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2024 Annual Conference

St. Louis

March 21-23, 2024

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Picturing Providence

Kids Document Life in the City in 1969

Saturday, October 26 - 10:15AM to 11:00AM
Chace Auditorium

In 1969 I was a senior at the Rhode Island School of Design, studying photography with Harry Callahan. My thesis project was to explore graphic communication with children. Over two years I developed my own art curriculum and taught 100 students from five different neighborhoods in schools and churches around Providence. My project was supported by a Polaroid program to introduce photography to disadvantaged children, providing free cameras and instant black-and-white film. I taught students ages 10 to 14 to use photography as a way to describe their lives, explore their neighborhoods, and express their feelings about the world. Beyond fundamentals about cameras and composition, I taught them about documentary photography and introduced them to important works by master practitioners. I accompanied them on photo walks in their neighborhoods, and took them on field trips to unfamiliar places. Most of all, I sought to pass along Harry's adage that you only need to care about what you photograph in order to make it interesting. 

The work by these students is remarkable for its directness and immediacy. These children focused their full attention on documenting their surroundings, friends, and families. The result is an extraordinary collection filled with the kind of vivid, honest depictions that only personal photography can yield. When these photos were exhibited at RISD, the graduate students appreciated the vitality and raw unpracticed look these children obtained with primitive equipment, and inspired several to begin using Diana cameras in their own work. Recently I discovered the sealed shipping crate sent back from the final Polaroid Gallery exhibition in 1970, and I got to appreciate the children's work all over again. Now it is an important time capsule capturing city and family life from 50 years ago in some of Providence's most impoverished neighborhoods. 


Rosalyn Gerstein
Rosalyn Gerstein

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