First Monday

Children's Use of New Technology for Picture-Taking by Ruth Garner, Yong Zhao and Mark Gillingham

Children's Use of New Technology for Picture-Taking by Ruth Garner, Yong Zhao and Mark Gillingham
Photographs are often associated with children: People have children, they take pictures of them. We don't very often think about children as picture-takers, but our recent work has moved us in that direction. As part of an interest in children's use of new technology, we have studied children's picture-taking with new camera, computer, and Web technology. In this article, we discuss why and how children take pictures. We also discuss the issue of photofakery.


New Technology for Picture-Taking
Producing Visual Messages: Our Early Work
Children's Picture-Taking in the After-School Program
About Photofakery





When Susan Sontag (1977) described picture-taking as effortless, she was of course talking about photography as a social activity, not as art. With a quick touch of a finger and some help from a processing service, most of us can produce a snapshot good enough to be pasted into an album. Then, whenever the album is opened up and reviewed, dozens of pasted-in images shout out at us: "We went there, we did that." Our activities are memorialized.

Photography as art is not effortless. Diane Arbus traveled about, seeking out the inhabitants of carnivals, nudist camps, and mental hospitals and asking them to look straight into her camera. Dorothea Lange took pictures of the rural poor for the U.S. Farm Security Administration collection in the 1930s. Each of her photographs was the result of many attempts to capture a precise expression on a person's face. Ansel Adams took pictures of rock forms in the Sierra Nevada and then worked for hours in his darkroom withholding light from certain areas of his prints, concentrating light in other areas.

As part of a larger interest in children's use of new technology, we have studied children's picture-taking with new camera, computer, and Web technology. For four years we've observed sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade children in a U.S. funded after-school program in the small town (population roughly 820) of Baldwin, Michigan. We have learned something there about why and how children take pictures. The "why" includes both picture-taking as a social activity and picture-taking as art.



New Technology for Picture-Taking

Picture-taking technology has changed dramatically since Susan Sontag described it in the 1970s. Now photographers have digital cameras and picture manipulation software. A photographer with a digital camera, a computer, a printer, and a personal Web site can take pictures; rework them at a monitor in some of the usual ways (reducing them, blowing them up, cropping and retouching them); and, then make a print or self-publish the work on the Web. No film, no darkroom, no bulky album full of snapshots.

If photographers are interested in movies, rather than stills, they can use powerful new video cameras. Just as with stills, images can be edited at a monitor and published on the Web.

Digital photography is young. Most of the new technology only emerged in the 1990s. However, children already use it for their picture-taking. A recent article in the New York Times (Fountain, 2002) described how young Rhianon began to use her mother's digital camera, a 1.3-megapixel Sony Mavica for which the mother had paid US$475. Rhianon's photography was a social activity; she wandered around the family farm in Minnesota, taking snapshots of cows, goats, and chickens. Before Rhianon's mother bought the Mavica, she had purchased a US$50 child-oriented Barbie digital camera for her children, but it had about one-fourth the resolution and didn't yield many pictures that were worth printing or publishing. It is surely the case that as good-quality digital cameras continue to drop in price, more and more children will use them.



Producing Visual Messages: Our Early Work

We discovered at the start of the 1990s that even very young children display skill at using the new picture-taking technology, and this surprised us. We knew that children consume visual messages (in thousands of hours of television-viewing and elsewhere), but we also knew that they are seldom expected to produce them (Messaris, 2001), particularly in school. Few schools offer a visually-oriented curriculum. Most of them emphasize language and logical-mathematical ability and consign other abilities to out-of-school activities (Gardner, 1993).

In work done just over a decade ago, we introduced good-quality cameras and computers to a small elementary school in rural Washington. The cameras were Canon Xapshots, analog cameras marketed just before the advent of digital photography. The cameras could store up to 50 still images on a removable video disk. The images could be viewed on a television or could be digitized and imported into the school's Macintosh computers. The images were not of the same quality that can be created today with modern digital cameras, but they were adequate for our purposes (see Gillingham, 1996).

Third- and fourth-grade children in the Washington elementary school were invited to experiment with the cameras and computers and to create reports for science class. Teachers took the children outside the school and on visits to a nearby forest, where they did their picture-taking in small groups. Back at the computers, they digitized the pictures and selected the ones they'd use for their reports on topics such as streams, evergreen forests, and meadow plants. The final reports were viewed by other classes and by the students' parents.

