Youth Design Studio Photography in Nature of Cities Roundtable


Recently Julie Goodness, one of the architects of Youth Design Studio, participated in a round table entitled: “How can art (in all its forms), exhibits, installations and provocations be a better catalyst to raise awareness, support and momentum for urban nature and green spaces?”  This event was hosted by The Nature of Cities, a collective forum on cities as ecosystems, as both designed and natural human habitat intimately connected to resilience, sustainability and livability.  The text of Julie’s contribution to this round table can be found below!  For the full article, including the commentary of other participants, visit

So excited to be taking Youth Design Studio around the world!!


I can still recall my first encounters with street art when I became a New York City resident; these small urban interventions of images or words always seemed like a personal entreaty, an invitation to reengage with an urban fabric made momentarily unfamiliar. I am still struck by the unique energy they generated within me; there was a sudden flash of inspiration to think differently about my role in the city or even take some kind of alternative action. Indeed, as Pippin Anderson details in this roundtable, I likewise think that urban graffiti and street art is one of the more provocative and universally accessible mediums through which we can engage our urban citizens.

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Andelwa, a learner at Ikamva Youth, practices with a camera during the photography workshop. Credit: Julie Goodness

Lately, I’ve grown interested in how to propagate this feeling of inspiration and rousing call to action that I’ve found so satisfactorily embodied in street art. How can we spur our fellow city residents to make their own creative expressions and entreaties about their hopes for the city? One interesting possibility is participatory art, in which people can interact with and/or add to an existing installation, or are provided with instruction and materials to become the makers themselves and carry out their own artistic ventures. This is by no means a new concept, and may range from collaborative murals to data-driven exchanges (a favorite New York City example isAmphibious Architecture, which communicated information about fish presence and water quality in the East and Bronx rivers via SMS conversation).

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A learner at BEEP demonstrates what it feels like to reach the summit of Table Mountain as part of an environmental camp excursion. Credit: Zikhona & Qhama, learners at Beyond Expectations Environmental Programme (BEEP)

In my own exploratory attempt at participatory urban engagement, this year my colleague Katie Hawkes and I designed and pioneered Youth Design Studio, a sustainable design class for high school students that leads them through the process of how to research, design, and build projects for their community.

Hosted with groups of students in Cape Town, South Africa, the class was a project of the 2014 Cape Town World Design Capital, a year-long programme dedicated to exploring design as a medium for creative social transformation.

One of our lessons was a hands-on introduction to photography, in which we taught basic technical skills and demonstrated how the artistic medium could be used as a communication and storytelling tool. An ambition to have our students document the challenges in their communities (and therefore begin to explore their visions for possible creative intervention projects), led us to take a step back and give a more straightforward assignment:

Tell the story of your day-to-day life through the people, places, and things that are important to you.

What came back to us was truly powerful: beautifully composed images of family, friends, and objects of importance, but also very interesting depictions of connection to the urban nature of the city: the beach and ocean waves captured through a window of the schoolbus, or the sunset over a wetland in the informal settlement. One of our students expressly told us that his photographs told the story of his connection to nature and township life; a photo of a plant springing from a concrete wall (with the student’s shoe captured in the edge of the frame) spoke both of personal strength and of unexpected green flourishing in even the most challenging of urban environments.

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“I chose this picture because I love nature and it also symbolizes nature and township life.” Credit: Athandile, learner at Ikamva Youth Makhaza Branch

With another group, whose prompt was to convey how they felt when they summited Table Mountain in Cape Town on their camp trip, we received images of both victorious exaltation atop tree stumps, and quiet peacefulness nestled amongst vegetation.

While this exercise with our students just began to scratch the surface of what kind of stories they could tell through photography, it was an important proof of concept: even our youngest urban residents can use artistic expression to articulate important parts of their identity, and connection to both people and places in their community. While our students’ images do not explicitly advocate for urban nature and green space, I think they demonstrate the great potential available when we’re given the tools to convey what’s important to us in our urban worlds. I would argue that the first step towards raising awareness, support and momentum for urban nature will start with broader opportunities to equip and empower urban citizens with the tools (particularly artistic ones) to figure out who we are and probe our relationship/connection(s) to our urban environment. It is only through the critical reflection process involved these artistic explorations that we may eventually be inspired to become advocates and perhaps find new ways to communicate our visions for future cities of social and ecological well-being.

Thanks to the learners at Ikamva Youth Makhaza Branch, Muizenberg High School, and Beyond Expectations Environmental Program (BEEP), who shared their experiences through photography!

November 5th, 2014 by imblog

Youth Design Studio Photography & Community

As part of teaching our students about the “ideate” phase of being a designer in Youth Design Studio, we led a lesson on photography, with the help of our Cape Town-trained film friend, Aurora Drummer, who was on-hand to give expert visual insights and career tips.

We discussed that in order to be a good designer and problem-solver, you need to be a detective! You need to be able to show what is going on around you. You can do this by:
Telling – through asking questions and recording observations
Showing – through drawing or photography

In this class on photography, we explored how you can use photos as a communication and storytelling tool.

We experimented with photography as a method not only for taking nice pictures, but as a way to tell stories, and to learn stories about the people and places you photograph. We used photography to explore our ideas about ourselves, our identities, and our communities, both human and non-human.

For our students who were experiencing photography for the first time, we ran through a set of basic concepts to note, including light, motion, subject, shapes, and space. We also introduced techniques, including framing, distance, level, angle, focus, leading the eye, and the rule of thirds.

In preparation for taking our own photographs, we practiced first with paper frames, testing views from different heights (level), angles, and distances.

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We also examined some examples of famous photographs and well-composed photographs in magazines.  We analyzed them for the techniques they used, and how we could tell what kind of story was being told.

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Once we had mastered the basics, we moved on to using real cameras! Thanks to an AMAZING group of friends from both the USA and South Africa who donated cameras, we had 11 digital cameras available for our students to use.  We explained the parts of the camera and proper handling, safety, and maintenance.

Before we started taking photos, we introduced the idea of community and got our students to brainstorm ideas about who is included in their Ikamva Youth or Muizenberg High School community. They shared a broad and insightful list, including students, teachers and tutors, parents, and building/groundskeeping staff.

Our first in-class activity with the cameras was to take photos that:
(1) represented or showed the community around them
(2) represented what the community meant to them

Here are one group’s photos about their community at Muizenberg High:

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After discussing the community photographs, we gave our first take-home assignment: to take a photographic autobiography. The photos they took needed to tell the story of their day-to-day life, and depict people, places, and things important to them, positive or negative. They were tasked with taking 10-15 well-composed photographs, using the techniques we covered in class.

Here is a sampling of the incredible results!

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As we move forward with Youth Design Studio, we have continued to use photography as a tool to tell stories and learn stories.  Stay tuned for more! Curious about how we get our students moving, creating and designing at the start of each class? Check out our post on Youth Design Studio Creativity Exercises!

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September 9th, 2014 by imblog