What I learnt running a photography workshop for Generation Z / by Simeon Smith

Naming generations is such a weird thing. I mean, we all kind of know what a baby-boomer is, and what a millennial is, but what’s the difference between generations x, and y, and where’s the crossover with millennial and… 

Let me start again, because, fuck me that got rocky pretty soon. 

What I learnt running a photography workshop with some 18-year-olds in it.

Definitely not got the same click-ability. 

I spend a lot of time working on a uni campus with students. I also work at a youth drop-in with teenagers. I can totally see why sociologists (okay, probably just pseudo-sociologists and the media) keep wanting to give the new generations new titles, because our young people are changing. An 18-year-old today has little do with who I was in 2002 (yup, I’m old, now go spin on it).

I realise that for some people this will be like “Yeah, duh.” but hey, I’m in my 30s and haven’t had the time to see many generations, but last Wednesday I ran a film photography workshop at the university for our “Campus Life” team, and I got to spend a good couple of hours with students. Not talking at students from the front of a lecture theatre, not doing stuff FOR students, but actually WITH them discussing a shared interest. 

A big difference I notice when talking to people a couple of decades older than me is that I’m a “digital native” I’ve been brought up using computers. I type as fast as I speak. I’m more likely to put ideas down onto a screen that in a notepad. I’m happy experimenting with software and seeing what happens. Running some websites is just something that I do, not a job description. 

And now I see a similar difference between myself and the 18 year olds I spent time with last Wednesday. They’re digital natives, but from a totally different landscape. Computer stuff seems second nature to me, but for them, the information overload of the internet is their domain. I use the internet in much the same as I use the library - it’s basically just a big, shared media repository I take from it what I want and give back what I can. But these guys seem totally embedded in the eye of the shitstorm. There’s nothing I could teach them at the film photography workshop that they hadn’t already learnt for themselves online. Film photography is an interest for them, after all, so they’ve spent time skimming YouTube videos of cameras, watching Instagram stories of film photographers and reading articles about their interest. 

A girl who’d never used a Holga camera before, never even held one, knew how to load 35mm film into the medium format plastic beast, how to tape up the frame number window from the inside and out, and knew that she didn’t want to tape up the rest of the camera, because she wanted some light leaks. 

How fucking crazy is that. 

A beginner had similar surface knowledge of how to shoot a Holga camera as I do, and I’ve put dozens and dozens of rolls through Holgas.

For someone like me that is SO intimidating, not because I think this thing is a competition at all, but because I’m there running a workshop, and I’m supposed to be teaching her something. That just makes me want to sit the fuck down and let her get on with it. 

And this is what I learnt; natives of the age of information aren’t going to come to a class to learn something they want to know. Because if they want to know it they’ve already googled it, have followed a relevant hashtag on Instagram and are downloading podcasts about the subject as you read this. 

So how am I supposed to support this new knowledge economy? What can I offer at a workshop? 

  • Community and Discussion - it’s a lonely world on the internet. I learnt electronic music production from youtube videos and old Sound on Sound articles. In my early 20s would have killed for a community around me of likeminded people, sharing frustrations and offering support.
  • Knowledge Networks - You may know x, and you may know y, but unless you’re shown it’s sometimes hard to find the links and similarities between x and y. 
  • Starting points - There are things out there that we all don’t know we don’t know, blissfully oblivious to our own ignorance. I was oblivious as to why other photographers got better clarity using black and white film until someone TOLD me to buy a yellow filter. “A yellow filter?!” I thought, “Why the fuck would I want a yellow filter?!” So I googled why the fuck I’d want a yellow filter and now I know. This person didn’t need to tell me what to do. and how to use a filter, they just needed to give me a starting point. 
  • Show, Don’t Tell - If there’s one thing that the sustained interest in physical media (film, vinyl, cassettes…) is that images behind glass can only go so far. So many people have only experienced things through screens. Offer them the physical items to hold, to use, to break, to fix. 
  • Contribute to the New Knowledge Economy - That’s what this blog is. Know something? Share it. 


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