The Fourth Grade Project
When was the last time you saw a photo that changed your perceptions? Looking at photographs – whether they are in our family photo album, between the pages of National Geographic, or on the walls of a gallery – can challenge our thinking on certain issues. When we look at a photo, we can reflect on what matters to us and how we want to make an impact by considering the perspective through another person’s lens. Viewing life at “standstill,” whether the photo is one that reminds us of our own experiences or exposes us to something new, creates a chance for us to think about the connections we have to the world around us and how what we see in the photo aligns with what we expect of that world. Judy Gelles, a photographer and activiist, believes in the power of photography to change perceptions, and she started the “Fourth Grade Project” to do just that. Gelles’ background in education, counseling, and visual art gave her the acumen to be able to merge photography and reflection in interviewing fourth graders from around the world. The following is Gelles’ account of her project:
The intent of the “Fourth Grade Project” is to lessen prejudice, oppression, and violence by sharing stories that prompt people to change their views of the “other” and of themselves.
Five years ago, I began volunteering at an inner city public school and was assigned to a fourth-grade class. The student body was composed of African American, Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian students. After several months of helping them with their reading skills, I felt the need to connect on a deeper level. I began photographing and interviewing everyone in the fourth grade class.
I asked each student the following three questions:
Who do you live with?
What do you wish for?
What do you worry about?
The project turned out to be an eye-opening experience. Their stories seemed to capture the gamut of societal issues that we face today: violence, immigration, the demise of the nuclear family, global hunger, and the impact of the media and popular culture. The project has expanded to include fourth graders from public and private schools in the US, Korea, India and China. The combination of frontal and reverse portraits allowed for the development of both personal and universal stories.
The idea of having both frontal and reverse portraits came from different reactions to photography in each country. In the US, photographing from the front can be problematic because of privacy issues. In China, when I began to photograph from the back, the teacher became upset as there it is considered disrespectful to photograph from the back. The teacher demanded I photograph from the front. In India, parents and teachers made no objections to either frontal or back portraits. In all of the portraits across the spectrum of countries, the children are presented as individuals; however, their stories speak to greater pervasive truths and problems within our society. Told in their own words, these children’s stories touch on some of our most pressing social issues and common human experiences.
The “Fourth Grade Project” provides a way for children to learn about peers from their own and other socio-economic groups and cultures in a personal, relatable way. Each student I photograph receives a personal portrait, while each teacher receives a book of portraits and stories from the complete fourth grade. These finished products help children feel seen, acknowledged, and validated. The students also see the portraits from other schools. By viewing images of other children photographed under similar circumstances and reading responses to the same questions that they themselves answered, students are given an opportunity to connect their experiences with those of children whose lives are markedly different from theirs – even within the same city. For example, inner city public school students worried about their personal safety, while private school students worried about world peace and world hunger. At the same time, there were connections across cultures, such as issues of family separation. Migrant students in China who are separated from their families in their hometown and Latino immigrants in the US who are separated from their families have similar reactions to the separation: they both experience great loss. The biggest takeaway? Family is extremely important to all children. They all need parents and relatives who care for them and look out for their future. Connecting these children though the Fourth Grade Project might help them to understand that they are not alone and that people from around the world have similar experiences as they do.
I hope to travel to more schools in the future. My goal for the “Fourth Grade Project” is to bridge cultural differences by fostering a strong, tolerant, and global student community. The project helps to decrease isolation and prejudice while asserting that every person’s story matters.
Judy Gelles received her MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design. Ms. Gelles also holds a masters degree in counseling from the University of Miami, and in her first career she was a fourth grade teacher. Her work is in major collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Link to her website and the Fourth Grade Project: www.judygelles.com
USA: Inner-city public school
USA: Latino public school
India: English Medium School
China: School for migrant workers’ children
USA: private Quaker school
China School for migrant workers children
India private school
USA public school
USA public school