Ingredients: Digital camera, tripod, lap-top with photo editing software, some (vaguely) enthusiastic teens, large paper and pens

The Big Sell: Do you want to make your own self-portrait?

Strategy: I was contacted by a local youth centre a few weeks ago to introduce some freelance youth arts work with their Senior group of young people (aged 13+), so I went down to visit. The young people were (understandably) a bit wary of me … who’s this odd woman and why’s she asking us whether we’re into art? They were resolutely against any arts activities … but I don’t take NO for an answer easily(!) and after much questioning (what about music? drama? film-making? etc…) we hit on PHOTOGRAPHY as an area of interest.

So I put together the following project for them, and over the coming weeks we’ll see whether they get the bug?

1) Set up your digital camera on a tripod in a side room (preferably with a plain screen behind) and ask young people, preferably friends, to come and work with you in pairs. (Make sure you have parent consent.)

2) Ask young people to take a head shot of each other. Try not to have an audience for this bit – it can be unnerving to be posing in front of others!

3) In composing the head shots, ask the young people to consider which feature of their face best represents their personality. E.g Ears = a good listener, someone who is always there for others. Mouth= a gossip, always laughing and part of the action. Eyes= always watching others, knows who is who. Chin = bit of a tough nut or at least likes to seem that way. Forehead = a deep thinker or worrier. Ask the young people to take a shot which accentuates this main feature.

4) At the same time, give each young person a large sheet of paper, write their name in the middle, and invite their mates to doodle POSITIVE comments all over it (this might need to be monitored by an adult to ensure it doesn’t descend into name-calling!). It should include the person’s best qualities, interests, hopes, dreams, skills etc…

5) Once the head shot and doodle page are finished, upload both to the lap top.

6) Invite the young people to sit with you and learn how to combine and manipulate their images. They can play with the colour balance and special effects to make their photo into Pop Art, layer text over the image, or cut the image out and paste the doodle sheet underneath.

End result – one Me, Myself and I portrait that can be published as a PDF and uploaded to Facebook or any other social media of choice, as well as printed out in A3 and mounted on foamboard to be displayed at the youth centre.

The verdict:

There is a fine balance in introducing skills-based activities with young people who seem uninterested. Youth work is all about voluntary participation – this is the young person’s leisure time and I’m not in the business of telling them how they should spend it. However, sometimes we all need a nudge to discover something new and anyone who tells me “I’m not creative” gets a very quick reply from me … “Everyone’s creative!”

I’m interested to see whether this project will take off with the young people and, if it does, what they get out of it. I’ll be reporting back with an update and hopefully some photos to show!

Catchphrase: Come on, give us your best pose!

Left wanting more?

  • This project could be used as an evaluation tool for work with young people. At the start of a project, ask the young person to take their own portrait and annotate with their current feelings about themselves. Repeat at the end of the project and the youth worker can put the two portraits together to explore with the young person what has changed. Why have they chosen a blue filter at the beginning and a red one at the end? Why have they moved from making their eyes the main feature to focusing on their mouth? What words are they using to describe their changing feelings? Recorded outcomes have the potential to be as creative as the work itself!
  • Put the portraits together for an exhibition and ask strangers to write comments on what the images say about the sitter – are they insightful or totally misrepresentative? This can lead into some useful youth work about self-image – how are our private and public selves different? Does it really matter how we look to the outside world? How might we change our appearance for different situations?