Looking through the eyes of a child through the lens of a camera

I am a firm believer that young people are capable photographers. The power that their images have in sharing their voice is significant in any forum but in the learning and teaching environment this way of communicating has the potential to  contribute greatly to the learning of all in that environment. This post shares a publication of mine. The book chapter has been released by the publisher for availability on my university’s research repository and I thought I would share it with you. In sharing, I’m interested in your thoughts, ideas and experiences in working with photography and young people and opportunities you have had in listening to and supporting voice.

Looking through the eyes of a child through the lens of a camera

Narelle Lemon


Type “digital photography in the classroom” into the search menu of the internet and numerous sites appear with suggestions of making books, creating stories through photos, making labels, using photos to show instructions visually, and so on. Using digital cameras in the classroom is not new. There are research examples from girls’ education (Bach, 1998), inclusive curriculum practice (Carrington & Holm, 2005; Moss & Hay, 2004) and numerous suggestions for teachers on how to use a digital camera to photograph children on excursions, record special theme days, produce displays for the classroom, and provide images for school promotion boards or school magazines. What is missing is the use of digital photography in the classroom as a reflective tool enabling the learner to share their learning stories (Carr, 2001) in the form of visual narratives (Bach, 1998; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Moss, 2003). Through linking with narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Daiute & Lightfoot, 2004; Kramp, 2004), images can reveal or lead to an understanding that sometimes cannot otherwise be told or uncovered (Bach, 2001; Clough, 2002), and further provide insights into subsequent relationship(s) to learning (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) and between learners.

The aim of this chapter is to present some of the findings from a doctoral level study with particular focus on young students’ using digital cameras to capture the learning environment. In introducing the learner to the technology of the digital camera as part of the learning and reflective process, there are certain aspects of the activity or task that are open-ended, and, with initial guidance and subsequent questions, students may explore their learning environments through the lens of the camera. Links to student-centred and learning communities (Wilson & Wing Jan, 2003), development of interdisciplinary skills and use of information communication technology (ICT) are made when children are encouraged to develop independence and problem-solving skills. The photographs presented and discussed in this chapter are all taken by students in the early childhood years attending fulltime school. The chapter first discusses how the background and method of the study was established, followed by the inclusion of student voice through their photographs. The research affirms the importance of engaging with the digital camera as an everyday technology during the earliest years of schooling. In the context of new and existing curriculum frameworks that require interdisciplinary learning, the research demonstrates the contribution and ease with which technology can become a part of everyday classroom experience and improve student learning.


This research was carried out in the context of an early childhood classroom within an International Baccalaureate (IB) school where the Primary Years Program (PYP) was being implemented. The study was conducted throughout the latter six months of 2005 over 20 weeks. The student participants were members of a year one class where the researcher took on the dual role of researcher and classroom practitioner. Data were collected on different days according to the varying tasks completed in the classroom as part of the scheduled curriculum and assessment program. Details of this are discussed further in the method section of this chapter.

The children in this study were aged 5 to 7 years old children. Early childhood education in Australia usually covers the age ranges of 0–8 years (Dockett & Sumsion, 2004), but the experience can differ greatly across the Australian states and school systems. In Victoria, the second largest state of Australia, the year one classroom is the first year of full-time formal education offered to early childhood children. Upper primary begins with year three. Prior to year one, children have the opportunity to attend kindergarten or an early learning centre from 3 years of age. After two years of development in these environments children enter the first year of primary schooling at the prep (preparatory) level, which usually leads into year one.

The specific setting in this research was an ELC3 (Early Learning Centre 3-year-olds) to year 12 independent Anglican school with single sex and coeducational campuses located in the southern metropolitan area of Melbourne, Australia. The two junior schools (ELC3–6) were going through the authorization process associated with becoming a registered IB school, and were in the first year of this process when the study was carried out. The PYP is designed for students aged 3 to 12 years and focuses on the “total growth of the developing child [with] a transdisciplinary programme of international educational design to foster the development of the whole child” (International Baccalaureate Organization, 2005a). In Australia, the first school to teach the IB was authorized in 1978, and at 2005 there were 101 International Baccalaureate schools nationally offering one or more of the three IB programs. Currently there are 31 schools offering the Primary Years Program (3- to 12-year olds), 47 schools offering the Middle Years Program (11- to 16-year-olds) and 45 schools offering the Diploma Program (16- to 19-year-olds) nationally (International Baccalaureate Organization, 2005d). As of 2005, the IB programs were offered in 1,923 schools in 124 countries (International Baccalaureate Organization, 2005b). The International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) mission is:

to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To this end the IBO works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programs of international education and rigorous assessment. These programs encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

International Baccalaureate Organization (2005c)

