'Have a safe spring break
,' I said to my photo students at Furman University
on a Wednesday in early March 2020. Then I said something like, 'Please don't bring that virus back into our classroom when you return,
' at which point most of us chuckled because it seemed so farfetched, even to me. One week later, I began to plan for my black and white film/darkroom class and digital photography to go online due to the Coronavirus; my students weren't returning to campus.
Our first virtual meetings were lackluster and awkward - students had a deer in the Zoom headlights look, and I wasn't sure how to reassure them that this new normal would feel utterly natural by semester's end. Immediately I noticed differences: K wasn't speaking out the way she does in class, B wasn't asking lots of questions and even turned his video off, M had a worried look on her face, G looked exhausted because her time zone was different, E had a poor internet connection, and her screen kept freezing, C was still in an unmade bed, S was sitting in the dark, and A was just silent. The changes in their behavior concerned me, to say the least. In addition, I found that screen teaching required more energy than in the classroom because it was more difficult to discern their level of engagement, therefore I had to be overly observant and flexible to change directions mid-stream.
It took two weeks for our Zoom meetings to start to feel normal; then, I began to see the semester unfold in ways I hadn't predicted when students began sharing their photographic explorations from home. They created engaging visual dialogues of their new lives under the limitations of stay-at-home orders that ironically seemed to catapult their creativity. Their work took unexpected turns in themes about memory and loss, presence and absence, intimate portraiture, abstractions, self-portrait, and still lifes; some projects illustrated with humor, others told with genuine sincerity. Quite frankly, none of these images would have come to life without students being at home. They abandoned producing cliché pictures during the pandemic - the campus lake, lined with trees and laden with ducks that frequently flood our critique sessions were now out of reach (thankfully). Authentic investigations replaced surface imagery; unique perspectives of seeing life at home.
Yes, there were typical online bumps in the semester road; however, there was a bonding between students as they witnessed one another's vulnerability in revealing personal projects, exposing their private thoughts and intimate lives. Furthermore, my individual online meetings with students allowed me to get to know them better than I would in the classroom – during our virtual conferences, they could openly speak with me instead of speaking out in class. Our meeting spaces behind screens were ironically more personal, being that we were each in the comfort of our own homes. I felt a sadness the last day of class when we parted ways, after all, the students and I had shared a crisis and faced a profound loss of normalcy amidst the backdrop of economic and pandemic chaos and fear. As I reflect on the last Covid-19 semester, I wonder how this experience will shape my students moving forward. I hope they will remember their photographic explorations, but more importantly, I wish they would retain the sense of shared humanity they experienced in the unlikely classroom of online learning.
About the author
Polly Gaillard is a fine art photographer, writer, and educator. She is part-time Professor of Art at Furman University and has taught photography workshops and college courses for more than ten years including summers abroad teaching American students in Prague, Czech Republic, and Cortona, Italy. Polly received a Master of Fine Arts in Visual Arts from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2010. She has exhibited her fine art photographs nationally and published a limited edition artist book, Pressure Points, with a foreword by actress Jamie Lee Curtis. Polly's photographic skills traverse contemporary art, documentary, portrait, and traditional photographic practices. She lives in Greenville, SC with her daughter.
All About Polly Gaillard