ATLANTA – Words in a textbook, magazine or journal can teach and explain many concepts. But photos display examples and evoke thoughts and feelings that plain text often can’t.
A Georgia State University sociologist and her students are operating a blog that gives students and others a way to share glimpses of people and the worlds they live in, while also serving as a tool to teach concepts of race, ethnicity and the urban environment.
Social Shutter, at http://socialshutter.blogspot.com, features photo essays taken by students and others who use their cameras to explore topics and issues in sociology, from poverty and inequality to urban environments, disasters and gentrification.
“We are looking at social situations through our camera lens,” said Deirdre Oakley, an associate professor of sociology who teaches urban sociology. “The entries are always from the perspective of the photographer-essayist and what they’re trying to convey to the readers about a specific social situation that they come across.
“We have rural photography too, but for classes here, it’s about going into the urban environment, observing the social world, capturing it on a camera and then writing about what you saw.”
Oakley is part of a team conducting research about former public housing residents who were relocated after the Atlanta Housing Authority demolished all of its traditional housing projects in favor of vouchers.
“From the public housing study, we started taking pictures,” she said, “over 1,000 pictures of destination-neighborhood built environment characteristics, and from that I started trying to submit photo essays to different publications. I just never had any luck.”
Oakley met with Angie Luvara, a professional photographer who is now a Ph.D. student in sociology at Georgia State, and talked about ways for people to get their work published when there aren’t many venues.
Social Shutter was born, featuring not just photo submissions by themselves, but photo essays, photos with text putting the pictures into context.
“When utilizing photos in the context of sociology, having that background about what’s happening and what’s important sociologically, it helps to contextualize the piece,” said Luvara, managing editor of the blog.
Oakley has used Social Shutter to teach her students in her urban sociology, race and ethnicity, and research methods classes, sending students into Atlanta to document the city and see concepts in action through the lens of a camera.
“It gets the students out there, and they can say, ‘ah, we talked about this in class,’” she said. “It teaches them to look at the world with a socially critical eye.”
For Debby Yoder, an undergraduate involved with the blog, Social Shutter gives her the chance to shine lights on problems people may not have known before.
“When you get a chance to give a more visual representation, it makes concepts more real,” Yoder said. “It engages you more than what you’d have if you were just reading a text about something.”
She has contributed nine photo essays, from poverty in the college town of Athens, Ga., to extended stay hotels, where many who would otherwise be homeless during the recent economic downturn live. Her most recent photo essay investigates Paschal’s Restaurant and its place in Atlanta’s civil rights movement.
Social Shutter’s reach extends beyond Atlanta. Demetra Pappas, a sociology professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y., had her students go out into the field and record the devastating impacts of people affected by Hurricane Sandy.
“It was very difficult to look at some of these images,” she said. “One student wrote about Staten Island as a forgotten borough, another wrote about Brooklyn. Keep in mind they were photographing and writing in the literal aftermath of a hurricane. It’s sociological, historical and therapeutic.
“It is a chance to be heard and to see the damage of the hurricane through their eyes. I’m very excited to contribute this to Social Shutter.”
Social Shutter is helping Georgia State fulfill its goals of addressing the problems of cities. And it’s helping the university to become innovative in educating its students, with the blog becoming a model for sociology education elsewhere.
Oakley and Luvara will present a session on the blog and how it can be used as an educational tool at the next conference of the State Education Editors Association, which is part of the National Education Association, to be held in June in Atlanta.
For more about sociology at Georgia State, visit www.gsu.edu/sociology.
Jan. 28, 2013