3.4 : Photography as a Language

“...children show us they know how to walk along the path to understanding.  Once children are helped to perceive themselves as authors or inventors, once they are helped to discover the pleasure of inquiry, their motivation and interest explode.  They come to expect discrepancies and surprises.”

Loris Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children, 1993, p. 60


As a young teacher, I became drawn to the practices of the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.  The interest in the schools has exploded, with countless people trying to figure out how to “do Reggio”.  For our purposes, we are looking at some theoretical and curricular ideas that come from Reggio Emilia.  It is a place where children are trusted and respected as artists and communicators of ideas - and photography can be art, and a form of communication.

Like pens, paint, clay, or blocks, children can explore ideas and understandings with materials.  A young child can make a mark with a pen on a paper and decide afterwards, I made a sun!  That same child can reflect on images she took with a camera and see glimpses of both the real (“I see Matan’s sleeve!”) and the abstract, through blur, or imagined stories.

For children to gain confidence and competence to an idea, they need to have opportunities to explore the idea as freely as possible, to make their own meaning of it.  With photography, this means opportunities to use the camera in a casual, unencumbered way - as much freedom as you can squeeze into your day.  There is value in giving children time to explore not just pictures, but the tool, the camera, itself.  Rather than worrying about the CONTENT (product) of the final photographs, a child needs time to walk around, press the button, and look through the viewfinder.  

When you are introducing cameras, keep that idea in mind, no matter what kind of curriculum or philosophy you follow in your setting.  Can you see the benefit of exploring photography as an idea over simply taking photographs?  The photographs are a given: the button will often be pushed hard enough to capture an image.  In my experience (and one that Sylvia Kind reinforces in the reading from unit 2) children do not have much worry about ownership of the final photograph - the interest lies in the subject of the photograph.  

Rather than thinking about language being the final photograph, think of the language as the experience of being a photographer, of using an important tool.  Through all that use, children will try new things, and become more confident and competent with the tool.  Try to observe and listen as they use the language - don’t wait until you look at the photos to start paying attention.



The images that you do capture feed into the next steps with your kids and their camera.  In the next lesson, you’ll get some actionable ideas for introducing photography in the classroom, if you haven’t already.  If you have, there are ideas that may help you reframe your thinking, and extend children’s explorations through prompts.


Learn a little more about photography as a language:

The Mysterious Glance of Children on the City

The Language of Photography from An Everyday Story