With a lens on the world

Eli Laikin and Hailey Rogers listen to Chris Baer, while on assignment in Oak Bluffs. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Consider these images: a rotting river stinking of industrial waste in Da Nang province, Vietnam; a breakfast table strewn with diced meat and cheese, torn bread, and gregarious Argentinian conversation; three Yemeni women sitting in a classroom, staring intently through their identical nadiq veils at a Facebook homepage; and the beginning of Circuit Avenue at the tarnished Island Theater on a deserted winter’s day. What could these intensely diverse realities have in common? They have all been generated by, exchanged with, and are part of the curriculum for Chris Baer’s photography classes at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High school.

The photo/design/technology teacher turned cultural diplomat was recently honored as Geo-Educator of the Week by National Geographic for stretching the boundaries of student documentary photography. He has most recently collaborated with classrooms in Taiwan, Argentina, Yemen, Vietnam, and Brazil, connecting Vineyard photo and design students with their global counterparts via digital media in the hopes of cross-cultural exploration and understanding. Perhaps most profoundly, Mr. Baer has created projects for these students that seek to bridge differences yet, simultaneously, celebrate diversity.

Ten years ago, the born-and-raised Islander was searching for a new and dynamic audience for his students’ work. “Documentary photography can be boring,” Mr. Baer told the Times in a recent conversation, “if your only audience is your teacher and your classmates.”

He began developing student photo curricula with the International Education and Resource Network (iEarn) — a collaborative online educational cooperative made up of participants from 140 countries. Mr. Baer was soon leading several projects, harnessing themes such as “Pollution” and “Mealtime.”

To Mr. Baer, the benefits were clear. “This way,” he said, “my students have an appreciative audience eager to learn about their lives and culture. They get to see photographs of lives and communities they might never otherwise experience, in a very real, non-Hollywood way.”

“We start by sharing photographs over the Internet,” said Amber Medeiros, 15, of Oak Bluffs. “But actually what’s most interesting is that they reply, and then we reply, and this begins a real conversation. It makes me want to learn more about their culture, or travel there, or do an exchange program later in high school.”

“The projects that have the most interactivity are usually the most successful,” Mr. Baer said.  “Anytime we can have live interaction, via Skype or a chat program, for instance, a big impression is always made. Do their school buses look like ours? Do they even have school buses? What is that they’re wearing — do they have to wear that? Which aspects of our lives are unique to our country or community, and which may be universal?”

He realizes that for the Vineyard, this outreach is dramatic. “Kids by nature are very insular — in our case, literally — and their perspective of the world can be a little myopic if we don’t help them expand their vision,” he said.

Olivia Pate, 15, of West Tisbury said, “What’s been most interesting is that they have different issues than we do with pollution; we all have pollution, but the pollution right in their neighborhood seems much worse than ours. It makes me realize we have more education on what we can do about it. It makes me feel grateful for what we have here.”

Mr. Baer stays focused on teaching the craft of photography, including camera techniques and digital production technology. “These projects are just vehicles to navigate this material,” he said, “but I think it comes with a rich harvest of additional insight that they would never get if they were just studying histograms and f-stops and making selfies. The photo exchanges make students think about their own culture.”

One of his international projects, entitled Alternate Realities, combines Adobe Photoshop instruction with cultural exchange. “This is a new project I invented over the summer, and I recruited a teacher from Argentina to help me facilitate it,” he said. “It’s technically challenging, but a lot of fun. We have participants from Argentina, Brazil, and Missouri right now, plus interest from teachers and students in Canada, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Uganda who may join us soon. The project asks, If our students can’t physically walk in one another’s shoes, what if they ‘Photoshopped’ each other in?”

Mr. Baer explained what is involved for each shot. “In this project, students create composite photos with captions, by Photoshopping student images into each others’ schools,” he said. “It’s a nice mix of photo-compositing skills, photography skills like matching light and angle, captioning skills, and creating an empathic bond with their peers in another community.”

Mr. Baer credits his own introduction to photography, art, and documentary photography to his family. “My father, Gene Baer, was the art teacher at Tisbury school,” he said. “And my mother [Jackie] was a photographer, but I was off to study technology.

He laughed at the irony of being a math major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and then returning to the Vineyard to join the family business: the artistic education of Island kids, begun by his father. “RPI had a great art department, and I minored in studio art with a focus on technology.”

Mr. Baer and his students have recently turned their collective digital manipulation imaginations to Oak Bluffs. Working from archival turn-of-the-century documentary photography of the town, the students recreate each chosen photo to the smallest detail. “It was once an incredibly grand town, albeit riding an economic bubble,” he said. “It never quite regained its grandeur of the 1870s and 1880s, and fires –– accidental and otherwise –– really changed the landscape. It’s sometimes hard to get your bearings when you’re looking at these old photos. It’s tricky to not only find the exact spot, but also match the zoom, composition, and exposure.”

His students have taken field trips to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to conduct visual research, and on assignment to the streets of Oak Bluffs, to find and frame the images of a bygone era. A display of some of the photos will be in the window of the Corner Store and Baer is actively working with the museum on a proposed show later this winter.

Passion and ingenuity drive Chris Baer’s vision for what courses in photography and design can offer. He seeks to use the tools of photography and digital processing to provide the platform for a far deeper conversation for his students.

“Many international classroom projects tend to revolve around charity, but I tend to steer clear of these projects,” he said. “Teaching charitable giving is important, but I think teaching cultural respect comes first.”

Edgartown sophomore Anna Keenan, 15, agrees. “We think it’s important to send clothes, money, and food to these countries if they need it, but donations would mean more to you if you have a direct connection to the people you are helping,” she said. “And Mr. Baer’s class projects give us that personal connection.”

It’s clear that with or without National Geographic awards, Chris Baer will continue forging a path of international engagement through the arts and media, creating projects that spark dialogue and explore cultural identity, not only for his students at MVRHS, but around the world.