It has occurred to us recently that the third- and fourth-grade children in Washington were using the new picture-taking technology to do what Susan Sontag (1977) called "photography-as-science" [ 1]. It involves making an inventory of the world (in the children's case, of the world near their elementary school). The photographer-as-scientist, as Sontag pointed out, observes the typical. The photographer-as-scientist is quite different from the moralist, who has a documentary intention and deliberately invites sympathy for his or her photographic subjects.



Children's Picture-Taking in the After-School Program

Picture-taking in the ongoing Baldwin, Michigan after-school program differs somewhat from that in the Washington elementary school. In both places children were introduced to good-quality cameras and computers and invited to experiment with them, but the technology in Baldwin is newer, the children are slightly older, and, perhaps most important of all, in the after-school setting children make most of the decisions about program activities (Garner et al., 2002; Vandell and Pierce, 2002), including how cameras and computers are used.

The Baldwin after-school setting might be described as an "information ecology" (Nardi and O'Day, 1999), as, that is, a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in one place. It is a system that has evolved over the four years that we've observed it.

The Baldwin program now has six digital cameras (Sony Mavicas like the one described in the Times article), over 20 powerful computers, printers (including one capable of producing large high-quality posters), and of course Internet access so that pictures can be published on the program Web site. In addition, there is plenty of picture manipulation software. Particularly popular items offer tools for creating Web pages and for creating panoramas by stitching together multiple still images of a scene. The children are highly engaged and skillful users of the new technology.

By observing the children over a number of years, we've discovered that the "how" of their picture-taking is quite different from methods used even a few years ago; the technology has changed dramatically. However, the "why" doesn't seem to have changed very much. The children still take pictures for long-established reasons: (a) They want to make art; (b) they want to make an inventory of something; or, (c) they are engaging in picture-taking as a social activity and want to make a record of their activities.

Making Art

The subject matter of much photography as art is reassuring, traditionally beautiful. There are, however, many examples of photography as art that are not reassuring. It seems that the beauty of photographic subjects does not distinguish photography as art from photography as something else.

What does? Surely the distinction has to do with revealing something to us in a fresh way, an original (sometimes even a startling) way. Viewers have a response to photography as art.

Because art is notoriously difficult to talk about (Geertz, 1983), much art talk is really craft talk. In the case of photography, this involves discussion of elements such as symmetry of composition, high-key or low-key lighting, etc. Craft talk, however, never fully explains the aesthetic power of particular photographs.

Veronica, a young girl in the Baldwin after-school program, has made art. She created a Web page of captioned photographs that displayed her pictures taken with a digital camera, her words, her backgrounds and borders (see Veronica chose as her subject matter the abandoned buildings of the Great Northern Portland Cement Company plant in Marlborough, Michigan. The plant, located two miles south of Baldwin, was active for about two decades at the start of the twentieth century.

The plant has been vacant for years, and visitors are cautioned to be very careful walking among underground tunnels and deep pits on the property. When Veronica decided that she wanted to take pictures there, her mother insisted on accompanying her. She appears in one of the pictures, where Veronica posed her next to a wrecked building to show its enormous size.

Veronica's pictures are original and startling. They do not show us a traditionally beautiful landscape. The images are of dark interiors, collapsed roofs, and decorative columns strewn about the grounds. The pictures have bits of color and of bright light, some green leaves here, a sliver of bright blue sky there. However, the predominant colors are black and gray, and most of the pictures are dark. In one particularly eerie one, Veronica has framed a dark entrance dead center (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: A dark entrance (top), about which Veronica wrote, "Another entrance that I wouldn't want to go in." A dark interior (bottom), which she captioned, "A picture of the inside of the bulk storage building."


In other pictures, the structural beams of the buildings - black strips silhouetted against the sky - provide a sharp contrast. Veronica's technique of using pictures as background for other pictures (so that, for example, a caved-in roof image appears on a background of ruined columns) is very effective (see Figure 2). A viewer gets a sense of widespread decay and ruin. Everything in Marlborough, it seems, is crumbling.


