‘Learning to Look’

Student photography exhibit on display at the Oak Bluffs library.


There is a beautiful photography exhibition at the Oak Bluffs library that exudes creativity. Not surprising, really, as the entire wall is covered with nearly 200 photographs taken by students, grades 5 to 11, from the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and the Island Autism Group. All the work serves as expressions of their inner spirit. Their authenticity makes for a powerful experience.

“Learning to Look” came about through the photography classes Melissa Knowles teaches using mindful photography, a way of looking at the world with purpose, and training us to look outward and inward, giving attention to our surroundings and the quality of our responses to them. But it is not just the young people behind the lens who learn to look carefully, but we as viewers of the show. Walking from left to right, I began at the top of every one of the 16 columns, looking down at the nine prints in each.

At first, I found myself marveling at the individual skillful compositions, the sharpness of the color, and the fascinating range of and approach to the subject matter. But while every piece is wholly unique, as I moved along on, I started to pick up on their engaging arrangement. It was intentionally curated by Knowles and Kaitlyn Vanderhoop from the Charter School so that, stepping back, you begin to see connections between the pieces emerge.

Suddenly, my eyes were both seeking the particular interpretations of similar subjects while simultaneously taking in the mural of photos as a whole. There are fabulous portraits, some candid, others intentional, that reveal the essence of the specific person. There are close-ups of natural and manufactured objects — some of which morph into abstract compositions, while others are recognizable, sometimes humorous items.

I also noticed a lot involving nature taken from inventive angles. As it turns out, connecting to nature is a very important part of Knowles’ teaching process. “Even though we are based on the Island and have this wonderful opportunity to explore nature, there still is a disconnect for a lot of the children I work with,” she says. “Getting them out and then using photography as a bridge further enhances those experiences.”

Knowles feels that an essential component of working with any group is sharing the art with the community. In terms of the display, with the help of Vanderhoop, she wanted to surprise the students. Names don’t accompany individual photographs; the curators wanted to convey that while they are individual works, the pieces together create a whole vision.

Knowles explains that the mindful photography approach “is about looking with intention. It’s not just about creating a pretty picture. It’s about cultivating a process where students’ sense of well-being is enhanced, and allows them to engage with their peers, the school environment, and nature.” She combines teaching the technical aspect of working with high-quality Nikon cameras and a range of lenses provided by Life Energy Arts with various therapeutic, social/emotional, and educational aspects. Knowles cultivates the ideas of confidence, curiosity, gratitude, and compassion. “We integrate meditation and, very early on, discuss what kind of language we use in photography, which within the industry is based on the language of colonialism. We have words like taking, shooting, and capturing, that all reflect a culture of violence. If we are to try and transform our photography into a practice that shapes connection with others and our surroundings, we first have to raise awareness of the language we are using, and start to develop a very different mindset,” Knowles says.

She also introduces aesthetic concepts from different cultures such as Japanese wabi-sabi, which promotes an appreciation for the rustic, the forgotten, the overlooked, and the ephemeral. “Children love the excitement of exploring the world in a way that they don’t usually, and wabi-sabi encourages us to search for beauty in the places we don’t expect to find it,” Knowles explains. “By doing that, we are engaged in a process where they are seeing something that is overly familiar in a fresh way, that excites their eyes and that creates a feeling of newness and safety.” This changed way of seeing is readily evident in the exhibition.

“The idea for all of the programs is whether or not you have a camera in your hands, it’s about helping people develop different ways of seeing, fresh perspectives, or helping us to understand that we might need a new perspective in challenging situations that might call for it,” Knowles says.

“Learning to Look” reflects Knowles’ belief that creativity can be a beautiful lens into other people’s lives. “I think the wonderful thing about children’s photography is that it is such a unique way of seeing. It offers a sense of wonder and awe that perhaps, as adults, we tend to lose a little. I hope the community comes to celebrate these children’s works and to tune into how they feel when they are looking at it,” she says.

This morning, on my daily walk, I noticed little things I had overlooked even the day before. The show accomplished just what Knowles says she hopes others walk away with: “For people to look more deeply at the world around them.”

“Learning to Look” is on view at the Oak Bluffs library through the end of March.