by the fact that in Britain the social structures and conventions have always proved to be rigid and xenophobic.
Photography and Education
Young people have to spend almost half of their waking time in schools. Schools can be easily mistaken for places where adults leave their children during the day so that they can get on with the business of making money. It is easy t forget that the reason for schooling should be to enable young people to develop the skills which will allow them to be active and fully participate in whatever sphere of life they will later choose to enter.
In order to allow schools to become places where useful skills are being shared, it has to be recognized that simply acquiring information is not enough. The important purpose behind schooling must also be to enable young people to be perceptive, creative and critical with all the information they come across, whether it be a paragraph in a history textbook, an image on television, a fragment of conversation on the street or the cityscape surrounding them. A second equally important purpose has to be in training young people to incorporate those skills into the way they relate to one another.
In recent years, there is greater awareness of the importance that visual literacy has within the learning process in schools. To emphasise the importance of visual image in our media-dominated culture has become a cliché. However, it has to be taken seriously when it comes to education. The skill of visual literacy can be taught at school and are being done so in some places. One off these places is Lenton Primary School in Nottingham.
The Reflection project was initiated by Philip Bell, a teacher at Lenton Primary. Being aware of the immense potential of photography in the classroom, he approached a local community photographer collective, Focal Point, with the aim of embarking upon a collaborative endeavour, this making links between schools as users and local industry as specialists and instructors.
Lenton Primary schools reflects with its population of pupils and staff the multi-cultural nature of Nottingham. amongst its 135 pupils are Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews and Catholics.
The school is located in Lenton, at the heart of the city. As is evident to any visitor to the city, Nottingham is undergoing major redevelopment which is rapidly changing its face and structure. Lenton as an area is a prime example. Being an old part of the city, those changes are very visible.
The Reflection Project
After a few initial workshops of introduction to photography, which included pin-hole photography and photograms, the pupils began to concentrate on their first task. Grouped in small numbers, accompanied by a Focal Point collective member and equipped with basic camera equipment, the pupils went out in excursions in search of evidence of the contrast between the old and the new in Lenton. The responsibility of which sites to visit was left to them.
They showed a good working knowledge of their whereabouts in Lenton and had no difficulty in organizing short itineraries. They were excited about the new perspectives suggested to them, the old and the new in Lenton, and found they were looking a familiar place with a refreshed vision, recognizing things that have not up until then.
As part of the exploration of Lenton, a contact was made with the local church and the school was invited for a visit and was given a talk by the caretaker. As only few of the pupils are practising Christians, this was the first time most of them were inside a church. The visit to the church had raised some initial anxieties amongst the project leaders as perhaps imposing upon the non-Christians pupils, but with proper preparation and background talk, it felt to be an important part of the consciousness raising aspect of the project.
Multi-culture and the Media
One of the most significant and popular forms of photography is portraiture. It is practised by most people who try to appear at their best when posing in front of the photographer. Then the best results are printed and displayed or sent to loved ones. Often, the print is framed and displayed like a object of art in the living room.
Young people get their notions about what is likeable about them, which they learn to show to the camera from various sources. The younger they are, the more influential their parents and family would be in forming their self-images. As they grow older and began to perceive images through the popular media, they begin to assimilate different moulds. The media in this country is predominately controlled and aimed at white Christian audiences.
There is some attempt to redress that in Channel 4, for instance, by programmes like “On the Other Hand” which is aimed specifically ay Asian audiences. As a result, when young Asian and Black children watch TV they often watch programmes which do not reflect their own cultures. As a result, they absorb image and models which do not necessarily relate to their realities. As those children exist within peer groups at school, there is considerable pressure upon them to conform to those images with which they may have little in common. It is also true that one could argue that TV on the whole does not offer positive models with which young children can identify, Black, White or Asian, but that is another story.
Portraiture in Lenton
In order to make the portraiture project as successful as possible, the pupils were asked, a few days earlier, to begin to consider how they would like to present themselves to the camera. They were encouraged to use whatever props, costumes or other objects they chose to inte construction if their self-image.
Focal Point photographers set up a little make-shift studio in the school library and invited small groups of pupils to present themselves to the camera “as if they were in a TV studio”. The children chose to use an existing table as a stage and from that moment on were in full control. All the photographer was responsible for was to make sure that they clicked the release shutter.
Anne Frank in the World in Nottingham
During October 1989, Nottingham was the host of the international acclaimed exhibition “Anne Frank in the World”. The purpose of the exhibition was three-fold: to relate the fate of the Frank family and the European Jewry communities in such a way which will allow young people to gain some insight unto what the Holocaust was like, to emphasise the danger that each individual who was not part of the Aryan race was and to remind them that the dangers of Fascism and racism were far from over.
As in every city the exhibition visited over the last four years, many auxiliary educational and cultural events were organized locally. The programme which was supported by the Nottinghamshire County Council was attended by thousands during October and November 1989.
Lenton Primary’s pupil visit to the exhibition was the last stage of the Reflection project. In the weeks before the visit, Philip Ball introduced the children to various activities in the classroom on the meaning of discrimination, living under oppressive regime, as well as history lessons. The pupils were encouraged to keep diaries during that time and record their experiences.
The life and death of Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of what the Holocaust was. The validity and the strength of these symbols was evident in the way the Lenton primary pupils felt drawn to her story. A shot survey assessing the impact of the project upon the pupil’s awareness of the project in general and the exhibition in particular.