Figure 2: A caved-in roof (top), which Veronica captioned, "Inside this big building we have nothing, but the roof that has fallen in." An entrance (bottom), with the caption, "An entrance to this huge building."


Making an Inventory

Robert, Jared, and Ben are not particularly interested in photography as art, but, like the third- and fourth-grade children in Washington, they wanted to make an inventory. They worked with the Baldwin after-school program coordinator, Mac, to create an inventory of places in the elementary school, middle school, and high school that would be of interest to emergency workers in case of a disaster.

This community service project was planned after the attacks at the World Trade Center site on September 11. (Mac is not only the coordinator of the after-school program and a science teacher in the middle school. He also serves as Emergency Management Coordinator for the county. He asked the boys if they wanted to do photographic work for the project. They were eager to participate.) What places in the schools would be of interest to emergency workers? The boys explained to us that there were two major categories - dangerous spots (such as the boiler room) and exit routes (such as hallways and exterior doors).

The project required that the boys use their spatial abilities, their sense of what goes on where in the school buildings. Because they weren't casual visitors to the buildings (as, for example, we would be), because they travel the buildings frequently, they were familiar with key rooms and routes.

On one of our visits to Baldwin, the boys demonstrated how they used panorama software for the project. The procedure went something like this: First they studied the architect's floor plans, selecting locations to be photographed. Then they assembled their picture-taking equipment, a digital camera and a tripod (so that there would be no shaky hand-held shots). Picture-taking was next. After that, images to be used were selected and imported to a computer, where, using the panorama software, the boys made certain that seamless stitching occurred between adjacent photographs. The navigable scenes were then saved to a CD that is now stored at the county courthouse. The panorama may also be published on the Web.

Making a Record of Activities

The reason why most of us take pictures is to make a record of our activities. We take a photograph and convert our experience into an image. Details of the experience may be forgotten over time, but looking at a photograph jogs our memory of events.

Photographs taken for this purpose need not be artistic. It is, after all, the subject matter that counts - this group of people in this place at this time. There is a good example of this sort of picture-taking in Stewart O'Nan's (2002) novel Wish You Were Here. A family gathers at their summer cottage in western New York for the last time. When timid Justin finally gets up enough nerve to ride an inner tube behind the family boat, he wants his picture taken with Aunt Lisa's throwaway camera: "He was disappointed - she'd forgotten to take his picture. He wanted proof that he'd done this" [ 2].

Jillian, another child whom we've met in the Baldwin after-school program, takes pictures for the same reason - to make a record of her family's activities. She also uses the pictures in her writing. When we interviewed her in Baldwin, she had just completed a book about how she and her brothers had raised three mice (Butterball, Tootsie Roll, and Lydia). Like most books written for children, Jillian's book is filled with pictures that appear alongside text. The words are Jillian's. The pictures are also Jillian's - photographs that she took with a digital camera. A portion of the book has already been published on the after-school program Web site. Mac, the program coordinator, assisted Jillian in moving her word-processed document and her pictures to the Web site.

Jillian's book is of course a true story about her family's experience with mice as pets, but it also serves as a how-to guide for other children who might want to raise mice. Jillian does a surprisingly good job of writing for the how-to purpose. She delivers sound advice in very readable prose.

The words and pictures are complementary. Both provide some detail for Jillian's readers - not just toys, but these toys (pictured and written about); not just food, but this food (again pictured and discussed in text). This detail is essential in a how-to guide.



About Photofakery

Because the newest digital technology is available to most photographers today, even photographers the age of the children in Baldwin can manipulate images in ways that Arbus, Lange, and Adams could scarcely imagine.

Kenneth Brower (1998), a nonfiction writer whose text often runs alongside wildlife photographs, has expressed strong concern about digital manipulation of images. He admires the ingenuity of some of the work, but argues that viewers expect that images are a straightforward record of nature as witnessed by the photographer. Brower is particularly distressed about instances where photographers make no mention of having added, subtracted, or moved animals - sometimes all the way from captivity to the wild! - in their pictures.

Photofakery is not new, of course. Even Ansel Adams worked in what was then a state-of-the-art darkroom, darkening and lightening portions of prints. However, as Brower has noted, a bit of light adjustment is a very small manipulation compared to adjustments that can be made today. Today, photographers can "clone" wildlife (for example, making 15 elephants appear to be 54 elephants).