Participants and Ethical Considerations

This study involved 17 year one children, ten female and seven male, aged between 5 and 7 years of age. The mean age was 6.06 years. Ethical permission was sourced from parents of all children to be involved in the study, with permission also given for the children’s photographs to be shared in academic writing and presentations. All students invited to be a part of the study accepted. It was important in introducing this study that all participants and their parents understood what the study was about. An information pack went home to parents and children. All children were involved in a class meeting to invite them to participate and to allow for any questions. Hedy Bach (2006) notes that informed consent and letters of intent are a part of the ethical process, but stresses we must make sure that these processes are extended, not only ensuring that participants fully understand the study, but so there is a developed process of open communication in this preliminary but significant stage of the research. Ongoing and open communication was necessary to allow for clarification and questions to be answered. Parents, teaching staff and children were encouraged to talk about the study, and open dialogue occurred throughout the period of the study. Parents and the school principal were invited to view photographs and watch the children participate in the study as part of their regular classes. This level of communication enabled any issues to be dealt with immediately and ignited engagement within the learning community.

Both parents and children expressed excitement in having their photographs used in publications, such as this chapter, to show their thinking, ideas, and, most importantly, the workings and benefits of using digital cameras in the classroom to enhance learning experiences – all agreed they didn’t want their faces to be blurred as it “would take away from the stories they wanted to share” (Gemma).

Gemma’s comment brings to light one of the many ethical decisions to be made when working with children and photographs in research, and which are raised throughout this book. It is important to note that for this study, initially, a decision was made with key stakeholders (the school, parents and children) that faces in photographs would be blurred; however, during discussion an overwhelming resistance to this was present. It was decided therefore that because ethical permission had been granted by all parties involved in the study, photographed faces would not be blurred in the final production. This ethical decision was also made to support Gemma’s comment mentioned above and to provide readers the chance to see the photographs as they were intended and “to supply [the reader] with the knowledge and ability that would make such a perspective possible [to hear the children’s stories] and provide it with legitimacy” (Schirato & Webb, 2004, p. 18). This ethical choice was made based on the belief that the children being photographed were the average age of 6 years and that the natural growth and rapid body changes would assist in anonymity due to readers viewing the photographs over time. All stakeholders agreed that all children’s names would be changed and given a pseudonym, and that the school where the study was carried out would not be identified to prevent readers from specifically identifying the child participants and setting.


Participants were asked to contribute in two ways. Firstly, they were asked to participate in all class activities as usual. Secondly, the participants were invited to use a digital camera to record events that are important to them during class activities. This is an example where photographs were being used as a way to preserve the appearance of an event or a person (Bach, 1998; Bach, 2001). It is a method that allows for and makes visible the different parts or narratives of a story, as well providing an opportunity to explore different positions within a dynamic environment or situation. Close links were made between this and reflection on learning as discussed later in this chapter.

Following scheduled sessions within the curriculum, where photographs were taken independently, the participants were invited to discuss and reflect on why they had taken the photograph(s) (intention) and what it/they meant to them. This discussion was either a written reflection (reflection journal entry, graphic organizer such as a mind map or a graffiti wall) or a conversation one-to-one with their teacher, a peer, or a small group of classmates or the whole class. The children always had a choice of whether they would reflect and how they would do this.

In the early childhood classroom not all students need to be working on the same task or activity at the same time. This allows for addressing different developmental stages and learning styles, while allowing for child inquiry and negotiation. The whole class would be working on set activities while a single child would be working independently with the digital camera. There was a timetable for a specific time when each child could use the camera (times would rotate), while other times the camera was free from specific use, allowing the flexibility for other children to take unplanned photographs. After the child finished taking the photos, the images would be downloaded onto a computer where the child photographer would share his/her narrative. In the sharing of photographs and the narratives that emerged, close connections were made to ongoing reflection with links made to assessment “for”, “of” and “as” learning.

In using the digital camera in the classroom setting to record learning, careful consideration had to be given to minimising staged, posed or artificial environments. To overcome this potential problem students were introduced to the camera early, before the data collection began, through teacher use and then by use themselves. With ongoing use of the camera, and initial reinforcement of “not looking at the camera so we can see you working”, the students accepted the camera as a normal part of the classroom routine. Peer monitoring began to occur over time, with friendly reminders by camera users and observers to “not look at the camera”.

Data collected during the study included student-taken digital photographs (a final set of approximately 900 photographs), conversations, and artefacts (reflective work samples). Conversations with the students one-on-one or in group situations provided the dialogue to support the visual narrative (Wood, 2000; Bach, 2001). Documents and artefacts analysed included the student’s reflective journal, graphic organizers such as mind maps, stories or writing exercises, and illustrations completed as part of the set curriculum and related to their photographs and narratives.

To read further, download the book chapter  and references at:

Lemon, N 2008, ‘Looking through the eyes of a child through the lense of a camera’ in J Moss (ed.) Researching education: visually, digitally, spatially, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, pp. 21-52. 

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