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Photography through a Wide Angle Lens

Visiting speaker Alysia Burton Steele stands at lectern
Photojournalist Alysia Burton Steele speaks at American University about her book "Delta Jewels."

When photojournalist Alysia Burton Steele visited American University to showcase her new book, "Delta Jewels”-- a series of digital stories and photos of elderly women from the Mississippi Delta who have shared their personal experiences during the civil rights movement -- professor Leena Jayaswal hosted Steele as a visiting lecturer and judge for a photography assignment/contest, Storytellers of DC.  For the assignment, the students had to shoot 4-6 images of strangers (people that did not look or appear to be like them) and interview them for a short caption.

It’s an example of how Jayaswal take advantage of every opportunity to ensure that students in her History of Photography course get a broad, yet in-depth, education on the subject, which is often confined to a Western perspective of the history of photo. 

Students in the class walk away knowing two histories of photography intimately, Western photography and a topic area of their choice.  Some of the options include History of African Photography, Asian Photography, Black Photography, Feminist Photography, Latin American Photography, Mexican Photography, Middle Eastern Photography, Queer Photography, Russian/Eastern European Photography or South Asian Photography. Jayaswal asks students to avoid signing up for a topic they feel personally associated with, so that they can learn something new. 

Students write an eight- to ten-page research paper on this topic, and, for their final project, each student partners with another student who has chosen the same genre to make a short video. Students are expected to speak about photographers who are of the background selected, not western photographers who go to another country and shoot there. 

Students are also required to interview an expert for the video on that topic. In the past we have had students contact major gallery curators and even Smithsonian curators to interview. These videos are shown in class and then the students are expected to know a little bit about them for their final exam, allowing all students in the class to learn at least a little bit about the spectrum of the world’s photographic histories.

Guest speakers and special assignments, such as Burton Steele and the Storytellers project, provide additional perspectives and challenges for the students. The mix, along with Jayaswal's passion and expertise, keep the course popular.