Our sense is that Brower is right about a number of things, one being that fabrications should be labeled so that viewers know whether or not they are viewing nature as witnessed by the photographer.

As for the appropriate use of digital manipulation, we'd say that a photographer's purpose matters a great deal. If photographers set themselves up as scientists, if they are making an inventory of the world (as the third- and fourth-grade children in Washington and Robert, Jared, and Ben in Baldwin did), they should not distort reality. After all, it matters that we see the actual difference between various evergreen trees in the Washington forest, that we know the actual exit route from the school library. Artistic interpretation is not particularly helpful here; accurate reportage is. If photography as art is the purpose, however, the reverse is true. In Veronica's pictures of the old cement plant near Baldwin, reportage isn't nearly as important as interpretation. The darkening and lightening in Veronica's pictures helped her create a dark mood, a sense of decay and ruin.




The children we've observed most closely, the children in Baldwin, are not at all intimidated by new technology for picture-taking. It is unfamiliar, but that doesn't seem to matter. The children tinker with it, they experiment. Veronica experimented with her backgrounds and borders until she got the effect she wanted. Robert, Jared, and Ben took many pictures before they got good at working with adjacent photographs. Jillian revised the text and picture placement in her book many times; she asked her brothers for editorial assistance.

The after-school setting encourages this sort of thing. There isn't the risk of failure that there is in so many school settings, and children assume that they can learn from adults and from each other.

In talking to the children and to Mac, we never heard about any child's helpless dependence on adults for information about how to use hardware or software. The Baldwin children's impulse, where new technology for picture-taking is concerned, is to figure things out. End of article


About the Authors

Ruth Garner currently serves as an evaluator for urban and rural after-school programs in Michigan. Her most recent book (edited with Yong Zhao and Mark Gillingham) is Hanging Out: Community-Based After-School Programs for Children (Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 2002).

Yong Zhao is Associate Professor of Technology and Education at Michigan State University. He directs a federally funded consortium of urban and rural after-school programs.

Mark Gillingham heads the technology unit at the Great Books Foundation in Chicago. He co-authored (with Ruth Garner) the book Internet Communication in Six Classrooms: Conversations Across Time, Space, and Culture (Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1996).



1. Sontag, 1977, p. 59.

2. O'Nan, 2002, p. 99.



K. Brower, 1998. "Photography in the Age of Falsification," Atlantic Online, volume 281, at, accessed 25 July 2002.

H. Fountain, 2002. "Raising Shutterbugs In a Megapixel Age," New York Times (23 May), pp. E1, E5.

H. Gardner, 1993. Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.

R. Garner, Y. Zhao, and M. Gillingham, 2002. "An Alternative to Self-Care in a Small Midwestern Town," In: R. Garner, Y. Zhao, and M. Gillingham (editors). Hanging Out: Community-Based After-School Programs for Children. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, pp. 1-17.

C. Geertz, 1983. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books.

M.G. Gillingham, 1996. "Comprehending Electronic Text," In: H. van Oostendorp and S. de Mul (editors). Cognitive Aspects of Electronic Text Processing. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, pp. 77-98.

P. Messaris, 2001. "New Literacies in Action: Visual Education," Reading Online, volume 4, at, accessed 28 May 2002.

B.A. Nardi and V.L. O'Day, 1999. Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; and excerpts in First Monday, volume 4, number 5 (May), at, accessed 12 August 2002.

S. O'Nan, 2002. Wish You Were Here. New York: Grove.

S. Sontag, 1977. On Photography. New York: Picador.

D.L. Vandell and K.M. Pierce, 2002. "Commentary: After-School Programs and Structured Activities that Support Children's Development," In: R. Garner, Y. Zhao, and M. Gillingham (editors). Hanging Out: Community-Based After-School Programs for Children. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, pp. 167-178.

Editorial history

Paper received 5 July 2002; revised 7 August 2002; revised 12 August 2002; accepted 14 August 2002.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Copyright ©2002, Ruth Garner

Copyright ©2002, Yong Zhao

Copyright ©2002, Mark Gillingham

Children's Use of New Technology for Picture-Taking by Ruth Garner, Yong Zhao and Mark Gillingham
First Monday, volume 7, number 9 (September 2002),