(All photos used in this article were taken by participants in the Des Moines ASAP program)
The class was small – only five – but as soon as I began talking with these particular students on their first day in the ASAP (After School Arts Program) program several weeks ago, I knew I was in for an adventure. As they took their seats in a circle, I asked why they chose to be in this particular class featuring photography. Each expressed more than just a passing interest in taking pictures and using cameras, but it was their insightful, descriptive answers to my next question that really drew me in. It’s a question I have asked many times before, but usually with adults – not with 4th and 5th graders:
“What is one of the most beautiful things you have seen?”
Their hands shot up. One young girl mentioned a crystal she had once seen that sparkled endlessly as it moved with the light that was shining on it. Another girl spoke of being on a sandy beach near the ocean at sunset – with all the bright, vibrant colors of orange and gold and pink that filled the sky. Yet another student mentioned a hawk she had seen that week. With a tilt of her head, I could see that she was no longer seeing us in the classroom, but she had returned to that particular moment in her mind’s eye. With smooth, animated gestures of her hands for emphasis, and with a far-off look in her eyes that was beyond the physical presence of the room, she slowly, deliberately, recounted the story:
“I’ve seen a lot of hawks around before, but never one this close. It had landed on the roof of our neighbor’s house. As I looked at it, I could see the texture of the feathers – the way they were layered on top of one another. I could see that the feathers had different shades of brown and white – not just one shade of brown, but many – light brown and dark brown and all the shades in between. And then I noticed the hawk’s beak and the way it curved – and how shiny it was as the light from the sun was reflecting off of it.”
Then, the only boy in this particular class spoke:
“One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen? My church. But also, I have to say that one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen is that tree outside the window. And also, in this art room, there’s that poster of the color wheel over there that is also beautiful. That picture with the lines and curves and colors? Well, that’s beautiful, too. And really, anything can be beautiful if you really want to see it that way.”
I’m not making that up. He really said that. Those of you who know me would understand why my smile became even bigger at that moment.
“Anything can be beautiful if you want to see it that way.”
Yes. Yes. Yes. I was in the right class.
Two weeks later, we went outside into an enclosed courtyard accessible from the room where we gather. Though I was initially going to offer a task for them to complete, I realized quickly that they needed no nudge from me. Instantly, they were off with cameras in hand, framing the wonders that they discovered.
There was the young boy photographing the fluff of dandelions in the grass – and then attempting to catch photos of the fluff as he blew on the puff. Then, he was hunched over the sidewalk capturing the blur of his fidget spinner spinning on the ground. Later, he found a tiny spider enjoying a meal of something caught in its web.
One of the girls found two large grasshoppers on a wall, moved on to a bee landing on flowers, and finished by finding a praying mantis slowly making its way up a tree.
Two of the other girls took the occasional abstract route. While one photographed horizontal shadow lines, geometric shapes in bent metal, and what she could see by looking down through the center hole of a metal picnic table, the other found the curve of a picnic table and the corner where the lines of bricks came together.
Later, in experimentation, one caught a picture of her hat – thrown in the air, and the other came face to face with the praying mantis noticed earlier by her classmate.
Near the end of the class, I was speaking with the girl who uses gestures as she speaks, and with that tilt of her head which is so characteristic of her, she said:
“Sometimes, I like to lie down on a picnic table and take pictures of the sky…because you never know what you might see.”
When I uploaded her images later on my laptop, I saw she had taken three photographs that were nothing but the brilliant blue sky. No birds. No trees. No butterflies. Simply the brilliant blue sky, and I could hear her voice reminding me why…
“…because you never know what you might see.”
writing by Shari Miller, photos by the ASAP participants
If you would like to know more about ASAP (the After School Arts Progam) or find out ways that you could support the program check out their website at www.asap-dsm.org.